Guy wearing purple walks into a bar. Tells the bartender to change the channel. Northwestern’s playing. Then he orders something strong. He needs it.
Bartender could say anything to this Northwestern basketball fan, but he’s tempted to choose something that burns like the drink: “Cheers to your tournament chances.”
And that’s the joke. And it’s not funny. Northwestern is the only major conference school that has never made the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Seventy-six years and counting.
“Expectations are always to compete for the Tournament,” says Scott Phillips, national reporter for NBC’s College Basketball Talk. “Until Northwestern breaks the streak, they’ll always be associated with it.”
Each year, 68 teams earn bids to the Tournament. They call it March Madness. It’s the best of college basketball and one of the most anticipated sporting events on the calendar. And Northwestern rarely gets close.
In March 2013, athletic director Jim Phillips hired Chris Collins as the team’s head coach. The move was widely praised. Collins worked at Duke University under Mike Krzyzewski – the winningest coach in college basketball history.
To make the Tournament, Collins would need to build a Tournament-caliber roster. After securing the surprise commitment of top-100 prospect and Chicago native Vic Law, Collins looked for his future point guard. He called Bryant McIntosh.
Now, Guy watches the game. Bryant holds the ball for Northwestern, near the top of the arc. A teammate sets a screen to the right of the defender. As the defense converges, Bryant pulls up, squares his shoulders and pushes the ball with his right hand. Swish. Guy gets the last laugh. Northwestern has Bryant McIntosh.
Twenty-one points against Maryland. Eighteen against Purdue. Nine assists against Indiana in an upset win. Eight more against Michigan. Season averages of 11.4 points and 4.7 assists per game. All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors. A prestigious invitation to NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry’s offseason skills camp. Collins made the right call: Bryant McIntosh might be part of the team that leads Northwestern to its first Tournament.
“You know when you have a winner,” NU assistant coach Armon Gates says. “We knew from day one what we were getting, and now everyone else is getting a chance to witness it.”
Bryant started as the underdog in small-town New Castle, Indiana. When he was four, his father, Scott, lied about his age so he could meet the cutoff to play in the first-grade league.
He was too young to even dribble, but found his niche catching the ball and making shots from the corner. By age 5, Bryant would tag along to watch his father, grandfather and friends play in a Weekend Warrior hoops tournament. In one game, the team came out sluggish and fell behind. So Bryant barked from the sidelines, “You’re not passing the ball! You’re not moving! You’re not cutting!”
And when he did reach the first grade, his family knew he’d be something special. Scott coached Bryant for several years before allowing him to shoot on a regulation 10-foot net, and somehow, in his first game in a Salvation Army league, Bryant poured in about 30 points.
“I had a gut feeling,” Scott says. “I remember turning to my father-in-law after the game and he said, ‘You were right. He’s going to be pretty good.’”
My wife and I would do anything for our kids. We wanted him to find that love again. So we gave up everything.” – Scott McIntosh
Bryant says he would get “cold chills” watching Hoosiers, a movie based on the 1954 Milan High School team that won the Indiana State Championship. It is the iconic film about winning as the underdog. Led by the fictional superstar Jimmy Chitwood, the team beats a school with a student body several times its size. Scott recalls when Channel 6 News interviewed then-fifth-grader Bryant as part of a “New Castle Team of the Week” feature. The reporter asked Bryant who his favorite player was. Bryant responded, “Jimmy Chitwood.” The reporter turned to his father: “Uh, does he know he’s not a real person?” Scott said, “Oh yeah, but Jimmy never misses.”
Bryant’s work ethic and talent eventually drove him to the rotation as a freshman for New Castle High School. But during a December 2010 game his coach, Steve Bennett, hit him in the chest during a timeout. Bryant was devastated.
“There was an altercation,” Bryant says. “It really affected me mentally, more than even the physical part of it. I walked home one day after school and told my parents I wasn’t playing anymore.”
Scott refused to let him quit. Bryant finished the season playing for New Castle, but his family sent someone to watch practices and make sure he was okay. They would wait after games to safely walk him out. Scott alleges that in a separate incident, Bryant went to the free-throw line with New Castle up five points and a few minutes remaining. He missed the first shot. Scott says the gym was silent until Bennett yelled, “You’ll never mean anything to this program.”
Some former players defend the coach, saying it was a “weak” hit that was blown out of proportion.
“Bryant is a phenomenal kid,” says Jordan Hahn, who played for the team. “He deserves every bit of success he’s had. But I’m going to be honest, they made a big deal out of it by saying he struck Bryant hard.”
Still, no one denied the punch, which was caught on video. Bennett retained his position as head coach of New Castle basketball until resigning in 2013 when his son, Steven, graduated and left the team. He still teaches physical education at New Castle. He declined to comment for this story.
“I asked him, ‘What do you want out of this?’” Meyer says. “And this kid who doesn’t even know me says, ‘A state championship.’"
