EVANSTON--This is not the way Northwestern's seniors imagined ending their careers.
Drew Crawford, Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio arrived on campus in 2009 thinking they would leave together with an NCAA tournament berth in tow. When Jared Swopshire joined their senior class this year, as a transfer from Louisville with one season remaining, their prospects of going out in a blaze of glory in their final season seemed to receive a jolt.
Instead, Crawford and Swopshire are sidelined with injuries, watching helplessly as Hearn and Marcotullio finish their stints in purple with a string of brutal defeats. Last night's 74-43 drubbing by Purdue was the Wildcats' third straight loss by 20 or more points, and they have now lost five games in a row and seven of their last eight.
Crawford will presumably recover from his torn labrum and return for a final year of eligibility next season. Swophsire's season is already over after injuring his knee against Iowa on Feb. 9.
But Hearn and Marcotullio are left to play out their careers with a patchwork lineup that has struggled to be competitive over the last two weeks. For them, there are just four guaranteed games left in their college -- and perhaps basketball -- careers.
Sure, it's possible that Northwestern could make a run in the Big Ten tournament to earn a post-season berth. For anyone who has watched this team over the last three contests, however, that notion seems as far-fetched as bipartisanship in Congress. Three more regular-season games and a "one-and-done" in the tournament seems an almost foregone conclusion.
There are few guarantees concerning the athletic futures of Northwestern's departing players. Barring some extreme miracle, none of them will end up getting significant time in the NBA. They could find playing time overseas, but nothing is certain. The days of being the big names on campus are winding down.
"I'm gonna cherish every moment I have left," Marcotullio said. "I want to go out on top and leave here with no regrets."
While going out "on top" might be difficult for this decimated Northwestern team, sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski said he would not stop fighting for his teammates. While winning upcoming contests against Ohio State and Michigan State look to be close to impossible tasks, a senior night victory over Penn State is a memory these seniors would likely cherish.
"All the older guys have been awesome to me since I got in, just trusting me with the ball, really taking me under their wing," Sobolewski said. "I know I'm gonna give all I can for those guys, because of what they've done for me. Hopefully the older guys, [Hearn] and [Marcotullio] especially, can go out on a good note."
Head coach Bill Carmody said he sees added focus and drive toward the end of every season. When the time begins to slip away and the moments become more precious, the players rally around their senior leaders.
"This time of year, every year… there's just that little: 'wow it's gone so fast,'" Carmody said. "Our younger guys recognize that this is it for these guys. I'm sure they're playing as hard as they can."
This Wildcat team could certainly use any motivation it can find. Northwestern hasn't appeared competitive in a game since a 10-point loss to Ohio State in Columbus on Valentine's Day.
With Swopshire still in the lineup, the Wildcats thumped Purdue by 15 points in Evanston on Feb. 2. Last night, those same Boilermakers ripped a listless NU squad by 31 points, a 46-point swing that cannot wholly be attributed to the loss of Swopshire.
So it won't be all "Kumbaya" for the Cats, even if they can finish off the season with a victory or two. Crawford says it's been difficult to watch helplessly from the bench since December as the season has spun out of control.
"[The end of our careers is] something that none of us are looking forward to. I guess it's inevitable." Crawford said. "It's not exactly the way we wanted it to happen. We wanted to be able to finish together."
That won't happen. But one way or another, the end of the season -- and the end of the seniors' careers -- certainly will.