While the Cubs’ stretch of futility gets the most attention, another streak has been festering along Chicago’s North Shore since 1939, and that streak belongs to Northwestern University’s men’s basketball team. Since the NCAA Tournament came to be, the Wildcats are the only Division I program from a Power Six conference to have never qualified. Not once. And it’s not like the teams have been very competitive either as they have finished higher than fourth place in the Big Ten only twice in team history, including one stretch from 1984 to 1993 with nine consecutive seasons without a double digit victory total.
Take a second to comprehend that: nine straight seasons with no more than ten wins for a program that plays in the Big Ten, not the MEAC. They even finished one season with an 0-18 conference record. The team managed to turn it around in the 1993-94 season, finishing 15-14 and making the NIT Tournament, but promptly returned to its normal state of existence with a 5-22 season followed up by consecutive seven-win seasons. All of this futility has not inspired much hope among fans or alumni of the school.
“I was there in the mid to late 90’s and it was pretty pathetic,” says Northwestern alum and Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel. “I covered teams that went 7-20 or 7-22, and there were a couple of exceptions, but most of the players probably shouldn’t have had Big Ten scholarships. They were so bad that I had a couple of friends who were at Northwestern for four years and they only time they set foot in the arena was for orientation and graduation. I’m pretty pessimistic about the team because I’ve just conditioned myself over time to not get my hopes up.”
While the basketball team has been mired in an eternal slump, the rest of the Northwestern athletic department has had a significant run of success over the last 20 years. Starting in 1996, when the team made the Rose Bowl, the football team has become a consistent presence in post-season bowl games and has produced NFL players like Barry Cofield, Luis Castillo, and Mike Kafka. The women’s lacrosse team has developed into a national powerhouse, winning five straight national championships from 2005-2009, and men’s baseball has produced MLB players like J.A. Happ and Mark Loretta. So the ability to succeed is possible at Northwestern and the basketball team’s lack of success has baffled Mandel.
“It defies logic,” he says exasperatedly. “We’ve been saying this since I was in school and the football team went to the Rose Bowl. Even then, we would say, ‘It doesn’t make any sense, how does a football team that needs 50-60 upper-echelon players break through and make the Rose Bowl and now make a bowl consistently, but basketball can’t.’
“With basketball, and you’ve seen this at many non-powerhouse programs, it just takes one or two kind of transcendent players on a team to go to the NCAA Tournament which takes 68 teams so it just kind of defies logic that the basketball team has become the team that has never gotten over the hump in comparison to the football team, or the lacrosse team becoming a national power. You just need less guys to succeed in basketball, but they’ve never been able to do it.”
Mandel certainly has a point. Schools like VCU and Butler, with minimal exposure and revenue compared to that of Northwestern, have not only made the NCAA Tournament consistently, but been able to make deep runs in the Tournament and win games once there. This makes the streak all the more shocking. However, hope has been on the rise in Evanston over the past few seasons.
Starting in 2008-09 with the arrival of John Shurna, the Wildcats have made four straight NIT appearances including a quarterfinal appearance in 2010-2011. They have come painfully close to ending the streak each year where a few breaks here or there would have made history, but instead the team has been stuck in neutral: good enough to compete, but not good enough for the Big Dance. They are some of the best teams in program history, but then again, it would be hard not to be given that very history. The fact that they have come so close, but haven’t been able to do it, has just exacerbated the pain for both those inside and outside the program.