NU's high expectations make NIT tough sell

The NIT is old hat to Northwestern.

The Wildcats have been a top-4 seed and hosted an NIT game in Evanston, and they have won two games in the tournament.

In other words, Northwestern has been here before.

Getting to the NIT as a higher seed and advancing a few rounds is nothing to brag about for the Wildcats any longer. This is now the fourth consecutive year the NIT has been their destination.

While it’s difficult to deem this season anything other than a disappointment because Northwestern failed to reach the NCAA tournament again, the one way the Wildcats can still nudge the program forward is by winning the NIT championship. Anything less and it would hard to gauge this season as progress.

Expectations have noticeably changed in recent years. Where Northwestern’s players were happy to be invited to the NIT the last few seasons, the Wildcats weren’t anywhere near happiness on Sunday nor even 24 hours later on Monday.

Northwestern senior John Shurna tried to smile when someone asked if the NIT was a shot at redemption before practice on Monday, but he couldn’t fake it.

“It’s nothing you can do about it,” Shurna said. “Just go out there and play and compete. I only got at least one more game in a Northwestern jersey. I want to go out there, represent the school well, go out, play hard, compete and try to win.”

The obstacle ahead for the Wildcats is trying to find their fight again after last week’s crushing overtime loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament and then absorbing another blow with not being chosen to the NCAA tournament. Top seeds get knocked off all the time in the NIT because they can’t get over what happened on Selection Sunday.

Northwestern junior guard Alex Marcotullio knows he and his teammates have to rebound quickly if they have any shot in the NIT.

“You can groan about it all you want, but we play [Tuesday,]” Marcotullio said. “We just have to stick with it and stick together as a team and come together and achieve something that the school has never won before, and that’s win a NIT championship. That’s our new goal.

“We have to make the best out of the situation that we have in front of us. Everything is done in the past. It’s a new season. It’s the postseason now. We have to control everything we can control now, and that’s win games.”

Northwestern was a No. 4 seed last year and defeated Milwaukee and Boston College before falling to Washington State by one point in the quarterfinals. The Wildcats are also a No. 4 seed this year and will host Akron in the opening round on Tuesday and likely will play top-seeded Washington on the road in the second round if they advance.

Wherever Northwestern finishes its season, Shurna believes the program is closer to reaching the NCAA tournament than it has ever been.

“I think the first year we made the NIT, my freshman year, that was like an exciting step in the right direction for the program,” Shurna said. “This year it’s almost like a disappointment just because we had such high expectations for this year. But I think you can see the talent of guys that are coming in are getting better and better. Northwestern’s no longer like [opposing] teams look at it as a win. Now they know we’re coming in and competing. We can play with the best of them.”