Since the inception of the NCAA basketball tournament in 1939, the Northwestern men’s team has never received an invitation. Not once.
But after a strong season last year and a stronger start this year, the Wildcats are hoping it’s finally their time to play on college basketball’s biggest stage.
As of Tuesday morning, Northwestern is 20-7 (9-5 in conference play) and in fourth place in the Big Ten standings. They take on Illinois Tuesday night in Champaign with only four games remaining in their regular season schedule.
The Big Ten team that wins the conference championship is automatically invited to the NCAA tournament. The remaining 67 invitations are determined by a selection committee on March 12, the same day of the Big Ten tournament championship final.
Last week, WBEZ sports contributor Cheryl Raye-Stout sat down with Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips to discuss the basketball program’s recent success -- and its chances.
On the Wildcats’ season so far
Jim Phillips: It’s a beautiful way to shine an even brighter light on a world-class university like Northwestern. I think that’s what sports at the college level allows you to do. It’s not even close to being the most important thing that happens on a campus, but it is a front porch kind of analogy where it allows you an entryway into this grander university.
Sports is something we love in America and higher education. I think when it’s done right, and you have the success we’re having right now, there’s just so many benefits to it and beneficiaries of it. I’m really proud of the young men and the coaches that have put the season together. (I’m) a little wishful. I wish the season was over right now and we could maybe punch our ticket to the NCAA tournament, but we’re only two-thirds of the way through the conference play, so we have a lot of games left and a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go.
On the importance of Chicago
Phillips: I’m a product of this city. I grew up one of 10 children in the Portage Park area. I went to Weber Catholic High School (and) Our Lady Of Victory Elementary School. This city loves their own. This city loves the sports teams that are in this area. Even if you come from another area or another region and you come to Chicago, you start to adopt those teams. And that’s been the hope for us with not only basketball but all of our sports.
You may not have gone to Northwestern. You may not have ever been on campus here in Evanston. But Chicago fans support Chicago teams. ... In the end, Chicago’s always going to be a pro-sports town -- any of us that have been raised here (know) this is dominated by pro-sports -- but I think that there is a segment that allows college athletics, and in particular Northwestern University, to carve out a space with these great fans in the area.
Cheryl Raye-Stout: We saw that in the ’70s and ’80s with DePaul and that program. It ignites a whole city if you’re successful.
Phillips: No question. I mean I loved (former DePaul basketball player) Mark Aguirre and (former DePaul head coach Ray) Meyer. Those were great teams. I remember going and taking the bus down Diversey Avenue to get into Lincoln Park and watching those teams play. I think that’s a beautiful example of it. Or when we were able to go to the Rose Bowl in the mid-’90s. It captured everybody. And I think we’re starting to do that now with our basketball program.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview.