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Hope, family and history shape Northwestern’s first NCAA Tournament

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Seventy-eight years of waiting ended Sunday when head coach Chris Collins and the Northwestern Wildcats were introduced as 2017 NCAA Tournament participants.

The declaration of Northwestern as the No. 8 seed in the West Region marked a milestone a dozen coaches and scores of players previously pursued, and one countless supporters of NU athletics dreamed might one day come.

There’s never been an NCAA Tournament in history with Northwestern, but Northwestern has always played a role in NCAA Tournament history.

In 1939, Patten Gymnasium on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus hosted the first Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament championship — a game the University of Oregon won over Ohio State, 46-33.

Patten hosted another basketball champion in 1931, when Northwestern’s varsity team finished 16-1 behind All-American center Joe Reiff, playing under the tutelage of Hall of Fame head coach Dutch Lonborg.

No championship banner commemorating that ’31 championship hangs in the rafters of Welsh-Ryan Arena, the successor to Patten Gym. Welsh-Ryan opened 21 years after the Wildcats’ unofficial title, originally named McGaw Memorial Hall.

Seventeen years after Oregon won the first NCAA Tournament on Northwestern’s campus, crowds packed McGaw to witness Bill Russell leading the San Francisco Dons to their second consecutive national title.

K.C. Jones, captain of the University of San Francisco Dons, right, is shown with teammate Bill Russell, March 1, 1956. (AP Photo/Robert Houston)

Russell’s 48 points scored against Iowa in the championship game would still be the Welsh-Ryan Arena record… had a “5-foot, 80-pound” eighth grader in attendance that day not scored 49 a few years later.

Rich Falk counts himself among the thousands who packed the newly opened venue on Northwestern’s campus. Falk grew from a 5-foot-tall adolescent into a highly recruited guard at nearby Galva High School. In his playing days, the arena stood as a physical representation of the Northwestern basketball program’s potential.

“All of us were considering Northwestern, because it as good as any program in the Big Ten,” Falk said. The “us” in this case means top prospects from the Midwest — players like Jerry Sloan and Falk.

“For those of us who grew up in the ‘50s and early 1960s, Northwestern was a prominent basketball program,” he said. “When they recruited you, you listened.”

And when Falk listened, he heard a pitch he liked.

The Final Four never returned to Evanston after 1956. In the six subsequent decades, the NCAA Tournament grew into the cultural and financial bonanza it is today.

Falk, meanwhile, arrived at Northwestern in 1960 and began what became an illustrious playing career in 1961.

“This was a program right on the cusp,” he said when he landed at NU. “I thought, ‘Sure, we’d go to the NCAA Tournament. Why not?’”

It Always Seems to Be Something

“There they are: the Northwestern Wildcats! Seventy-eight years in the making. Their first-ever NCAA Tournament. Twenty-three wins, a school record there; a well-deserved celebration.” – Greg Gumbel on the CBS NCAA Basketball Championship Selection Show, March 12, 2017

Northwestern’s name flashing across the television screen on Selection Sunday marked a tangible end to 78 years of waiting. For some Wildcat faithful, it was a moment they “thought we’d never see,” as Falk described.

“It always seems to be something that stands in our way of making the NCAA Tournament,” Falk said. “I go back 50 years as a player and a coach, and I really thought there were some times… we thought, ‘Hey, this going to be the year.’

“Every decade, there was one or two teams that came along, when hopes were built up but it just didn’t pan out – usually because of a key injury or two.”

Few know better than him. After leading some quality Northwestern teams as a star player, Falk became his alma mater’s head coach in 1978, succeeding Tex Winter, one of the most celebrated minds in the history of his sport.

Winter’s name is among the most revered in basketball circles. He’s probably best known as 11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson’s personal guru, credited with developing the Triangle offense.

Before that, however, Winter coached Kansas State to several NCAA Tournament appearances and two Final Four finishes.

Winter’s first Final Four came in 1959, the same season 6-foot-9 center Joe Rucklick averaged 23 points per game for Big Ten Conference runner-up Northwestern.

Now, a second-place finish in the Big Ten sounds great. But as Falk said: It always seems to be something. Northwestern fell victim to a numbers game, with the field cutting off at just 24 participants in that era.

“Back then, if you didn’t win the Big Ten, you weren’t going to the Tournament,” he explained.

That’s true: Not until 1975 did the Big Dance allow at-large bids from teams which didn’t win their conferences.

Nearly two decades after Kansas State’s semifinal run, and Northwestern’s near-miss, Winter was winding down in Evanston. The Wildcats struggled through five seasons of at least 15 losses, and never more than 12 wins. The Hall of Fame head coach bowed out after going 44-87.

Without his five seasons in Evanston, Winter’s career winning percentage improves by 7.5.

Winter’s struggles illustrate that, through a collection of somethings, Northwestern became an increasingly difficult place to win. The Big Ten improved as a conference, bringing in future coaching Hall of Famers Bob Knight, Jud Heathcote, Lute Olson and Lou Henson during the 1970s. Purdue Hall of Fame coach Gene Keady joined the league not long after.

“There wasn’t a better conference in the country than the Big Ten in the ’80s,” Falk said.

“I can remember going to games when Isiah Thomas was on the other team, and it just wasn’t fair,” said Major League Baseball reporter Jon Heyman.

A Northwestern graduate, Heyman watched from the student section as some of the Big Ten’s best came through. Thomas captained Indiana to the 1981 national championship.

A season earlier, two Big Ten teams — Iowa and Purdue — reached the Final Four behind star players Ronnie Lester and No. 1 NBA draft pick Joe Barry Carroll.

Coincidentally, in 1982, Falk had a lineup that was among the best in Northwestern history — and has the historical records to prove it.

“A glory year,” is how Heyman described the 1982-’83 season. “That was a real high-water mark.”

Their 18 wins were a single-season record at the time, and they earned a spot in the National Invitation Tournament — the first postseason berth in program history. The Wildcats beat legendary coach Digger Phelps and a Notre Dame team with John Paxson to advance to the NIT’s Round of 16.

Were it not for a half-court shot by DePaul’s Kenny Patterson, forward Andre Goode says the Wildcats “could have won the whole NIT.”

Northwestern reached such previously unattainable heights despite a limited roster. Six-foot-eleven Dan Ivankovich and 7-foot Colin Murray both sustained injuries before the season.

It always seems to be something.

“If I’d have had those two guys, I feel in my heart and mind, we would have made it that year,” Falk said.

The loss of two centers forced everyone to play bigger, which Goode best explains.

“I was playing a 5, I was really a 4,” Goode said. “Jimmy Stack was playing 4; he was really a 3. Art Aaron was playing a 3; he was really a 2.”

Even still, the Wildcats came about as close as any Northwestern team before — and perhaps since. Goode noted that the drop in size made that NU team especially quick; it was somewhat ahead of its time, employing a brand of basketball more prominent in today’s game.

In fact, the 2016-’17 Wildcats play with that style. Collins’ primary lineup ranges from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-8.

Northwestern used its speed in 1982-’83 to knock off quality opponents — Michigan State, Ohio State and Minnesota — much in the same vein this year’s squad upended Wisconsin, Michigan and Wake Forest.

“We weren’t aiming for the NIT,” swingman Art Aaron said of the ’83 team. “We were aiming for the NCAA.”

They were oh-so-close.

“We were on the board, I understand from people in that Tournament selection committee at the time,” Falk said. “We were under consideration as the eighth-place team in the Big Ten that year, because we had a power ranking in the 30s and a strength of schedule in the top 5.”

Northwestern missed the cut of an NCAA Tournament field with 48 teams — not the 64 that the Tournament began including two years later, or 68, as has been standard since 2011.

Consider the Wildcats finished among the final 16 of the NIT, and the simple math suggests Northwestern would have made a 64-team field in 1983.

“It’s one of those things,” Goode said. “From that standpoint, if I’d gotten drafted in a different time period, there were a lot more slots available [the NBA had 25 teams when Goode was selected in the 1985 draft. The league has 30 now].

