The Northwestern Wildcats went one step further than any other team in Chicago. They reached the postseason. Sure, it wasn't the NCAA Tournament, but the NIT is nothing to sneeze at. But a road game anywhere and especially in the Ryan Center - where Rhode Island had beaten 20 straight non-conference opponents - wasn't exactly as easy task.
It got harder before tip-off when Luka Mirkovic wasn't ready to go. And while Northwestern fought valiantly throughout the game, the Wildcats couldn't muster up enough offense to cover up their lackluster effort on defense and the Rams pulled away for the 76-64 victory.
And therein lies the downfall for Northwestern this season. While the Wildcats were able to put the ball in the basket seemingly at will, opponents found it just as easy to attack Northwestern. Bill Carmody tried things like the 1-3-1 and match-up zone, but neither really managed to stymie the attack of quality opponents.
Still, the Wildcats managed to win 20 games for the first time in school history, went to the postseason in back-to-back seasons for the first time in history and maintained the momentum in the face of some difficult circumstances.
After last season ended with a loss at Tulsa in the first round of the NIT people knew things were about to change. Craig Moore was graduating and Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio were coming in to take his place. After losing just one key player and showing some fight against a team that was expected to challenge for the Conference USA title this season the Wildcats entered 2009-10 as a dark-horse to reach the NCAA Tournament. One national publication even went so far as to include Northwestern in the field.
Of course, that was before the fateful beginning of the season. Before the season even began the Wildcats were dealt a big blow to their postseason hopes when senior forward Kevin Coble, an All-Big Ten caliber player, injured his leg. When key reserve Jeff Ryan went down in the team's first game, a 77-55 blowout of Northern Illinois, the Wildcats were bound to have a short bench for the rest of the season. But they made the most of it.
Northwestern earned good wins over Iowa State and Notre Dame in order to win the Chicago Invitational. The Wildcats were 10-1 in late December and found themselves in a very unfamiliar place, ranked in the national polls. The team had found a way to persevere after the injuries as John Shurna blossomed into an All-Conference performer in his sophomore season and Juice Thompson did everything he could to complement him on the perimeter. Occasionally the Wildcats would get a big night from Crawford, Marcotullio or Mirkovic and on those nights they looked like a team that was ready to live up to those lofty preseason expectations.
But Big Ten play quickly brought heartbreak. Northwestern dropped its first conference game in overtime to an Illinois team that would later join the Wildcats in the NIT. Carmody's squad followed that up with a 91-70 home debacle against Michigan State. Just when it looked like the wheels were going to come off the wagon and the Wildcats were going to drop out of the NCAA race something great happened. The Wildcats pulled out a road game at Michigan. Then two games later they upset #6 Purdue at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
That moment was the high-point of the season. It represented the promise of what this team could be. Mirkovic got JaJuan Johnson in foul trouble and scored 16 points and Northwestern had their first win over a Top 10 team in what seemed like forever. The fans rushed the court on a jubilant night in Evanston.
As January turned to February things didn't look so good again though. The victory over the Boilermakers had been forgotten as the Wildcats lost three of four to conference heavyweights to close the month. The hard part was over - or at least that's what everyone thought. With almost all of the remaining games against the bottom tier of the conference the Wildcats were sitting pretty with a chance to get an above .500 record in conference and still have an outside shot at a bid.
And then February 10, 2010 happened. The Wildcats lost at Iowa as the Hawkeyes scored 78 points. Instantly the season bottomed out. The NCAA dreams were dead and it was time to regroup and start building for next season. The great end to the season didn't happen. Northwestern lost twice to Penn State down the stretch and added another road loss at Indiana to the mix.
Still, the Wildcats got enough wins to get to 20 with a first round win over Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament. A tough loss the next day to Purdue meant that the Wildcats would still be on the outside looking in.
And that's where it ends. With another close loss to a quality team in the NIT. Coble will return next season and the Wildcats will welcome another athletic top recruit to Evanston. The question is will that be enough? Will the Wildcats finally be able to climb the mountain they've so long struggled to mount? Stay tuned for next season.