By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2011; 1:06 AM
INDIANAPOLIS - The Northwestern men's basketball team thought - no, they knew - this was going to be The Season.
The past four months didn't go exactly as the Wildcats and their purple-clad followers planned, but at least for one more day, their hopes of ending one of college basketball's most incomprehensible streaks remain alive. The eighth-seeded Wildcats defeated ninth-seeded Minnesota, 75-65, on Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten tournament to set up a date with top-seeded Ohio State in Friday's quarterfinals.
For the past 71 springs, the school that hosted the inaugural NCAA tournament in 1939 has watched every other program from the big-six Division I conferences go dancing. All the Ivy League teams have earned NCAA tournament berths, as well.
But not Northwestern. Never Northwestern.
The Wildcats (18-12) understand the path to a conference tournament championship - and that elusive first NCAA tournament invite - is arduous, and they know history will provide them no comfort. Northwestern has never even advanced past the second round of the Big Ten tournament.
"We had pretty high expectations going into this year, and then we had some bad injuries, so it knocked us out of the box a little bit," said Northwestern Coach Bill Carmody, who twice led Princeton to the NCAA tournament. "So we knew 31/2 weeks ago that we needed to win these four games to get in. That's tough. That's tough. But I told them: 'It's not like a David-and-Goliath sort of thing. Stranger things have happened.' You just have to go out there and be ready to play."
On Thursday, Northwestern took on a towering, physical Minnesota front court with a pencil-thin starting forward, John Shurna, who Carmody has said "looks like he's 14," and a starting center, Luka Mirkovic, whose visibility was constantly hindered by the plastic face mask he was wearing to protect the nose he broke last summer.
And still, the Wildcats "only lost the rebounding battle by six," said senior guard Michael Thompson, who is generously listed at 5 feet 10.
Indeed, this is an ornery Northwestern squad that remains undeterred - and perhaps steeled by - its inferior size. The Wildcats feed off of Thompson, who when not firing three-pointers from well beyond the arc drives unconsciously toward the rim, regardless of the sizeable obstacles in his way.
Against Minnesota, Thompson played all but one minute, scored a game-high 35 points and made sure to stick out his chin at opposing Gophers after every crucial basket he made.
"We've got that little Thompson guy," Carmody said. "He just plays really well, and it rubs off on some of these other guys."
Those other guys include sophomores Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio, who combined to score 28 points Thursday, and Shurna, the team's leading scorer who has missed time this season because of an ankle injury in December and a concussion in late January.
All of them were there last season when Northwestern finished 20-14 but had to settle for the National Invitation Tournament for the second consecutive year. The Wildcats returned four starters from that team and got off to a 9-1 start before dropping their first three Big Ten games. They later lost five of six, including a one-point defeat at home to Ohio State.
After things went south, Northwestern's strategy to halt its ignominious streak changed.
"This was our plan," Mirkovic said. "Entering this tournament, we planned on beating Minnesota and we planned on getting another shot at the number one team in the country."
The Wildcats care nothing for discussions of RPI or strength of schedule or quality victories. They know simply that they must win. Today, tomorrow and the day after. It will be their only salvation.
"We're coming in here with a lot of confidence," Thompson said. "Obviously, our goal is still to make the NCAA tournament. We know what we have to do to make it there."