Northwestern is seeded eighth in the West Region and will face No. 9 seed Vanderbilt (19-15) on Thursday in Salt Lake City.
“I knew we’d be in there; it was just about where and who we were going to play,” Wildcats head coach Chris Collins told CBS. “When that name came across, the joy in that arena, the smiles, to see the players jumping around, I mean that’s why you do this. There’s nothing better than this tournament. There’s nothing better than this time of year. For us to be a part of it is going to be really special.”
Joining Northwestern as first-timers in the NCAA tournament this year are the Northern Kentucky Norse, Jacksonville State Gamecocks, North Dakota Fighting Hawks and UC Davis Aggies.
There’s another bit of history. For the first time, a father and his son are head coaches in the same NCAA tournament field. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino has guided the Cardinals to a No. 2 seed in the Midwest. His son, Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino, has the Golden Gophers as a No. 5 seed in the South.
The tournament field is a mix of at-large teams, which are picked by the NCAA selection committee, and automatic bids, which are teams who won their conference tournaments. And of all the automatic bids, one of the most emotional stories comes from the Big Ten.
On Wednesday afternoon, the University of Michigan men’s basketball team plane was involved in an accident while departing for the Big Ten tournament. According to the team, the takeoff was aborted, and the plane slid off the runway. While the plane sustained what appeared to be significant damage, everyone on board was safely evacuated.
With the forced change of plans, the Wolverines flew out Thursday to Washington, arriving shortly before their game against Illinois. Playing in their practice uniforms (the real ones were on the plane), they won by 20. And the No. 8 seed kept winning.
On Sunday afternoon, Michigan (24-11) defeated No. 24 Wisconsin 71-56 to win the conference tournament title, and that trophy will be on a plane back to Michigan.
“You’re going to come back 20 years from now,” head coach John Beilein said to CBS on the court. “That trophy is going to sit there, and you’re going to tell your grandkids about those five days. Those five days … and you’ll love it forever.”
Michigan earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament Midwest Region and will face No. 10 seed Oklahoma State (20-12) on Friday.
Today, 347 men’s college basketball teams play in Division I — the NCAA’s top tier. Originally, there were 160 Division I teams, and of those, Northwestern was one of five teams who has never played in the NCAA tournament. The others are Army, The Citadel, William and Mary, and St. Francis (New York).
It feels a bit crazy, considering that NCAA men’s basketball championship history began in 1939, when Oregon defeated Ohio State for the title just north of Chicago in Evanston, Illinois, where Northwestern is located.
This season, the Wildcats finally broke through, setting the school record for wins. In the Big Ten tournament, Northwestern reached the semifinals for the first time after upsetting No. 25 Maryland 72-64 on Friday.
Northwestern also bolstered its NCAA tournament resume with a road win last month at one of the toughest places to play, taking out then-No. 7 Wisconsin 66-59 at the Kohl Center in Madison. The Wildcats’ Big Ten tournament run ended Saturday with a 76-48 loss to the Badgers.
The 2017 NCAA men’s Final Four will be April 1 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The national championship game is April 3.
The women’s NCAA tournament 64-team field will be announced Monday at 7 p.m. ET. That championship game will be April 2 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.