SALT LAKE CITY — At Northwestern, they’re celebrating a first-of-its-kind accomplishment — embarking on a trip to the NCAA Tournament that has eluded a school known for books, not basketball.
At Vanderbilt, they’re shrugging their shoulders — proving once again that smart guys can play hoops, too.
Welcome to the Brain Game — the NCAA’s plausibly deniable attempt at humor in the form of Thursday’s matchup of “smart schools” in the West region.
The student-athletes from Northwestern (23-11) are seeded eighth and their counterparts from Vanderbilt (19-15) are ninth. Just as importantly, in this case: On the US News and World Report list of top national universities, Northwestern ranks 12th and Vanderbilt 15th.
“I wanted to have guys who wanted to be great basketball players and great students,” Wildcats coach Chris Collins said, in a way of explaining a turnaround that has taken the Wildcats to the NCAAs for the first time in 100-plus years of basketball. “To me, there’s no reason — why can’t you have both?”
No reason, really, as Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and, yes, Vanderbilt, have proven from time to time over the years.
It just takes more hard work — and sometimes a lot more time.
For instance, at Northwestern, where the academic year runs by quarters instead of semesters, the first week of the first March Madness ever for the Wildcats happens to coincide with finals week back home. Which is how many of these players found themselves not with heads buried in their iPads during the flight to Utah, but studying or putting the final touches on term papers that are coming due.
“I would say that’s a challenge not everyone has to face,” said fifth-year senior Sanjay Lumpkin, who has been going against Big Ten behemoths such as Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana for years now. Northwestern’s undergrad enrollment: 8,300.
But across the court at Vanderbilt, they’ve been dealing with it and thriving for decades.
To say the least, the Commodores and the conference they play in — the Southeastern — have not always gone hand-and-hand. While Kentucky is famous for its ever-rotating corps of one-and-dones who stop in to tie their shoes on the way to the NBA, Vanderbilt is famous for ... music, engineering and economics. Among its unofficial nicknames: The Harvard of the South.
As former Commodores coach Kevin Stallings once put it: “They want us to be Harvard on Monday through Friday and beat Alabama on Saturday.”
Not totally impossible on the basketball court. This is Vanderbilt’s 13th trip to the tournament over the last 30 years, and while the Commodores haven’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2007, they’re never to be completely overlooked. Just ask Florida. The No. 4 seed in the East went 0-3 vs. Vandy this season.
When guard Nolan Cressler was looking to leave his first school, Cornell of the Ivy League, to attend a school with a bit better hoops pedigree, he chose Vanderbilt, with undergrad enrollment of 6,883 and a campus near downtown Nashville.
“I wanted to go to a school like Vandy or Northwestern, so I could keep that balance in my life,” Cressler said. “So when the ball stops bouncing, you take care of academics. ... It’s something that will probably help us down the line.”
It’s the same sort of line we’ve heard for years from the Ivy League, which traditionally sends its lone qualifier to the tournament for one, maybe two games if things go well. This year’s entrant is Princeton, which has more trips to the tournament than any of its Ivy League brethren. After winning the league’s first-ever postseason tournament last weekend, Princeton headed to Buffalo where, like Northwestern, the players are dealing with a heavy academic load. This is Princeton’s midterm week.
“Focus is on the game,” Princeton forward Spencer Weisz said. “You only go to the NCAA Tournament so many times in your life.”
At Northwestern, they’re smart enough to get that message, too.
“This is not just the end goal for Northwestern basketball,” Lumpkin said. “We see this as the starting point.”