SACRAMENTO — Six years ago, Northwestern was Boise State. Scratch that. The Wildcats wished they were Boise State. At least Boise State had been to the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern had never been dancing.
In 2017, it finally experienced March Madness. Heck, it owned March Madness, beating Vanderbilt in the final seconds to claim the program’s first NCAA Tournament win.
Watching from his home in Lafayette, Indiana, a young Brooks Barnhizer sat next to his father, Mark, and the pair chatted about how cool of a moment it was. Years later, as he stared at Jefferson High School, that same purple-and-white program he watched celebrate on the grandest stage came calling.
“I was like, ‘I would love to go there and take us back there,’” said Barnhizer, now a sophomore at Northwestern. “It was so special that first time they did it — all the specials I saw and how much everyone appreciated it. I just knew it meant more here.”
Robbie Beran was in his room in Richmond, Virginia when Vanderbilt went up one with 17 seconds left and then inexplicably fouled Northwestern in the final second to give the Wildcats free throws to win the game.
“I was like, ‘Oh snap,’” Beran, now a senior at NU, said Thursday. “It was kind of like a small-world moment. Northwestern wasn’t recruiting me at the time, but I was like, ‘You know how cool it would be to be that that group?’”
Figuring to be “that group” for their school was this year’s Boise State roster. Instead, the Broncos’ “that group” is still out there after Northwestern’s 75-67 win over BSU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
To point out those stories is to show what can arise from an NCAA Tournament win: The notoriety gained, the recruiting visits made easier, the depth it creates.
Northwestern, six years after its last March Madness victory, triumphed on Thursday with a roster built to last. Wildcats coach Chris Collins played eight guys, all of whom were on the court for at least 10 minutes.
Boise State, which is now 0-9 in the NCAA Tournament after Thursday, played all of its starters over 31 minutes. BSU coach Leon Rice played four guys over 35 minutes. He played just seven men total, and center Lukas Milner was on the court for less than seven minutes.
It is possible to win like that. But it is really, really hard — and it leaves no room for error.
So when Boise State point guard Marcus Shaver Jr. left the game late in the first half, the game felt over. A testament to his toughness, Shaver returned in the second half. But he was hiding a limp, nowhere near 100% … and was still on the court because the Broncos didn’t have many other trusted options.
As Rice tries to build off the next two seasons, priority No. 1 is simple: Find — or create — depth.
“No doubt,” Rice said. “That’s a big part of it.”
Added forward “ Degenhart: You see it with like San Diego State. They’re playing eight, nine guys and being able to not (have guys) play 30-plus minutes. They have the depth to make a good run this year. It will be huge to have some depth next year.”
Where all that depth will come from is still a mystery.
The Broncos will lose a pair of starters in Shaver and forward Naje Smith. They’ll bring in an impressive freshman class headlined by uber-talented 6-foot-7 wing Andrew Meadow and 205-pound guard Chris Lockett Jr. But it will also need to bolster the roster through the transfer portal.
With Lukas Milner leaving and big man Mo Sylla far from contributing this season, a center is atop the list. Right under that is a point guard who can share time with Jace Whiting.
But the Broncos do not just need bodies, they need trusted bodies. Sitting on the bench as the Broncos’ starters played and played … and played were guys like Kobe Young and Sada NgaNga, two youngsters that are obviously not at a level Rice is comfortable with.
Boise State has been mightily impressive the past two years. Fifty-one wins. Four Mountain West Tournament victories. A conference title. And two appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
It is all great and disappointing at the same time. The scarlet letter still remains. To wipe it away, to get that first March Madness victory, it will take depth.
Once that comes, the Barnhizers and Berans of the world will be watching.