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Thompson led Wildcats back from abyss

Michael Thompson’s Northwestern career began with a thud.

After the Wildcats dropped two of their first three games in 2007, Thompson’s fourth career contest was an even bigger embarrassment. Before a measly crowd of less than 4,000 fans in late November, Northwestern lost to Brown by six points on its own floor in Evanston.

It was the lowest moment in what would be a season of low moments for Thompson and the Wildcats. They finished 8-22 overall and won just once in 19 Big Ten games.

The future appeared dim.

On Wednesday, Thompson career came to a close with Northwestern’s 69-66 overtime loss to Washington State in the NIT quarterfinals.

It wasn’t where or how Thompson wanted it to end. An NIT championship in New York City was the ultimate goal. Although Wednesday’s loss deeply hurt, Thompson was able to reflect on where the program had traveled from those early depressing days four years ago to where it stood in the present.

In the past three years with Thompson steering the ship, Northwestern won 57 games, reached three consecutive NITs, advanced to the NIT quarterfinals for the first time in program history, won a school-record 20 wins twice, defeated five ranked opponents, was ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 1969 and were a couple of baskets away from defeating top-ranked Ohio State twice in 2011.

None of that seemed possible when Thompson was a freshman.

“We improved immensely,” Thompson said. “Everyone worked hard. Now not only we do compete with national powerhouses, we’re beating some of these teams. We’re stepping forward.

“I think myself and every player on this team had a role in this program moving forward. The coaches believed in my ability to play all four years. I definitely think I played a role in that.”

No one would disagree with that today. But when Thompson was coming out of high school, few gave him a chance to succeed at Northwestern. He was a 5-foot-10 point guard from the Chicago Public League and wasn’t highly recruited. Even Northwestern coach Bill Carmody wasn’t sure if Thompson had what it took be a starting point guard at the Big Ten level.

Thompson proved many wrong in his four years. He started every one of the 129 games he played for Northwestern. He set the school record for minutes played in a career. He scored 1,689 career points and finished third on the school’s all-time list. He owns the school’s career assist record with 528. He is second with 276 career 3-pointers and fifth with 160 career steals.

For all those reasons Thompson will be remembered by Northwestern fans. But what he actually hopes is those fans recall his playing days for something else.

“I want to be remembered for just my work ethic, being out there playing hard and giving it my all,” Thompson said.

Thompson will also reflect on his career in another way.

“I’ll remember definitely the guys and playing for this coaching staff,” Thompson said. “I couldn’t have played for a better coaching staff. They made me the player I am and helped me become a man.”

Thompson’s greatest regret will be not making the NCAA tournament. It was a goal he believed was possible the past two seasons, and each year the Wildcats fell short. Northwestern still has never played in the NCAA tournament.

Thompson hasn’t lost faith that the Wildcats will still someday accomplish that feat. When they do, he plans on celebrating as if he was on the floor playing.

“The program is moving forward. With the talent they have and if they work hard, they can still make the NCAA tournament,” Thompson said.

“I’m definitely disappointed. I’m really sad, but you got to move forward. I’m still a Wildcat, and I’m still going to root for these guys.”