Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer 625d

With a dramatic flourish, Northwestern is finally normal

It's tempting to say that it had to be this way for Northwestern, that the only way to end college basketball's craziest historical abnormality -- the Wildcats' lifelong NCAA tournament drought -- was to drench it in abnormal melodrama.

It feels fitting, the way the Wildcats all but guaranteed themselves their first tourney bid at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday night: a full-court heave, from one baseline to the other, that Northwestern forward Dererk Pardon caught and scored for the most important basket in Northwestern men's hoops history -- all within the final 1.7 seconds. It seems only natural that the Wildcats' bid would be sealed with fans spontaneously rushing onto the floor. It wasn't easy for the Chicago Cubs. Why would Northwestern's turn be any less epic? Why would its date -- March 1 -- be anything less than symbolic?

Fair enough. March 2017 is the first real March in Northwestern basketball history. It will be celebrated and canonized. The pun headlines -- "PARDONED!" and so forth -- shall spill forth following this 67-65 victory over Michigan, and they shall be glorious.

Still, Pardon's shot, the abnormal drama that ended this program's abnormal century of abnormal failure shouldn't obscure what came before it.

The 2016-17 Wildcats really got here by being, well, normal.

Relative to its own sordid hoops history, the most remarkable thing about this Northwestern team is of course the break from the past it represents. Relative to the rest of college basketball, though, the most remarkable thing is that Northwestern is, finally, a regular old college hoops team. Wednesday's buzzer-beater didn't come in the final round of the Big Ten tournament, after all. When the Wildcats hear their name on Selection Sunday, it won't be because a bad team shocked the world in one weekend of single-elimination play. Nor will it be because Northwestern, from the blue, assumed the look of a national title contender.

Rather, it will be because Northwestern accomplished what so many solid, above-average and otherwise unremarkable college basketball teams accomplish every season: 20-some wins, an above-.500 league record, no glaringly bad losses, a few quality wins here and there. Being one of the at-large teams in the NCAA tournament doesn't require a miracle. In some cases, mediocrity can do the job. It's really not that hard.

The fact that Northwestern is doing so many things so many other college basketball programs take for granted -- including plenty that lack a storied hoops tradition, let's say -- is almost as mind-blowing as the NCAA tournament streak itself. Twenty wins stopped being a barometer for a successful season decades ago; until Wednesday, it was Northwestern's all-time record for wins.

Nor is the Wildcats' essential normalcy restricted to their resume.

To anyone who watched Northwestern play during Bill Carmody's 11 seasons at the program, seeing third-year coach Chris Collins' success might feel a little bit like being handed an iPhone after being on a desert island for a decade, if that island was also the Island of Misfit Toys. Carmody's teams were stubbornly anachronistic. The relentlessly back-cutting Princeton offense; those weird little spin-pivots on passes that everyone else stopped running 40 years ago; the 1-3-1 zone defense; the 5-foot-8 players manning the baseline. The players Carmody recruited -- as good as some of them were -- almost always seemed to come with their own quirks: good shooters had strange releases; guards were almost always undersized; big men were found in obscure, off-the-radar recruiting sojourns.

Collins' teams, meanwhile, are comprised of Division I major-conference-level recruits. They play standard man-to-man defense with some occasional zone thrown in. They pick and roll. They read screens. They space the floor. They post up. They play modern, normal basketball.

This shouldn't be a big deal. That it is reflects just how different this Northwestern season is to so much of what came before: stylistically and strategically, as well as in the way it measures success.

The heave pass that Pardon caught and finished, with 1.7 seconds left to play, will be remembered as the greatest in Northwestern history. It is a massive moment in program history, no doubt, and nothing about it was normal.

That it all but locked a power conference team's first-ever NCAA tournament bid in 2017 is also, well, the opposite of normal. But finally, mercifully, everything else about Northwestern is.

Welcome to March, Wildcats. You guys should fit in just fine.

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