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Northwestern tries to dance for first time ever

Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire

Much is made about the Chicago Cubs’ World Series drought, and rightfully so. Not everyone can go a century without winning it all.

There’s another Chicago team thirsty to reach the pinnacle of its sport, however. Northwestern basketball is one of only five of the original 160 Division I programs never to play in the NCAA Tournament. Army, The Citadel, St. Francis of Brooklyn, and William and Mary are the others.

The Wildcats are hoping, like the Cubs, that the stretch of futility ends this season. Coach Chris Collins, who enters is fourth year running the program, views it as an achievable goal.

“Looking forward to seeing where this journey will take us and what we can become. We have high aspirations and feel like we have a chance to be competitive this year,” he said at Big Ten Media Day this month.

Northwestern shot out to a 13-1 start in 2015-16 before crashing. It finished 20-12 with a 8-10 conference mark. It did not record a win against a ranked opponent.

“Every team that finished below us (in the Big Ten), with the exception of one game, we won, and every team that finished above us we lost except for one game. So we kind of were who we were, and that doesn’t happen very often,” Collins said.

The Wildcats have beefed up the non-conference schedule in hopes of earning quality wins there and preparing for the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. The slate includes Butler, Texas, Notre Dame or Colorado, and Wake Forest.

Collins is armed with a talented, veteran point guard in junior Bryant McIntosh, a two-year starter. He’s coming off a season during which he led the team in assists (6.7) and finished second in scoring (13.8).

“I mean, sure. We’re biased. I wouldn’t trade Bryant for any other guard in college basketball. I love the kid. He’s been with me since day one. He’s done nothing but get better and better every year,” Collins said.

Starters Aaron Falzon (8.4 PPG) and Sanjay Lumpkin (3.8) return as do key reserves Scottie Lindsey (6.4), Dererk Pardon (6.7) and Nathan Taphorn (4.9). Vic Law, who started as a freshman, comes back after missing last season with a torn labrum on his left shoulder.

Collins hopes that Pardon and incoming freshman Barret Benson (6-10, 240) can help fill the void left by stalwart center Alex Olah.

“Alex Olah has been such a constant in our program the last four years, three with me,” Collins said. “Dererk and Barret, those two guys kind of tag team in that position inside. It’s going to be key for us, because that’s our youngest position. If they can give us solid play at that position, I think it’s going to make us a much better team.”

The unbalanced Big Ten schedule works in the Wildcats’ favor this season. They only face the favorite, Wisconsin, as well as perennial contenders Michigan State, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio State only appear once on the slate.

The outline is there for Northwestern to join the Big Dance for the first time in program history.

“The first thing is you can’t skip steps along the way. I think you can’t let your mind wander to March. I think you have to understand the games in November and December are just as important as the ones in late February and early March,” Collins said.

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