And then came this Selection Sunday. Northwestern’s team, home after its loss to Wisconsin in the semifinals of the conference tournament, gathered inside 64-year-old Welsh-Ryan Arena. The gym, which has hosted hundreds and hundreds of Northwestern games, will close temporarily after this season as part of a $110 million renovation — the program literally bringing down the house after the best season in its history. Fans flooded in to join the party. One group of seven spectators took off their shirts to reveal writing on their bare chests that spelled: F-I-N-A-L-L-Y. And as one team after another was called, one region and then the next, they all held their breath until at last the Wildcats’ name was called.
“To me, this is not the endgame,” Coach Chris Collins told the crowd, his eyes wet with tears. “To me, this is the beginning of Northwestern basketball. We put ourselves on the national map, and that’s where we plan to stay.”
They are the No. 8 seed in the West, and will play No. 9 Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City on Thursday afternoon. If Northwestern wins, it will most likely play Gonzaga, a No. 1 seed. But for now, the Wildcats are just relishing this first step.
This moment is exactly why McIntosh and his teammates came to Northwestern. They’re all good students, and many had the chance to go to other top colleges — Stanford, Harvard, Notre Dame — where they might have tasted the N.C.A.A. tournament long before now. But they all chose Northwestern — for a chance to play, or maybe to do what others had not.
“I sold them a vision,” said Collins, who came from Duke, where a trip to the N.C.A.A.s is a rite of every spring. “We don’t have banners in our gym. We don’t have a winning culture.
“I told them I was a young coach who wanted to create a legacy, and I was the one who took that first leap. To get them to follow me, it took a certain kind of guy who was wired for that, wired like I am.”
It all began on July 4, 2013, when Collins and his family were watching fireworks with Northwestern’s athletic director, Jim Phillips. Collins’s phone rang. It was Vic Law, a player from South Holland, Ill., a Chicagoland prospect who grew up less than 40 miles from Northwestern. Law said he was all in, and it was the recruiting breakthrough Collins needed to build the foundation for his Little Program That Could.
“The fireworks got just a little louder after that,” Collins said.
The players who signed after that — Gavin Skelly, McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey — formed the foundation for the group that has taken the Wildcats to where they are today: 23 wins, the most in team history, and a seat at college basketball’s grown-ups table.
That means the campus is alive with new basketball fans. Lindsey, a junior swingman, said people stopped him to rave about the team and even whisper at him during class, saying things like: “Ooh, I was at the game. Nice layup. Nice shots.” After Northwestern beat Michigan on March 1 on a buzzer-beating layup, a win that in the eyes of many guaranteed them a place in the field, fans rushed the floor for a dog pile that was 78 years in the making.
Two weeks later, plane tickets have been purchased, tickets have been booked, exams rescheduled. The Wildcats aren’t used to this. This time of March was once wide open.
Usually, Northwestern’s spring break falls during the tournament, but the current players never made any special plans for it. No trips to the Caribbean. No road trips to the coast. Instead, they’d always held out hope they would be busy playing basketball. And year after year they weren’t. Oh, well.
Skelly, a junior from Westlake, Ohio, went to a regional N.C.A.A. game in 2015 during his break, but he said he left deflated.
He said: “I remember saying: ‘Wow, people are still playing basketball? Whoa, I haven’t played in a month.’ ”
Skelly wasn’t in basketball shape then. He admitted gaining weight after his season was done, partly thanks — or no thanks — to a buttered noodles and egg dish his mother made whenever he was home. But he’s getting none of it this year. For once — sorry, Mrs. Skelly — buttered noodles are off the menu for March.
Skelly will be in Salt Lake City with his team. McIntosh, too. No more pretending. This year, it’s for real. And more beautiful than ever.