Northwestern University is known for its Medill School of Journalism, a world-class teaching center which has freed innocent prisoners from death row and made other substantial contributions to the world.
One thing any good journalism professor teaches his or her students: Don't get bogged down in cliched, worn narratives... such as saying that a Vanderbilt-Northwestern game will be decided by the more intelligent team.
Just. Don't. Do it.
On 99 percent of game-writing occasions, this advice should be followed... but a Vanderbilt-Northwestern NCAA Tournament game (especially the "Northwestern" part) is not, Bernie Sanders, "the 99 percent" of college basketball games. It is the "1 percent," that rarest of creatures unexpectedly come to life in Salt Lake City. This is a rare event in which the cliche not only happens to be true, but figures to decide the whole shebang for the right to play (one presumes) Gonzaga in the round of 32 over the weekend.
Every NCAA Tournament game offers cause for excitement and a chance to lengthen the great book of history. The degrees of excitement and historical significance will differ for the programs involved -- North Carolina plays a round of 64 game as a stepping stone to Final Fours, while No. 13 seeds just want to get that big upset and a moment they can cherish forever -- but no Big Dance clash is ordinary or humdrum. Everything matters, and always will.
Yet, as much as excitement and history define every bracketed battle in the latter half of March, Vanderbilt and Northwestern will play their round of 64 game at a much greater height, breathing thinner and more rarefied air than most of the other teams which will take the court on Thursday or Friday.
Consider -- as a brief tangent -- another 8-9 game between Arkansas and Seton Hall. Arkansas has made Final Fours and won national titles, unlike Vanderbilt. Expectations should be to make the Sweet 16 in Fayetteville. Had Mike Anderson not reached this NCAA Tournament, he'd have been on the hot seat. Even then, Anderson was supposed to take the baton from his mentor, Nolan Richardson, and revive UA hoops. He has not done that. Arkansas enters this tournament under pressure to get a win and earn a shot at North Carolina in the next round.
Seton Hall, for its part, returned to the Dance last year and is very happy just to be in the field again. Precisely because the Pirates made the tournament a year ago, however, the amount of buzz surrounding this return won't be nearly as substantial. Hogs-Pirates is just not a sexy, nationally resonant 8-9 game, in much the same way that Saint Mary's-VCU isn't an eye-popping 7-10 game (whereas Dayton-Wichita State and Michigan-Oklahoma State are heavyweight 7-10 games deserving of saturation coverage).
Vanderbilt-Northwestern? This is not just an attractive 8-9 game which has earned national headlines; it is a game which -- by its simple existence -- has already created multiple forms of high-level history. For national observers, the outcome probably doesn't matter that much; the event itself is the story.
For starters, VU has become the first 15-loss at-large team in the history of the NCAA Tournament, eclipsing 14-loss Georgia in 2001. Granted, at-large bids didn't exist once upon a time (for teams from conferences, that is; independents such as Marquette received them), but even then, Vanderbilt has done something not seen in 42 years of tournament play. It wasn't until 1975 that conference-based teams could acquire at-large bids to the Dance.
Moreover, Vanderbilt earned a 9 seed, which -- like its SEC brethren in the field -- shows how much a strong non-conference schedule and the right kinds of wins can beef up a profile. The SEC's hire of former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese as a basketball consultant has paid off handsomely. Even the most ardent SEC advocates probably wouldn't argue that South Carolina is the 26th-best team in the country, but that's where Selection Sunday's 1-68 seed list put the Gamecocks. The SEC has discovered something in terms of adjusting team schedules to maximize RPI ratings. Vanderbilt was very much a part of that. (Interestingly enough, the 14-loss Georgia team which made the Dance in 2001 was an 8 seed, also a testament to its strength of schedule that year.)
Vanderbilt enters this NCAA Tournament under no ordinary circumstances -- not just the 15-loss at-large berth, but with a first-year coach on the bench. Bryce Drew was regarded as a good, smart hire when he came aboard the Commodore ship a year ago, but he has pulled this seaworthy vessel into safe harbor in the town of Bracketville ahead of schedule. This VU team is highly flawed -- enough to get its brains beat in by Missouri -- but in a year with a very soft bubble, Vanderbilt made its way into the field with room to spare... and to the objection of no one who follows college basketball for a living.
History, however -- as much as it breathes and lives on the VU side of the divide -- is much more tangibly felt by the Dores' opponent in Utah's capital city.
William and Mary, The Citadel, Army, and Saint Francis of Brooklyn -- these four schools have been eligible for every NCAA Tournament since the original event in 1939, and yet haven't put on Dancing shoes even once. The Northwestern Wildcats finally made their way off this list, ending 78 years of agony in Chicagoland not too long after the beloved Cubs ended a 71-year National League pennant drought and a 108-year World Series drought.
