The optimism in Evanston was sky high entering the 2012-13 season.
Could this possibly be the year Northwestern finally qualified for the Big Dance?
Even low-key coach Bill Carmody was on board.
"The program right now is at a point where I think we're going to make it," Carmody said as he prepared for his 13th season at the helm in Evanston. "If not this year, then next."
But, once again it's wait until next year for Northwestern (13-18, 4-14), which opens the Big Ten tournament Thursday night against Iowa (20-11, 9-9) at the United Center -- unless the Wildcats win the tourney title and earn the automatic berth.
The loss of JerShon Cobb and season-ending injuries to Drew Crawford and Jared Swopshire all but guaranteed the Cats another swing-and-a-miss season.
And that has led to plenty of talk that this might be the final at-bat for Carmody, whose team competed in the NIT the past four seasons.
"You just want to be on stable ground," Carmody said this week when discussing his run at Northwestern. "You want the talent level to be good enough so you can compete with all the teams, and you want to be in the top half of the conference because if you are, you get a bid. That's what we're trying to do.
"We feel unfortunate because we had some injuries this year. You're never sure what's going to happen but they really hurt this team."
With Top-100 point guard Jaren Sina on the way next year, hopes are again high that the Cats can finally qualify for the Big Dance.
"Certainly next year we're going to be more than solid," said Carmody, who has one year remaining on his contract. "If you keep the talent level good in all your classes, then you're going to be pretty successful."
The only question is: will Carmody be around to see it?
Their kind of town:
If there's one team that's happy to see the Big Ten tourney returning to Chicago for the first time since 2007, it's Illinois.
Here's how the Illini have done when the tourney has been held at the United Center:
2007: Lost in semifinals
2001: Lost in semifinals
2000: Lost final
1999: Lost final
1998: Lost in semifinals
That's good for a 15-5 record at the UC.
Burke's the man:
The Big Ten all-conference teams and individual award winners were announced Monday, with Michigan's Trey Burke earning Big Ten player of the year honors. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan claimed coach of the year, while Michigan State's Gary Harris picked up freshman of the year. Indiana's Victor Oladipo was named defensive player of the year, while teammate Will Sheehey was voted the sixth man of the year.
A number of players who forged their reputations in the suburbs will be showcasing their skills this week at the United Center. they include
Illinois: Brandon Paul (Warren High School), Mike LaTulip (Prospect) and Kevin Beradini (Lake Forest).
Northwestern: Dave Sobolewski (Benet Academy) and the injured Drew Crawford (Naperville Central).
Wisconsin: Ben Brust (Mundelein), Duje Dukan (Deerfield) and Frank Kaminsky (Benet).
Michigan: Matt Vogrich (Lake Forest) and Josh Bartelstein (Highland Park).
Ohio State: Lenzelle Smith Jr. (Zion-Benton).
Tickets still available:
Standing room only tickets are available for each of the six tournament sessions and may be purchased at Ticketmaster outlets, www.ticketmaster.com or by calling Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000 or through the United Center ticket offices at (312) 455-4668 or www.unitedcenter.com.