SALT LAKE CITY — Making history is quickly becoming second nature to sports teams from Illinois.
Only a few months after the Chicago Cubs snapped a 108-year drought to claim a World Series title, Northwestern ended its own ignominious streak that dogged its basketball program for decades. The Wildcats finally broke through and earned their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid.
Eighth-seeded Northwestern will open tournament play against No. 9 seed Vanderbilt on Thursday afternoon. The winner faces a potential matchup with top-seeded Gonzaga.
The rise from the Big Ten cellar dweller to a contender is no fluke for Northwestern. The Wildcats (23-11) used tenacious defense and smart offense to finish with a winning record in league play for the first time since 1968 and capped it off by advancing to the Big Ten tournament semifinal round.
“You don’t get many chances in life, in anything, to be a part of something historical — things that have never ever been done,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins told reporters on Sunday. “To be a part of this is something that they can never ever take away from us.”
The Wildcats are capable of doing much more than providing a feel-good moment. Northwestern has all the necessary tools to make a Cinderella run beyond the first weekend and disrupt more than a few brackets along the way.
It all starts with point guard Bryant McIntosh. The junior leads the team in both points (14.4) and assists (5.3) per game. McIntosh has scored 20-plus points 10 times this season and dished out six-plus assists 12 times.
With McIntosh running the offense, Northwestern averages just 10.5 turnovers — a mark which ranks 16th nationally among NCAA teams — and churns out 15.8 assists per contest.
Vanderbilt will offer a tough test for the Wildcats in its NCAA Tournament debut. The Commodores made a little bit of history themselves after becoming the first team to earn an at-large bid with 15 losses.
A brutal schedule and a strong finish put Vanderbilt over the top. The Commodores (19-15) played the toughest non-conference schedule nationally and won seven of their last nine down the stretch to lock up a second straight NCAA at-large bid.
They sealed the bid, in part, by beating No. 4 seed Florida three times this season, with the third victory propelling them into the SEC tournament semifinals.
“From where we started the season to where we are now is just a remarkable turnaround on all fronts,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew told reporters on Sunday.
A balanced offensive attack has helped the Commodores find success. Four players average double figures in scoring, led by Matthew Fisher-Davis (13.2 ppg). Luke Kornet is a force around the paint with averages of 13.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.
Vanderbilt will be looking to reverse some recent struggles in the NCAA Tournament. The Commodores have won just one game in their last five tournament appearances — a 79-70 victory over 12th-seeded Harvard in 2012.