“You can’t really look back,” he added. “You just do the best you can when you have the opportunity.”

Aaron described the process of “building stepping stones” for future Northwestern teams, using the success of that first postseason appearance to establish the foundation.

Wildcat teams since have returned to the NIT, including four straight from 2009 through 2012 under Collins’ predecessor, Bill Carmody. However, the next logical step in the building process eluded Northwestern for more than three decades.

“Who knew it would take another 34 years to have a season to equal [1982-’83]?” Heyman asks, rhetorically. “It’s pretty remarkable.”

Hope Is Important

Northwestern coach Chris Collins wipes his eyes during the team’s watch party for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection show, Sunday, March 12, 2017, in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern, in its first appearance in the tournament, will play Vanderbilt. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Every October, nearly 350 Division I men’s basketball teams begin practicing with goals of varying levels, yet all going through the same path: the NCAA Tournament.

The elation CBS captures from Selection Sunday watch parties every March is genuine. An invitation to the Big Dance marks the culmination of months, even years of work.

Whether a No. 1 or No. 16 seed, no team approaches the NCAA Tournament expecting to lose. Just making the field is the pinnacle for some programs, to be sure. But every college hoop dream starts with the hope of being called on Selection Sunday.

“Hope is important,” said Falk, who eventually became a Northwestern Hall of Famer, “but you better be good, too.”

Hope this season evolved as it became evident the 2016-’17 Wildcats were also good. That hope grew earlier for some fans of this team than it did for others.

“I said early on to one of my buddies who’s still very involved, ‘This team looks really good,” Andre Goode said. “This is the most athletic team Northwestern’s had since our ’83 team. They’re high-flying, dunking on guys. I had a feeling it’s going to be a special year.”

Art Aaron saw a team early in the season that needed some work, as Collins reintegrated Vic Law from injury and worked youngsters such as Pardon into the rotation.

“Life happened” for Aaron, who was not able to keep close tabs for a few weeks. Then in January, his phone blew up.

“I got a text myself from one of my colleagues from Northwestern, talking about, ‘These guys are Top 25,’” he said “I’m like, ‘WHAT! Let me see what’s going on here.'”

What was going on, Aaron said he discovered, was that Collins had recruited “NBA-level talent.” As important, he said the fourth-year Wildcat head coach Collins was teaching his talent how to win.

“He has to inject it into his players at certain times in the game, and I appreciate that,” Aaron said. “Not a lot of coaches can teach you how to win; they think you’re supposed to know that.

“Sometimes you may have athletes who look at that like they’re getting a big dose of castor oil,” he added with a laugh.

An aversion to winning might seem illogical, but losing can indeed become cyclical.

Miami Marlins radio play-by-play announcer Glenn Geffner attended Northwestern from 1986 through 1990, at a time when both Wildcat basketball and football toiled in just such a cycle.

“We went 8-34-1 in football my four years, and four of those wins were my freshman year,” Geffner said. “And that was actually good compared to basketball. We went 2-16 in the Big Ten all four years I was there, so 8-64 for my four years.”

When you have witnessed the cycle take hold firsthand, a sense of despair can set in. Such is the case for ESPN/ABC sports business analyst and Northwestern graduate Darren Rovell.

He spoke of the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament hopes in February, just days after a win at then-No. 7-ranked Wisconsin. Northwestern looked set for the Dance at that juncture — barring major collapse.

“Barring major collapse,” Rovell laughed heartily. “Well, God’s trying. He gave Scottie Lindsey mono.”

Echoing Rich Falk’s assessment, Rovell said: “It’s always something.”

Northwestern’s long precedent that something will upend the Wildcats’ aspirations keeps hope from maturing into full-fledged expectations.

Rovell cited John Shurna’s injury on the basket stanchion in the 2010-’11 season — the same 2010-’11 season played without Kevin Coble, who retired the preceding summer. Coble averaged better than 15 points per game in 2007-’08 and 2008-’09, missed 2009-’10 due to a Lisfranc injury, and bowed out of his redshirt senior campaign.

“Unfortunately,” Rovell said. “You think the worst is going to happen.”

