Wednesday February 3, 12:35 a.m. – Evanston, IL – Sargent Hall
A hard rain rhythmically dribbled against my window as I prepared to write my preview column for tomorrow’s Northwestern vs. Minnesota game. The uncommonly mild Chicago winter had spared me from snow, yet the rain reminded me of endless dribbles, bad defense and bricked three-pointers. The Wildcats hadn’t made it rain in a long time, and yet the rain was here at my windowsill, beckoning to step forward.
I remember the last time Northwestern made it rain against Minnesota. It was a few weeks ago, right after winter break ended. The Wildcats went to Minnesota and won 77-52. Richard Pitino went home sulking. The storm clouds of an NCAA Tournament bid loomed on the horizon. The dreams seemed real. Aaron Falzon went up for another three, and the mirage of legitimacy begged for acceptance.
But it was not to be. And now I was sitting in my dorm room, writing the preview of Northwestern’s rematch against Minnesota after a disastrous stretch of consecutive Northwestern defeats. Sure, these were against ranked opponents, but Northwestern barely stood a chance in any of its last three games. Now, Minnesota returned to my mind with a vengeance. The Golden Gophers had not won a game since defeating Chicago State on December 16. Minnesota has lost eleven straight, but at least some of its more recent contests were close.
Minnesota has a very inexperienced team with loads of raw talent. Yet despite being the opposite of Northwestern in terms of narrative, the results in the past month had been startlingly similar. Northwestern could actually have trouble beating this team at home, which I admittedly did not even think about during the two teams’ last meeting. If the offense continued its cold streak and the defense continued to be bad, I feared for the worst.
I started to write about Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy’s potential. I wrote a brief paragraph on how Northwestern had to start making threes like it did in the first game against Minnesota if it wanted to win. McIntosh had to bounce out of his slump in order to pick apart Minnesota’s zone. Maybe Pitino would switch to man to combat it.
As soon as I started to write about Bakary Konate’s interior presence, a mysterious figure banged on the door.
“Is this Tristan’s room?” cried the mysterious figure. I froze. How had this person gained access to the building? Who wanted to see me at 12:35 p.m.?
“Yes, it’s my room.”
“I have a mystery, and you’re the only one I know who can solve it! It’s Northwestern sports-related!”
“Uh, couldn’t you bother Inside NU’s Henry Bushnell or Burton? I’ve only been—“
“Tristan, you’re the only one I know who can solve it.”
“Alright, well come in then.”
I opened the door and found a fellow freshman journalism student at Medill. I recognized her from class. Her name was Anna, and she immediately started talking about her “mystery”.
“What happened to Northwestern’s defense? We held Maryland to 17 points in the second half on the road! What the hell just happened?!” she shouted.
“Look Anna, I just want to know how you even got in here. You live in Willard and I’m the only Medill student who lives north of the Wall.”
“My boyfriend let me in, that’s not important. What I wanna know is what happened to the defense? Is it going to get better against Minnesota? I’m going to the game and I want to know the deal.”
I hesitated before answering. Northwestern’s defense was a cataclysmic black hole that could not be taken lightly. Visions of open threes flashed before my eyes.
“Look, I don’t know, I was just going to write some bad preview about how Northwestern needs to hit threes to win.”
“Tristan, that’s the most obvious point you could possibly make.”
“Anna, I don’t even know who’s reading this stuff anymore. I’ll show you the stats. I can slip it by.”
“That’s not happening. You gotta execute. You have to figure out what’s wrong with this defense and give me the answer in concise paragraph form before the game starts on Thursday night. You hear me?”
“Will I be getting paid for this work?” I asked.
“I’ll give you one equivalency meal at Frontera on Friday.”
I hesitated. The rain kept falling. My roommate, who had been silent the whole time, stared awkwardly at us.
“Alright, fine. I’ll do it.” The shrimp tacos were worth the trouble, so I thought.
And with that, Anna left the room in a huff, probably to go back and see her boyfriend on the third floor of Sargent. She had left me to hunt for the “Mystery of the Missing Defense.”
I looked on KenPom.com and cringed. I swore Northwestern was 40th in KenPom a few weeks ago after the Wisconsin game, but now the Wildcats were 97th. And thus, I set off to work.
Wednesday February 3, 12:30 p.m. – McCormick Tribune Center
By the time I was getting ready for my 201-1 lecture that afternoon, I was completely stumped. I decided to turn to my editors for advice, just like my professors had advised.
“Henry, what’s wrong with the defense. It’s so terrible.”
I was sitting in the black lounge chairs in the McCormick Tribune Centers. Those chairs are so comfortable. Inside NU’s Henry happened to be walking by and I flagged him down. But Henry was tired from his latest road trip to Iowa and he gave this classic response:
“Figure it out yourself. You’re the reporter. I’ve got to go cover Signing Day and play bingo with Ben Goren.”
And then he left without another word. So much for editors.
Wednesday February 3, 4:00 p.m. – Norris Student Center
After leaving class, I set up shop in Norris and waited for news. I had asked Zach Pereles to do me a solid and pick up some quotes from head coach Chris Collins at media availability THE DAY BEFORE. It was a hard job, but Zach was up to the task. At 4:02 p.m. he sent me the recording of Collins’ responses.
“Uh, you know, we just gotta play them tough. You know, it’s just so fucking hard to win in the Big Ten. This team just doesn’t have the fucking players to compete against Michigan State man.”
