Anything can happen in college basketball in late February and early March, and we've learned to expect the unexpected. However, barring a miracle, the chance to play on college basketball's biggest stage will likely elude Northwestern once again.
72 years and counting.
2011 was supposed to be NU's best chance to break the rock, and now that the seven-decade long goal has all but ended once again, fans are furious, calling for the firing of head coach Bill Carmody.
However, before calling for a change, fans need to remember a virtue that they should have learned over the past 72 years--patience.
This isn't going to be a "defend Bill Carmody" column, but now is the worst possible time for a coaching change. Living in Iowa, I've witnessed the Hawkeye basketball team's free fall after firing coach Tom Davis ten years ago.
Iowa got greedy, wanting more than just an NCAA berth every year. However, as the Hawkeyes learned the hard way, a new coach doesn't always guarantee success.
That rule certainly holds true for Northwestern right now, when the program is closer than every to breaking through.
For all the hype that this year's team received, next year's quad could be even better.
The 'Cats will miss the contributions and leadership of senior Michael "Juice" Thompson, but most of its core returns.
Star forward John Shurna returns for his senior season, along with center Luka Mirkovic. Sophomore Drew Crawford has grown tremendously this year, as has freshman Jershon Cobb, both of whom could make NU's perimeter shooting game the best in the Big Ten next season.
Even with Shurna and Thompson this season, NU was relatively inexperienced compared to the rest of the Big Ten. The conference was one of the nation's best this year, boasting a number of experienced, senior-laden teams that could advance very far into March.
Next year, however, the Big Ten will be young and much more wide-open than it was this year. NU certainly won't be a favorite, but it will be much more of a contender than it was capable of being this year.
However, in order to make the tournament, the Wildcats need to be much more consistent. Since the 'Cats rely mainly on perimeter shooting for success--they don't have the size to compete inside with Ohio State, Wisconsin, and others--they tend to be very streaky, looking completely different at different points in the game.
A number of times this year, NU has had a lead against a top team, only to lose that lead in the final minutes. In order to be make the post-season, that can't happen next season.
There have been a few blowouts this season, namely a 78-46 embarassment against Wisconsin, but overall, a missed shot hear and there has been the difference between the Wildcats being a long shot and a bubble team.
Next year, those shots need to fall.
Northwestern will never be the most talented team in the Big Ten. Heck, the Wildcats will probably never be in the top half of the conference, talent-wise.
However, with senior leadership, a big-game mentality, and a little luck, Northwestern's dream of making the NCAA Tournament could become a reality very soon.
The "streak" will likely continue this season, and the Wildcats will probably be sitting at home for the 72nd March in a row. However, next year begins a new season, and another chance to finally break the rock.
Have patience, Wildcat fans; you have plenty of practice. The drought may be at 72 years and counting, but there's more hope than ever for the future.
And after 72 years, there may just be one more left to wait.