Wildcats blow another unique opportunity

EVANSTON, Ill. -- January 28, 2012, could have gone down as a memorable day in Northwestern history.

On Saturday, Northwestern had the unique opportunity for its men’s basketball and football programs to fill the sports pages with their successes. Instead, it felt as if the two programs took steps in opposite directions, and it all happened within an hour and 17 minutes.

For the football program, it felt as if moved forward.

At 3:39 p.m., a release was sent out stating former USC wide receiver Kyle Prater had decided to transfer to Northwestern. Instantly, the future hopes for Northwestern football rose.

Northwestern has recruited players who have developed into NFL players. The Wildcats have alumni playing throughout the league. But Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and his predecessors have seldom recruited players who were considered future NFL players out of high school. Prater is the latter.

The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Prater has been labeled a future NFL wideout since starring at Proviso West High School in Hillside, Ill. As a senior, he was ranked the No. 10 receiver in the country and the No. 45 player overall by ESPN.

Prater’s college career has been a disappointment so far as he’s had to deal with an assortment of injuries during two years, one being a redshirt, at USC, but he and Northwestern are optimistic he can still be the type of game-changer at the college level he was expected to be coming out of high school.

The addition of Prater along with the upcoming signing of defensive end Ifeadi Odenigo, the No. 51st-ranked player in the Class of 2012 by ESPN, makes the future seem bright for Pat Fitzgerald’s program despite the 2011 season being one to forget.

While the football program was celebrating arguably its greatest recruiting triumph, the men’s basketball program was trying to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive against Purdue at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Wildcats coach Bill Carmody had said prior to the game he wasn’t positive if it was a must-win contest for his team, but it had that feeling to him.

Carmody better hope now that feeling was wrong.

At 4:56 p.m., Northwestern senior John Shurna’s game-winning 3-pointer attempt collided with the backboard and dropped to the court, giving Purdue a 58-56 win and diminishing the Wildcats’ chances at the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance a bit more than before his shot went up.

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Northwestern among the first four teams outside the NCAA tournament on Jan. 23. The Wildcats can expect to be further out of Lunardi’s picture come Monday.

If Saturday’s Northwestern loss had been at Purdue, the Wildcats could have lived with it. But Northwestern couldn’t afford another home loss. Northwestern is now 2-2 at home in the conference and 2-6 overall in the Big Ten.

Northwestern has 10 conference games remaining. The math is it needs to 7-3 overall to at least go .500, meaning it has to steal two road games and win out at home.

Northwestern’s remaining home games are Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State. Its road contests are Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Penn State and Purdue on the road.

For anyone who has followed the Big Ten this season, there’s not an easy game out there. Northwestern will likely be favored at home against Nebraska and Iowa, but the Wildcats could very well be the underdog against everyone else.

Is it impossible for Northwestern still close out the Big Ten strong and get to the NCAA tournament? No. Is it improbable? Probably at this point.

Saturday had the makings of something unforgettable at Northwestern, but it was a day that left one program feeling good about its future and the other wishing it could have the day over again.