What a difference a year makes

INDIANAPOLIS -- The NIT was once a major accomplishment for the Northwestern men's basketball program.

The NCAA tournament was so beyond reality that the Wildcats aimed for the NIT, and even that had often been unreachable. Their NIT appearances have been sporadic over the past 30 years, coming in 1984, 1994, 1999 and 2009.

The Wildcats were ecstatic to have met the NIT's criteria a season ago and were grateful to be making the school's first appearance in the tournament in 10 seasons. It was especially gratifying after having gone 8-22 the season before.

Now, in 2010, that has drastically changed. Expectations have risen to levels never known within the Wildcats' program.

Whereas Northwestern went through the 1980s without a winning season, had two during the 1990s and two more in the 2000s, the Wildcats of this decade aren't popping celebratory bottles over the program's winningest season, a conference tournament victory or talk of another NIT appearance.

No, the Wildcats would only be satisfied now with the school's first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. And when that dream was crushed Friday with the Wildcats' 69-61 loss to Purdue in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, they didn't spin it otherwise.

Northwestern's players weren't pleased to simply hang with Purdue for nearly 20 minutes. They were truly disappointed they hadn't won.

They dwelled on their missed shots. They talked about four of their five starting players being in foul trouble. They didn't just tip their hat to Purdue's E'Twaun Moore and his game-high 28 points; they were upset they didn't defend him better.

They pointed to the point in the game where they cut Purdue's lead with 9:44 remaining and saw that vanish in one swoop. Purdue extended that to a seven-point lead that came off two free throws from a defensive foul, a technical that led to another made free throw and two more free throws on another defensive foul.

"It was just emotion," said Northwestern sophomore Luke Mirkovic, who was called for a technical for elbowing Purdue's Kelsey Barlow when boxing out. "I made a bad decision. I'm never going to do something like that again."

Even late, the Wildcats had chances, but couldn't capitalize, and that's what Northwestern will remember about Indianapolis in 2010.

"You know, it's a long bus ride home, and it's a tough -- it would have just been so nice to get this win tonight," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "So that's hard. We weren't that far away from it. You know, if you do get a chance to play in the NIT, I think it's really good to get to play basketball, and that's what these guys do. But it's hard to think about that right now."

Northwestern senior Jeremy Nash has suffered through the worst of times with the program. The Wildcats were 2-14 in the Big Ten in his freshman season, so he knows as well as anyone how far they have come in just four years. But even he couldn't look to those positives Friday.

After the loss, Nash, still dressed in his uniform, sat hunched in a chair in front of his locker and stared off in space before talking with the media.

"This is my senior year, the last game in the Big Ten tournament for me," said Nash, who had never won a Big Ten Tournament game until Thursday's victory over Indiana. "It's still doesn't feel real for me because I felt we should have won this game. I felt this game was ours. We had it down to the end where we wanted it, but we just couldn't get over the hump. It really hurt and sunk in that we didn't get where we wanted."

A year from now, Northwestern should have its greatest shot at reaching the NCAA tournament. Kevin Coble, the team's star for three seasons, and Jeff Ryan, a key backup, will return from injury. Four of the team's five starters will be back, with Nash being the only piece graduating. Northwestern will also welcome freshman Jershon Cobb, a 6-foot-4 guard out of Georgia, who might be good enough to step in and play right away.

Northwestern didn't want to talk future Friday, though. The Wildcats' season is likely to continue next week with an invitation to the NIT, but neither that nor the optimism for 2011 was consolation after losing to Purdue.

As Northwestern junior Michael Thompson expressed after the game, today's Northwestern players aren't complacent with simply being good. Now they want greatness.

"It's a disappointing loss for us, but knowing that we have a great chance to make it to a postseason tournament, that's a good feeling," Thompson said. "Still, this is going to be in the back of our minds."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.