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John Blanchette: Northwestern inherits slipper from teams of Zags’ past

UPDATED: Sat., March 18, 2017, 1:30 a.m.

SALT LAKE CITY – In a Northwestern locker room aswirl in joy and delirium on Thursday night, a reporter approached Wildcat sub Gavin Skelly at his locker.

Skelly flashed a big grin and patted the empty seat next to him.

“Pull up a chair,” he said.

Let me regale you with tales of marvel and wonder.

And suddenly it seemed like 1999 again.

The charm of this year’s March Madness is the snake-in-a-can-of-nuts surprise of the Northwestern Wildcats, not so much an archetypal NCAA Tournament Cinderella as it is, well, Cubs 2.0.

It’s a Chicago story, yes, but very much a national one – a major college program from one of the seminal power conferences making its first appearance a mere 79 years into America’s best three-week sports spectacle.

And when the Wildcats won their first-round game in their very first tournament, the celebration it set off among the players and an arena full of fun worshippers was miraculous.

And reminiscent.

“When I saw that,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, “it reminded me of our first run.”

Making it just that much more absorbing, then, that Saturday’s game of intrigue in the NCAA’s round of 32 matches the Bulldogs and the Wildcats in something of a dual-spoiler special.

Either the Wildcats will spoil Gonzaga’s latest this-is-the-year run to the Final Four, or the Zags will ruin the Best Story of the Tournament.

If the parallel – the 2017 Wildcats and ‘99 Zags – seems a contrivance, it’s really not so much. No, that wasn’t the first Gonzaga team to crack the bracket and, yes, the profiles and pedigree of the two institutions were and are decidedly different. Gonzaga had to win a game – or two – to get people to notice; Northwestern just had to get here.

But when they jogged onto the court at Vivint Smart Home Arena to play, the Wildcats were greeted by 1,000 or more of their own fans – and probably 14,000 converts happy to attach themselves to the legend.

“Having a home game in Salt Lake City for it to be like this,” said Skelly, “is the most amazing thing ever.”

Which is pretty much what Matt Santangelo and his Bulldogs teammates felt walking into KeyArena in Seattle 18 years ago.

“America’s favorite team is Cinderella – in Seattle then,” he said, “and in Salt Lake City now.”

OK, maybe it’s a different kind of Cinderella. As Santangelo had to point out to his son this week, the guy who once coached Michael Jordan is the Northwestern coach’s dad. He’s in the stands cheering a few seats away from actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who once bought tube socks for Mr. Pitt on “Seinfeld” and whose son Charlie Hall is Wildcats’ version of Rem Bakamus.

But what really bridges the generation gap between the current Cats and old Zags? Just how much they’re enjoying this, and how much they’re blossoming in the moment.

For the media who picked up the Gonzaga trail in Seattle that year, the Zags were a revelation. Casey Calvary zinged coach Dan Monson – and the NCAA committee – with impunity. Axel Dench was an Australian curiosity before they swarmed college basketball. Santangelo filled the notebooks of newspapermen with so much thoughtful perspective and humor the columns wrote themselves.

“We had great things to say!” he joked. “At least, we thought we did. But no one ever wanted to talk to us before, so it all got uncorked at the same time. We had all this pent-up material.”

On Friday, Hall – the Wildcat with the celebrity mom – held court at his locker, doing the interviewer shtick for a TV camera with his fellow bench-riders.

Aaron Falzon: “I want to ask you a question.”

Hall: “You can ask, but I’m still going to hold the mike.”

Falzon: “How does it feel that your head has gotten so big?”

Hall: “That’s true. I’m a total sellout now. I’ve totally changed. Totally forgotten you guys, that’s for sure.”

Earlier, teammate Bryant McIntosh relived the closing moments of the win over Vanderbilt, whose coach, Bryce Drew, was himself a last-second NCAA hero for Valparaiso in 1998.

“I felt like my whole career I was destined to play in the NCAA Tournament – like I’d worked so hard that the basketball gods were going to reward me,” he said. “But with about a second to go, all I could think is that’s Bryce Drew is on the sidelines – and there are basketball gods on the other side, too.”

That kind of wonder is mostly gone at Gonzaga, now in its 19th straight year in the bracket. And, yeah, it’s missed.

“But you miss your kids from when they were 1 and 2, too,” said Few. “It’s just life.”

Life has a funny way of pitting the old against the new, too. You’ll see it today.

Pull up a chair.

Follow along with the Zags

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