Beginning at Northwestern in 1997, Rovell was a student for one NIT season — 1998-’99 — and three years in which the Wildcats won a combined 26 games. That’s just three more than the current squad’s total.

As sports director of WNUR student radio, Rovell had a front-row seat for some trying times — and frustrating times, like the scene he described of then-head coach Kevin O’Neill angrily chewing on a Gumby’s pizza in East Lansing, Michigan, following a blowout loss to Michigan State

Past results do indeed temper Wildcat fans’ hope, if not beget outright pessimism. However, the belief that things can and will turn around wasn’t unfounded before Selection Sunday.

1995 proves that.

Northwestern’s run to the 2017 NCAA Tournament mirrors the Wildcat football program’s miracle Rose Bowl berth in the 1995 season.

Northwestern head football coach Gary Barnett receives a kiss on the face from Disneyland character Minnie Mouse, Wednesday, Dec. 27, 1995, during the team’s visit to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. Selected players from Rose Bowl teams Northwestern and the University of Southern California were greeted by Disneyland characters prior to a welcoming ceremony, news conference and rides on the Disneyland attractions. (AP Photo/Eric Draper)

Months after Falk and several thousand others witnessed Bill Russell’s historic performance on Northwestern’s campus in the 1956 NCAA championship game, Ara Parseghian coached his first football contest with the Wildcats.

Parseghian was fresh off a 9-0 season at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Northwestern finished with an almost-mirror opposite mark, 0-8-1. Wildcat football was less than a decade removed from winning the Rose Bowl Game, the apex for any member of the Western/Big Ten Conference.

Parseghian’s arrival sparked hope that Northwestern could reach such heights again. By 1962 and 1963, faith in Parseghian’s club began bearing fruit.

“We thought during those two years, ‘Boy, we’re going to go to the Rose Bowl!'” Falk reminisced from his time as an undergraduate.

Then, as it often does as Northwestern, something happened. The ’62 team went into November 6-0, but dropped back-to-back Big Ten games to Wisconsin and Michigan State. The ’63 team was ranked No. 9 in the nation on Oct. 26, but dropped three straight to fall out of conference contention.

Much like the basketball program in its pursuit of an NCAA Tournament bid, it was conference title-or-bust in that era. No Big Ten championship meant no Rose Bowl — or any postseason at all.

Then, after the ’63 season, Parseghian went to Notre Dame. He coached the Fighting Irish to two national championships. Northwestern football went on a decline for the ages, putting together winning records just twice from 1964 to 1995.

“The football program won only two games my entire time there,” Heyman said. “One was over Wyoming before the semester started [in 1979].”

Northwestern football endured back-to-back winless campaigns in 1980 and 1981, before Dennis Green — blazing a trail as the Big Ten’s first black head football coach — led the 1982 team to a 3-8 finish.

The Wildcats’ losing streak reached a record 31 games in that era. When the mark of 29 was set in 1981 against Michigan State, the Northwestern student section famously — or infamously — stormed the Ryan Field (then Dyche Stadium) goal posts, tore them down, and dumped them into Lake Michigan.

A tongue-in-cheek gesture, perhaps, but that display was indicative of the fervor at Northwestern. That fervor fuels hope, and the hope was rewarded in 1995 with one of the most improbable seasons in college football history.

“January 1, 1996, was one of the greatest days of my life,” Geffner said. “To go see Northwestern fans take over the Rose Bowl, to see the Northwestern marching band march down Colorado Boulevard at the Rose Parade, that was a day I’ll never forget.

“To see an NCAA Tournament game would be the same,” he added.

Reaching both the Granddaddy of ‘Em All and the Big Dance took the influence of similarly qualified leaders.

Chris Collins’ style on the Northwestern basketball sidelines draws comparisons to Gary Barnett’s qualities during the Rose Bowl.

“For Gary Barnett to turn around Northwestern football, it took one part coach, one part psychologist,” Rovell said. “In that sense, I think Collins is very similar to Barnett.”

Another similarity beyond Xs and Os defines both sports’ turnarounds.