Northwestern and the many American sportswriters who came from Medill are jubilant beyond description. NU was the only Power 5 conference program which had never made the NCAA Tournament, a dubious distinction which carries an undeniably large weight. The Wildcats hadn't won 10 Big Ten regular season games since FDR was President of the United States. They hadn't forged a winning record in a Big Ten regular season since 1968.
To put a finer point on the Northwestern story, the stunning aspect of the Wildcats' history is not just that they never made the tournament before; it's that they very rarely got close. It's hard to win national titles, but it's also hard to be as bad at men's basketball as Northwestern has been. Vanderbilt has never reached the Final Four and has claimed only one NCAA Tournament win in the past 10 years, and yet in comparison to Northwestern, VU looks like -- well -- another VU: Villanova.
Northwestern coach Chris Collins and all his players have instantly forged the best season in their program's history; how often can any group of competitors say that? They have attained immediate and permanent immortality, iconic status within the halls of their school, located not very far from a major media market.
The previous Power 5 conference team which had never made the NCAA Tournament, in case you're interested? Florida -- 1987 in terms of actual tournament participation, 1989 in terms of the first NCAA Tournament appearance not vacated by the school due to NCAA violations. Every other program had already gained a seat on the Dance floor... except Northwestern. It took 30 years -- since 1987 -- for Northwestern to do what Florida did: Put a group of hoopsters on an NCAA Tournament court in real flesh and blood.
The Wildcats had become the guy from an obscure country who competes in the Olympic marathon just for fun, and crosses the finish line last, three hours after the next-to-last-place finisher. That's hardly an exaggeration.
What's also not an exaggeration: This 8-9 game -- featuring teams very unlikely to contend for the Final Four -- is a seminal occasion. It's not often one gets to write such a sentence.
Vanderbilt gets to share in the history Northwestern is making; the Dores are now a permanent answer to a trivia question, a fixed part of a living memory for generations of Northwestern fans who will talk about that day near the Great Salt Lake when their team played... Vanderbilt.
When one absorbs the jarring, plot-twist-filled, historically unprecedented nature of this matchup -- and of the two teams' seasons which have led up to it -- the cliches about intelligence deciding a clash of academic superpowers becomes a lot easier to take seriously.
No, really: The team which displays more poise and composure is almost certain to win this game -- that's not a peripherally obvious idea -- not this time. In this "1 percent" of NCAA Tournament games, emphasizing calmness amidst the craziness and clamor is a central need for both coaching staffs. Being relaxed will count for a lot more in this game than tactical acuity. The tactics aren't irrelevant, but they do pale in comparison to the battle between the ears.
Let's indeed spend some time on basketball, not the backdrop to this one-of-a-kind occasion.
A big question which hovers over this Northwestern team -- which deserved an NCAA bid as much as Vanderbilt did this season -- is the quality of the Big Ten. The league's best team, Purdue, lost its first (and only) game in the Big Ten Tournament, to an 8 seed (Michigan). The second-place team, Wisconsin, is an 8 seed -- underseeded, yes, but still a huge disappointment. The Badgers were a preseason Final Four contender, expected to be a top-3 national seed.
The Big Ten's best program this century, Michigan State, stumbled to a 9 seed and easily could have been seeded 10th. Maryland and its freshmen lost steam late in the season. Indiana crashed and burned. The league placed seven teams in the field, but none are Final Four threats. The conference will be fortunate to get even one team in the Sweet 16.
It is within this context that Northwestern finally encountered the perfect convergence of circumstances which carried the program across the threshold and into Bracketville. As NU prepares to play a team from the much-maligned SEC, everything about this matchup suggests a coin-flip game which could easily be a nail-biter, but could just as reasonably turn into a 20-point game due to one side's collapse in the face of pressure.
The most essential point to make about Northwestern is that energy is its indicator of performance, the sign and signal of the day's likely outcome. When Northwestern is flying on offense, making brisk screens and cuts, it opens up lanes to the basket. The Wildcats generate high-percentage shots which liberate every player. Once the defense is focused on stopping movement toward the rim, Northwestern's forwards and wings flare out to the perimeter for open shots they shoot with confidence, having seen the ball go through the hoop on layups or six-foot shots.
That's Good Northwestern.
Bad Northwestern appears when pressure suffocates the team -- as it did in much of February, when the roster felt the weight of trying to finally make the NCAA Tournament. The screens and movements aren't crisp and fluid. NU doesn't generate open driving lanes to the basket. The lack of high-percentage shots against a packed-in defense causes the Cats to hoist threes. Perimeter jumpers cease to become weapons; they become "hope and pray" shots created by impatience and nerves.