Well, as entertaining as that was, it wasn’t satisfying at all. There was no way I could get Collins to talk frankly about the mystery without giving up his prized scouting information. I decided that I had to take the final step and look up some Northwestern game tape.
But first, I prepared myself. I put on my safety goggles and tied my hands to the back of the chair so I wouldn’t stop the viewing process. Uthoff open 3. Uthoff open shot. Jok breaks through the zone defense and scores an easy layup. I wanted to stop. My brain cried out for something positive. Scottie Lindsey gets a technical foul.
I shut off the tape. I’d seen enough. I felt like Alex in A Clockwork Orange.
Wednesday, February 3, 7:36 p.m. – Sargent Hall
I went for a run to clear my thoughts, but all that rattled in my head was the mystery.
“Why is Sanjay Lumpkin the only half-decent defender on this team? Does anyone contest threes? What even is this zone? Could the Chameleon stop Rutgers in a few weeks?” I thought miserably.
The mystery was never going to be solved at this point. The problems were too vast, lost in the superstructure of basketball that I did not have the power to understand.
“I AIN’T EVER PLAYED THE GAME!!” I screamed in agony.
But it was true. I had never played organized basketball. I did not understand the intricate alchemy necessary to build a solid defense. I wasn’t Tony Bennett or Greg Popovich.
Northwestern was 112th in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. But why? I had a good general idea, but the details escaped me. I had noticed that Nathan Taphorn and Scottie Lindsey did not look like they were trying on defense. But the other guys did try. They just looked lost in the zone sometimes. Why was Northwestern still playing the zone? How was I going to summarize this in a quick paragraph for tomorrow’s preview?
And then I fell into the rabbit hole again. There was just nothing I could do. I felt like Gavin Skelly trying to post up Diamond Stone. My black mask of basketball competency had been ripped from my face and thrown to the floor. I returned from my run and sat down at my desk. Maybe some homework would clear up my mind.
Wednesday, February – 3 7:45 p.m. – Patten Gym
Forget homework. Inside NU’s Henry Bushnell has always preached that the site is more important than my classes. I decided to head to Patten and hit the basketball court to better understand the situation. Maybe if I started to play the game, I would finally reach understanding.
The other team quickly started its first possession and the point guard drove to the basket. Three members of my team collapsed on him without saying a word to each other. That left two opposing players wide-open for an easy layup. And just like that, I had some idea of how to solve the mystery. It was communication! Northwestern’s defense wasn’t talking to each other. I sprinted off the court and began writing the final paragraph of the preview.
Wednesday, February 3 – 9:30 p.m.
I finally finished the preview and got ready to send it to my editor. It had been raining all day, and a huge, cacophonous thunderclap rang through my room. The rain dribbled against the window, pressing, waiting for me to make a mistake. There was another knock on the door. I opened it without even asking who it was. Anna had returned
“So, you’ve figured it all out,” she said wryly.
“Yep, and I submitted before deadline just like the staff outlined in our last meeting. You know—”
“No one gives a shit about your preview, Tristan.”
“Uh, but you were the one who request—”
She suddenly pulled out a piece of paper.
“Tristan, do you know what this is?” she said.
“No. It looks like it’s just a piece of paper.”
“Ha, Tristan, you’ve played right into my hands. This is the first page of the lawsuit I’m bringing against Inside NU for libel.”
“What are you even talking about?” I responded.
“While you were busy trying to finish the story, my associates knocked out Zach Pereles and fed you that blatantly false Chris Collins quote. Your reputation and the site will be ruined once the story is published.”
“Wait, what? I’m just going to text Josh and Henry right now then,” I stammered. I quickly looked for my phone. It wasn’t there. I’d left it in the basketball gym with all my other stuff. The only thing left was my computer.
Anna pulled out a hammer from her backpack.
“I think I’ll smash that Macbook and wait right here. Thankfully, the money I get from SB Nation will certainly be enough to get you a new laptop once you get suspended. You were an excellent pawn, Tristan. All too excellent. You were the neutralized defender on my little pick and roll scheme.”
Communication. It’s all about communication. I tried running through ideas. I had to figure out a way to contact the editors of the site to retract the quote before the morning. Suddenly, Anna smashed my laptop.
“I can sue you for that!” I shouted.
“No, you can’t. Nobody will believe you. And I’m not leaving until the story gets published tomorrow morning. You’re not leaving either. I’ve already sent your roommate to a frat party and he probably won’t return until sometime this weekend.”
“But what do you have against the site?! What do you have against me?” I pleaded.
“Have you ever been…mad online, Tristan?”
“No, not really. I try not to troll.”
“Do you know how many times my comments have been deleted from your ridiculous website? Do you know how many hot takes have been squandered by your staff? My expletive-laden rant about why Alex Olah and Tre Demps should be benched forever was deleted by your stupid colleagues. Not to mention the censorship of my demands that Matt Alviti should start. You know, if I had my way, Mick McCall and Pat Fitzgerald would be out of a job right now. The logic of my arguments is impeccable. You were just the only writer without any idea of how to understand Northwestern’s defensive struggles. You were the perfect target because of your basketball ignorance,” she explained.
“But those are bad opinions!” I argued.
“There are no such things as bad opinions! We live in a country of free speech! And now you’ll pay the price for your ignorance. My hot takes will make America great again!”
I’d been duped. I’d blown my assignment. The ball was headed toward the basket. The open threes were raining down on my parade. Just like Northwestern, I couldn’t communicate when it counted.
(Just in case I do get sued, none of the characters in this story bear any likeness to real life. All resemblance to real-life people is coincidental. Really.)