Barnett’s recruitment of elite players — names like Darnell Autry and College Football Hall of Famer Pat Fitzgerald, who is currently NU’s head coach — paved the way for the Wildcats’ gridiron success.

In the same way, Chris Collins’ recruiting has transformed the look of Northwestern basketball.

The Wildcats don’t employ a slow-down offensive strategy or a gimmicky defense to beat opponents. Collins’ team goes toe-to-toe athletically with the best from the Big Ten, as well as other power conferences. The Wildcats lost non-conference games to the ACC’s Notre Dame and Big East’s Butler, squads seeded five and four in the West and South Regions, by a combined six points.

Northwestern’s up-tempo brand produces the nation’s 58th-most efficient offense, per KenPom.com, and the Wildcats defend with the 35th-best efficiency.

This is a squad with the makeup to compete against any opponent the NCAA Tournament might send its way. No one contest better demonstrates that ability than the win at Wisconsin.

The defeat of the Big Ten benchmark Badgers really began the buzz for Northwestern as an NCAA Tournament team in earnest, punctuated with a Sanjay Lumpkin dunk in the waning seconds.

Lumpkin’s exclamation point elicited some gripes from the Wisconsin sideline, which Rovell waved off thusly:

“If this was a singular event, be upset,” he said. “But given our history, it’s like the kid who lost every single time and was the last person picked in lunchtime recess kickball finally kicking the ball over the wall.”

“Sanjay Lumpkin and Chris Collins had to do their part and say they wouldn’t have done it again,” Rovell said. “But as a fan? Get out of here.”

The feeling of “ecstasy” after beating Wisconsin, as Rovell described it, didn’t take long to bring back the memories of dread. Lindsey’s bout with mono left Northwestern vulnerable, and the Wildcats dropped 4-of-6 in one stretch.

Collins steadied the ship.

“That’s the thing Chris has brought to Northwestern,” Falk said. “That intensity, that calm, that feeling like you’re always going to find a way to win.”

“It’s not that [other coaches] taught nobody how to win,” he added. “It was just that you have to do it to prove you know how. So often, it comes down to that one pass you shouldn’t have made, or one free throw.”

One free throw. The 2017 Wildcats know the sting of one free throw: Thomas Bryant’s and-one foul shot — that seemingly defied the laws of physics to roll over the front of the rim and in — doomed Northwestern to a 63-62 loss in February. At that point in time, Northwestern still needed one win to feel at least somewhat safe about its NCAA prospects.

Just as easily as one free throw can damper hope, as Bryant’s game-winner in Assembly Hall had, one pass can turn hope into jubilation.

Nathan Taphorn channeled the ’95 Rose Bowl team, becoming a quarterback for one moment on March 1 against Michigan. His three-quarter-heave to teammate Dererk Pardon enabled this team to cross the threshold previous versions could not. The play has Wildcat fans “saying it’s maybe the best pass in Northwestern history, football AND basketball,” Falk laughed.

In fact, NU quarterbacks Clayton Thorson and Cam Green attempted to recreate Taphorn’s pass the next day — with limited success.

An impressive Big Ten Tournament erased any doubt about Northwestern’s Tournament bona fides. The Wildcats used a 31-0 run to blow out Rutgers, and engineered a 20-4 run to beat No. 25-ranked Maryland in the quarterfinals.

Beating Maryland solidified the Wildcats’ place in the field, but the Michigan win was the victory NU needed to finally clear the hurdle. For that, Taphorn and Pardon occupy a rare place in program lore.

Snapping a drought of 78 years requires hope, sure. A reversal of some fortunes is also necessary. But as Falk said, “That isn’t luck. That’s a play they practice. That’s a winning play.”

Indicative of Northwestern’s reversal of fortunes, Falk compared the play to one on which Illinois beat the Wildcats in 1963 — one which the NU Hall of Famer called “one of the greatest in the history of the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry.”

The Illini went on to win the Big Ten that season, another that ended with disappointment for the Wildcats. Consider Taphorn-to-Pardon a bit of karmic retribution both for the program, and for coach Collins’ family.

