Year of the Cat

It might have ended with a loss, but that doesn't change the fact that 2009 was likely the best year in the history of Northwestern basketball -- at least the best since 1931. The team's longest winning streak in 15 years, the best start since 1931, only the fourth postseason appearance of all time. Yeah, '09 was a year to remember.

Beating Illinois* would have been icing on top. Nonetheless, it's still a pretty ironclad argument:

The 2009 calendar year was the best year in Northwestern basketball** history.

* Even though it was a loss, the Illinois game was encouraging on many fronts. Inside of a packed Assembly Hall, Northwestern took Illinois into overtime and really, really could have won the game before eventually falling 89-83.

John Shurna continued to roll, scoring 27 points; he's scored 22, 29 and 27 in his last three games. Freshmen Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio each scored 13 points, Michael Thompson had eight assists and zero turnovers, and again, Northwestern very well could have won.

There isn't much margin for moral victories this season, and the Wildcats won't want to make a habit of this close-but-no-cigar routine. But nonetheless, if you look at it the right way, it was a fruitful loss (if there is such a thing). The nine-game winning streak ended, but optimism carries on.

** I realize that I haven't been writing much about football lately. And yes, I do realize that the Cats are playing in a New Year's Day bowl. And I honestly apologize for that. However, while the New Year's Day bowl is obviously a big deal, the basketball team – as we will get to in the ensuing paragraphs – is having an absolutely incredible year as well. Apologies again. But if you are craving football news (understandable), you have surely found the myriad other venues which are covering the Outback Bowl every which way. OK, so how about this "best year ever" argument…

Now, declaring that this is the best season in Northwestern basketball history isn't like picking the best Beatles song. There aren't a ton of years to choose from. Indeed, there isn't a single trip to the NCAA Tournament, and only a few postseason bids.

Before we go on, this is worth mentioning: The Wildcats are recognized by the Helms Foundation as national champs for the 1931 season, a year in which they also won the Big Ten. Because of that, you could argue that 1931 is the best year in Northwestern basketball history, hands down.

But college basketball was pretty different back then, and it's pretty hard to compare hoops then to now. There was no postseason tournament back in 1931, and the '31 championship wasn't awarded by the Helms Foundation until 1939. Moreover, Northwestern doesn't even have a banner in Welsh-Ryan acknowledging the feat. Also, according to Welsh-Ryan Ramblings, the leading scorer that season was Joseph Reiff, who had 123 points in 12 league games – and that 10.3 points-per-game average led the league.

Not to diminish the 1931 title, but we were still literally decades away from the shot clock, decades away from African-American student-athletes, basically decades away from basketball as we know it. So take that national title for what it's worth. At the very, very least, 2009 was the best year for Northwestern basketball in the past 75-plus years.

Think about everything that Northwestern has accomplished between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 in 2009:

* The Cats went to the NIT in March, their first postseason berth since 1999 and only their fourth all-time.

* The Cats got off to their best start this season, 10-1, since 1930-31, when they started 12-0.

* The Cats had their longest winning streak since 1993-94, winning nine straight in November and December before bowing to Illinois on Wednesday.

* The Cats pushed their win total last season to 17, the highest win total wince 1982-83.

* The Cats nabbed a commitment from Jershon Cobb, a three-star guard from Georgia who committed this fall. The Tribune, for one, called it the biggest commitment in the history of the program.

* The Cats won at Michigan State, ending the Spartans' 28-game home winning streak. (That game – coupled with the Cats' win in the previous game against Minnesota – marked the first time in Cats history that the team won back-to-back games against ranked teams.)

*Kevin Coble and Craig Moore were named to the second- and third-team All-Big Ten, respectively, marking the first time two Cats nabbed such recognition since 1966.

That pretty much covers it. An almost unprecedented win total, a truly unprecedented winning streak over two ranked teams, the best start since college basketball was a completely different game, the longest string of Ws since mid-90s. Yeah, 2009 was pretty epic.

Now, for as good as things were in 2009, there is still a lot to accomplish. The Cats went to the postseason, sure, but they didn't win a game. And while they went to the postseason, it was the NIT, not the NCAA; indeed, the school has never been to the NCAA tourney. Also, for as good as Jershon Cobb is reputed to be, he is the only commit heading into 2010. So there is room to improve there, as well.

But let's not nitpick. After all, there has never been a better year in Northwestern hoops history. At least not post-1932 history.

As the calendar turns from 2009 to 2010, maybe the Cats should make a resolution to play like they did last season.

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