Northwestern’s ‘Dance’ dream dashed

The word “never’’ is just too overwhelming, too powerful. If you haven’t done something “since’’ some time, that’s one thing. It’s a streak. It’s a slump. It’s a stretch. But Northwestern has never been to the NCAA tournament.

Never. That’s a black hole, with nothing to stand on or climb up from.

The Wildcats are so close to breaking free of their never. A win over No. 10 Ohio State on Wednesday night, and that probably would have done it, put Northwestern in the NCAA tournament. Bracketologists Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm had them hanging onto a spot, barely in, already.

Ohio State was winning all night, but Northwestern was pass, pass, passing around the perimeter like a sixth-grade team with its shirts tucked in neatly, looking for a back door. The Wildcats got back into the game, the little guy fighting against the big guy. And in the end, Northwestern put its history into an attempted steal on defense, but gave up a basket instead.

Then, Northwestern’s star, John Shurna, heaved a half-court shot that was for the win, for the NCAA tournament. It was on target. What happened?

Never happened. The ball clanged off the front of the rim, leaving Northwestern about — how much? — 10 inches from the NCAAs. Ohio State won 75-73. This just isn’t fair. The basketball gods can’t answer one lousy Hail Mary in forever? It’s cruel.

Damned if sometimes, the little engine just can’t. The NCAA tournament started in 1939. The Cubs have been to the World Series since then.

I don’t think the the Wildcats’ failures stand for much. They are just a quirk in time, an accident in space. Good coaches have been here, good players. You would think that at some point, they would have just accidentally gotten into the tournament. Just once.

Somehow, Chicago has these long historical sports blackouts. The Cubs haven’t actually won a World Series since 1908. The White Sox almost made it to 90 years without a title, the Blackhawks almost 50, the Bears are now over 25. They know in Boston, where the Red Sox went forever, too.

It adds up into some sort of mysterious charm, with long-sufferers wearing their pain and their wait like a badge of honor.

Not at Northwestern. There is no actual wait here. It’s just never.

Best guess is that it’s a combination of high academic standards mixed with the realization, for recruits, that Northwestern just isn’t the place to go for a basketball career. Other careers, yes.

Northwestern tried to fix things by bringing in Kevin O’Neill. A master recruiter, he was going to bring in real talent. He insisted it could be done at Northwestern, and continued to insist on it when he fled the place three years later with an 0-16 conference record.

So forget talent. Northwestern turned to Bill Carmody, known for his genius system of backdoor cuts and screens at Princeton. It’s the perfect way to win without talent. But that plan always sounded like a concession speech to me.

It was interesting to watch Carmody on the bench Wednesday, when history wasn’t made. I used to talk with him every March when I wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, ask when he was going to get Northwestern to the tournament.

“Next year, we’ll have a full complement of players. We might start to look like a Big Ten team,’’ he said in 2004.

Each year, he had something like that. He might talk about turning the corner, or at least seeing the corner.

In 2006, after his sixth year, he said he thought he could have gotten to the tournament by then. I asked him if it possibly could take six more.

“I don’t know if it’s another six years or not,’’ he said, laughing, as if the idea were preposterous. “I hope not.’’

This season finishes the next six.

Carmody’s resilience has been amazing. How he has kept his job is incredible enough. But even more impressive is how he has kept his sanity. How he has fought through the never for so long? He was the up-and-coming young genius when he arrived. Now, he’s not.

By 2006, he was dazed on the sideline during the Big Ten tournament. One player threw a pass that hit another player in the back of the head. Carmody didn’t even flinch.

On Wednesday, it was good to see him back to his old fidgety self. He believes again. Up off the bench, flopping back down. He pumped his fist when Northwestern pulled to within six with 10½ minutes left. Down seven with four minutes left, he flopped down on his seat, crossed his legs and put both hands on the top of his head.

Do you respect a guy for continuing to try the impossible, or just wonder what’s wrong with him? After the Ohio State game, he spoke in whispers, realizing his never was going to continue. Northwestern had finally caught up, tying the game with a long 3-pointer with seven seconds left. Then, it took a chance on a steal. Give Carmody credit for that. He was going for the win when Northwestern had its one chance.

Someone asked him whether he still thinks Northwestern, now 17-12 overall and 7-10 in the Big Ten, is an NCAA tournament team.

“Did I say that we’re a tournament team?’’ he said. “I don’t remember saying that, but I might (have). I said we have some work to do. I think we’re a good team …

“We have to get what we can out of this, go to Iowa and be ready to go there. They win there and they’re playing very well. Get that (win) and then get one in the (Big Ten) tournament, then, you know, so …’’

He trailed off there. Yes, it’s going to take a win at Iowa, and then maybe two more in the conference tournament. He knows: This was Northwestern’s chance to get out of never.

It’s hard to know what makes Carmody still believe in Northwestern, in himself. He has gotten to three consecutive NITs, the consolation tournament, and the fourth one might be a few weeks away.

When is it going to end?