The Pass resembles the play on which the 1972 USSR Olympic team defeated the United States to win the gold medal in Munich. Doug Collins was in the arena for both plays: watching his son, Chris, coach in 2017, and defending the Soviets in 1972.

A big difference between the two? Northwestern needn’t rely on referee chicanery.

Doug Collins may have been just a spectator for NU’s version of the buzzer-beating assist, but he actively contributed all the same.

A basketball legend in the state of Illinois, Collins coached the Chicago Bulls in Michael Jordan’s early days with the franchise. He lived just one town over from the Falk family. Like the Northwestern coach, Collins was a playing legend in the area, earning All-America honors at Illinois State.

Aaron encountered Doug Collins during the former’s NBA career, playing with the Chicago Bulls’ summer team in Los Angeles. Aaron said he sees the intensity and winning attitude Chris Collins brings to Northwestern rooted in his father’s coaching style.

Thanks to a lineup of transcendent talent — “the kind of recruits that we all have the kind of hope can turn this thing around,” as Falk described them — Chris Collins now leads Northwestern into the annals of basketball history.

Be A Part of Something Special

Glenn Geffner is a fan determined. The Wildcats are headed to Salt Lake City, but even if the NCAA Tournament selection committee sent Northwestern to Sacramento — the furthest first round destination from Florida — the proud alum Geffner would have been there.

“I have watched every minute of every game this season expect one, because I was traveling,” Geffner said. “I saw only bits and pieces of the Rutgers game.”

Coincidentally, Darren Rovell was in the Rutgers Athletic Center that January night for a 69-60 Wildcat win.

“I sat right behind the bench, not thinking I’d be on TV the whole time,” Rovell said. “It was a tight game, and I got text messages from people telling me, ‘You look green.'”

Purple shirts, white knuckles and green complexion. Hopefully, the trip to Utah is more relaxing — and Rovell will indeed be there.

“No matter what,” he said. “I have committed, whatever it takes.”

The story’s the same for Andre Goode.

“Doesn’t make a difference where, East Coast or West Coast,” said the starting power forward from the first postseason team in Northwestern history. He will make the trek from Milwaukee, where he employs his NU education today as the Vice-President Operations and Programs of the region’s Boys and Girls Clubs.

Goode has the unique pleasure of seeing two NCAA Tournament firsts. Before heading to Salt Lake City, he will watch his son, Garrison Goode, and the UC Davis Aggies take on North Carolina Central on Wednesday in the First Four.

For alumni like Goode, the Northwestern bond is something that lasts a lifetime. When he chose Northwestern among other suitors in his recruitment, he did so because he “wanted to be part of something special.”

Former Wildcats let the current crop know the significance of their accomplishments.

“When I talk to these guys [on the 2016-’17 team] – I had a chance to talk with Sanjay [Lumpkin on March 5] after the game against Purdue – and just told him, ‘You guys are making us proud,'” Goode said. “And they’re here to be part of something special.”

Northwestern’s Isiah Brown (12) and Sanjay Lumpkin celebrate Northwestern’s 66-59 win over Wisconsin in an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

Expect a flood of purple in the Vivint Smart Home Arena from plenty more Northwestern alumni. The university may have just 6,000 undergraduates, making it the smallest Big Ten Conference university, but between the eight-decade wait, and the close kinship those who attended and played for Northwestern describe, the support for Wildcat basketball can’t be measured in alumni numbers.

The 1982-’83 team offers a preview of what to expect for Northwestern’s matchup with Vanderbilt.

As renovations began on the venue that became Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Wildcats were displaced to Alumni Hall on DePaul’s downtown campus.

“Just envision hordes of students jumping on the L to go down to Fullerton a few stops,” Goode said “It seemed like half of Evanston was going down to support us.”

One root source for the Northwestern fan base’s passion comes from the university’s heralded history of producing sports media professionals and journalists.

Whether from the Medill School of Journalism, WNUR student radio or the Daily Northwestern, the school sends many of the top names out into the field.

As Geffner explained, working in sports media allows little room for fandom. The Wildcats provide a rare outlet for Geffner’s pure love of the games, which prompts any sports media professional to pursue the industry.