Northwestern depends on its ability to outwork opponents. Maryland is a lazy defensive team; accordingly, the Wildcats did exactly what they wanted to do on offense against the Terrapins, and won comfortably in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals last Friday night. On Saturday afternoon in the Big Ten semifinals, Wisconsin punched Northwestern in the mouth early in the game, and the Wildcats had no answer. The Badgers, even in their most inconsistent periods of play, hang their hats on hard work. They beat Northwestern to spots and got in the chests of the Wildcats. They were never seriously challenged.
Rattling Northwestern -- crowding Northwestern -- is a central need for VU in Salt Lake City. If the Commodores can get in the Cats' cage and bother their offensive movements, never allowing them to find a rhythm, they should be able to win even if their offense isn't at its best. Northwestern -- over the past five weeks -- has endured a lot of "six points in 10 minutes" stretches. Its offense withers on the vine because no pure shooters exist on the team. There's a difference between scorers and shooters; NU has a few scorers, but no jump shooter inspires overwhelming fear.
Here is a look at Northwestern's starting five:
Vic Law is an explosive, above-the-rim player who has his moments as a three-point shooter, but his jump shot has not been particularly reliable in recent weeks. Law is one of the two players Vanderbilt must keep away from the rim. The expression "don't let an opponent see the ball go through the basket" is used often, and with good reason. This is not meant to say "don't let the opponent score." The meaning is more specific -- it applies to shaky jump shooters. Giving unreliable perimeter threats easy shots (free throws, layups or dunks) often frees them up and gives them confidence. Vanderbilt cannot do that with Law, or with another player who will soon be mentioned below.
Dererk Pardon is Northwestern's bruiser, a whirling mass of muscular energy. He doesn't have size, but he is powerful and displays very active footwork. He's not a polished low-post scorer, but he can carve out space. Being able to stay in front of Pardon is the basic key. Force him to make difficult plays.
Sanjay Lumpkin is a forward who can step out and shoot the three, but he does not create his own shot -- it comes within the flow of the Northwestern offense. A lot of this game will depend on turning Northwestern into a one-on-one team. The Wildcats don't ordinarily win those battles (with one exception). Vanderbilt might need to switch screens sometimes to stay in matchups it wants, but the Dores shouldn't feel they need to do that all the time. Merely staying in front of Northwestern's players will often be enough to contain the Cats.
Scottie Lindsey is the other player Vanderbilt must limit. He suffered from mononucleosis midway through the season, and that's precisely when Northwestern hit hard times, losing several games in a row before rescuing itself with a March 1 win over Michigan which essentially punched its tournament ticket. Lindsey is back in the flow of the offense and in full game shape. He was 7 of 12 from the field in the win over Maryland, getting many of his points within eight feet of the basket. He's not the dunker Law is, but he is tall enough that he can shoot over the top of a smaller defender if his shooting hand isn't closed down.
Bryant McIntosh is Northwestern's cornerstone and heartbeat for one simple reason: He is the one player who can create his own shot. He can break down defenders off the dribble. He can use the dribble and various jab fakes to create space for his jump shot. He is clever and deft with an array of floaters and angled shots within 10 feet of the basket if that's how he can score.
What is the more precise concern for Vanderbilt in relationship to McIntosh is that his matchup against Riley LaChance represents the one matchup in which Northwestern clearly has an advantage. That's not necessarily the case at any other position, though some Medill journalists might advance an argument or three. VU simply has to make sure that McIntosh doesn't win his matchup in ways that spill into other aspects of play, which leads us to our game keys.
1) Let McIntosh get his... but not give to others: If McIntosh wants to score 25 points but hand out zero assists, let him. Northwestern frees up its forwards and wings through its offensive actions and McIntosh's timely ball distribution. If Vanderbilt prevents Law and Lindsey from getting easy looks early in the game, and turns them into one-on-one jump shooters, the Commodores should create the exact template they want... and need. McIntosh can't win this game all by himself. He has to involve his teammates within a structured offense for Northwestern's offense to thrive.
2) Be loose and play with house money. When one uses the term "house money," the reference is generally intended to convey the idea that one team has nothing to lose. Given that Northwestern has already achieved something monumental, the Wildcats might easily feel they have no pressure. To be clear, it's important for THEM to not saddle themselves with a burden in this game. They need to be liberated in order to win.
Vanderbilt, though, needs to be free as well, and Bryce Drew should emphasize that.
Remember that this is a 15-loss team -- one which deserves to be in the Dance, but one which made the field in an unusual year. This isn't going to happen all the time. Making the NCAA Tournament felt like a grimly important need in the Kevin Stallings era. This year? It feels like a bonus in Bryce Drew's first season on the job. This game is -- in many ways -- a bonus, a deathbed revival, an Ebenezer Scrooge awakening after being visited by the ghosts of Christmas. Mental freedom translating into consistent energy, leading into cage-rattling defense -- THAT is Vanderbilt's equation in this game. The tactics involve making McIntosh a do-everything scorer, but the gateway to that tactic is energy and a pronounced lightness of being for VU.