“My fandom comes from watching Northwestern football in the fall, and Northwestern basketball in the winter,” he said. “I scream at my TV, I second-guess.”

Like any alums who passionately cheer on their alma mater, sports media graduates can credit their undergraduate years for cultivating their fandom.

With the success of this season, that fandom takes on a new look.

“Watching that Wisconsin game, I wasn’t screaming at the TV so much as I was watching with a sense of pride and satisfaction,” Geffner said, adding: “And maybe a little relief.”

Athletics help bring students and alumni together, supporting a common goal for the university as a whole.

“I have a real appreciation for 1. What it takes to get into a school like Northwestern,” Geffner said. “2. What it means to survive and excel there academically. And 3. When you throw the life of an athlete on top of that? I marvel at what these student-athletes are able to do. I have such respect for them.

“To be able to do what they do athletically, and what they do academically?” he added. “It’s a source of tremendous pride.”

As Goode had discussed with Lumpkin, Geffner shared his appreciation with guard Bryant McIntosh upon bumping into him the morning after Northwestern’s 89-54 rout of Iowa on Jan. 15.

“I had to tell him… ‘There are so many people who live and die with Northwestern sports, and what you guys are doing, when you guys get there in March? You’re going to be stunned by the number of fans there in people,'” Geffner said.

Likewise, the academic community plays a key role in Northwestern athletes’ lifelong connection to the university.

Art Aaron was a Catholic League MVP in the Chicago prep area, and thus garnered recruiting interest around the nation. He wanted to stay close to home, but leave his neighborhood in Chicago.

“I came straight from the ‘hood,” he said. “When I got to Northwestern, it was a shock to me because I didn’t realize how poor I was until I got there. I kept a lot of that to myself.”

He credits teammate Michael Jenkins with being a friend and mentor as Aaron began forging his path — a path Aaron said the university helped shape.

“I enjoyed, immensely, the ups and downs; the blood, the sweat,” Aaron said. “And not just the athletics. As a student-athlete, I took away a lot of attributes and memories that will last forever.”

Northwestern attracts the best-of-the-best academically. The university’s athletic programs face the challenge of recruiting both top-tier athletes, as well as top-tier students. But those shared attributes are bonding — both between the athletes themselves, and between the athletes and university.

Geffner has visited his alma mater’s Evanston campus with his son, who is in the process of making his own college choice. He’s had the indescribable experience of taking in a game with his child, sharing the experiences that molded his youth.

Like Rich Falk, whose brother, sons and wife all attended Northwestern, Geffner is part of a Wildcat family in the most literal sense. His younger brother played baseball there.

Aaron said he would love to see the Northwestern tradition continue into his family’s next generation for his 15-year-old son.

“It would be so surreal to sit there in the stands, if he takes my No. 24, to have No. 24 on his back and Aaron on his back, and he looks just like me? Oh my God,” Aaron said. “How cool is that? And then he’s around people he’s not foreign to because of my legacy at Northwestern.”

No matter if they refer to potential, future Wildcats; Northwestern products of years past, like the 1982-’83 team or the 1931 national champions; or the historic NCAA Tournament squad of the present, NU fans have reason to take pride.

“Chris Collins has tremendous young men, not just basketball players,” Falk said. “Win or lose, they’re going to make us proud as Northwestern fans.”

* * *

The NCAA Tournament has undergone profound evolution since the first installment at Northwestern’s Patten Gymnasium. University of Phoenix Stadium, host site of the 2017 Final Four, dwarfs the former NU home court.

As a result, some 65,000 will witness this year’s champion crowned live, much as Rich Falk watched Bill Russell’s San Francisco team win at McGaw Memorial Hall in 1956. Tens of millions more will watch on television or streaming online.

Yes, things have certainly changed.

But as the event continues its metamorphosis, the removal of one constant might be the most dramatic change this Tournament has ever experienced.

Northwestern’s spot in the Big Dance marks the culmination of 78 years, and wouldn’t be possible without the hope and hard work of thousands of Wildcats over those eight long decades.

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