Regardless, “you’re on one side or the other,” Steven says. Scott and Bryant’s mom Shelly said they needed to protect their son. The family had called New Castle home since Bryant was in kindergarten, but they chose to move to a place where he could continue his career. The family, including Bryant’s sister Taylor (now 17) and brother Jarrett (now 9) left New Castle. They needed to help a broken-down Bryant.
“Nobody would understand what he went through,” Scott says. “My wife and I would do anything for our kids. We wanted him to find that love again. So we gave up everything.”
The family considered Greensburg High School – 50 miles away – and Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. The decision was made easy after a fateful meeting with Greensburg coach Stacy Meyer.
“I asked him, ‘What do you want out of this?’” Meyer says. “And this kid who doesn’t even know me says, ‘A state championship.’ That was exactly what we wanted here.” Greensburg basketball had never won a state championship.
Bryant built a positive relationship with Meyer, beginning the summer he moved to Greensburg.
“Coming from that situation, he needed to trust his coach,” Meyer says. “We spent a lot of time together. It was a special bond. We could talk about anything when he needed an outlet.”
Meyer also trusted Bryant, his point guard, with anything. In late-game situations, Meyer would yell, “Give it to 30 and go four low,” meaning the offense would clear out to allow Bryant to take his defender one-on-one. This trust yielded historic results. Greensburg won two 3A state championships.
“It’s all about his path to get there,” Meyer says. “He was coming from a tough situation. It’s not easy moving to a different community and school with a different set of teammates. But he never skipped a beat.”
In the state finals his junior year, with Greensburg down by three, Bryant pulled up from behind the three-point line and nailed the game-tying shot. In the state semifinals his senior year, with Greensburg down three, he did the same thing again. Just like Jimmy.
“At the state finals, you just saw a sea of Greensburg blue. Seven or eight thousand people,” Scott says. “It was the best thing that ever happened. What a great story Bryant wrote. The best story you could write.”
In the process, Bryant became one of the most valuable college recruits in Indiana. He originally gave his verbal commitment to play for Indiana State, but de-committed and reopened his recruitment in July 2013. And on the day he de-committed, Collins and Gates called Scott, who handed the phone to a “star-struck” Bryant.
“The one thing I knew about Northwestern is that when Chris Collins was hired from Duke, I thought it was the best thing they could have done,” Bryant says. “I was such a big Duke fan.” He used to wear former Duke sharpshooter J.J. Redick’s No. 4 shirt under his playing jersey.
Collins and Gates contacted Bryant’s important friends and family members early in the recruiting process.
Every July, hundreds of college coaches crowd bleachers across the country to watch Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams, which are comprised of some of the best high school basketball players in the nation. They want to scout the talent, but by attending, they also express their interest in certain players. Collins went to the Indianapolis area a day after contacting Bryant to watch him play. There’s a caveat: NCAA rules prohibit coaches from making direct contact with players at tournaments.
It’s the grownup version of a middle school dance. The players try to impress; the coaches alternate between watching the games and playing with their phones at the other side of the gym. Early on in the recruitment, Bryant – a capable dunker – slammed one home in a game. Bryant says Collins texted him, jokingly: “Glad I could be there for your first career dunk.” Bryant replied to Collins: “Glad I’ve registered more dunks than you have now.”
While schools including Florida State, Iowa, Creighton and Memphis recruited Bryant, Gates continued to build relationships with the entire McIntosh family.
“He treated us like family right from the get-go,” Scott says. “They made us really comfortable and we wanted Bryant to go where he felt comfortable.”
Gates would check in on Bryant’s grandmother, who was sick, and connected with Meyer, knowing that he would need to sell those close to Bryant against difficult recruiting competition. At the same time, he grew very close to Bryant. They generally spoke every other day.
"The biggest selling point that Collins gave is to be a part of something special. Create your own memories." – Darnel Fox
Collins even refused to recruit other players at his position. This was risky, because senior Dave Sobolewski was the only returning true point guard on the roster. So Collins, Gates and other NU assistant coaches Brian James and Patrick Baldwin tried to develop a full-staff relationship with Bryant.
Recruits dream of playing close to home, so Collins had reason to be worried when Purdue began to recruit Bryant. Bryant visited Purdue on Aug. 1, 2013, and received a scholarship offer from them during the trip. At the time, Bryant says Collins was watching the Chicago Cubs play, nervously pacing around Wrigley Field.
“I probably embellished how good the Purdue visit was just to get him to worry,” Bryant says.
He did not commit to Purdue on the spot. Instead, he planned a visit to Northwestern.
His entire family went with him on the trip to Evanston: mom, dad, grandparents, godfather, brother and sister. They finally met Collins and Gates, and his godfather Darnel Fox says the meeting was so powerful that he himself was ready to commit. It was just like Greensburg. They sold Bryant on the vision of helping them accomplish what had never been done before: Take Northwestern to the Tournament.
“It was going to be a process,” Fox says. “The biggest selling point that Collins gave is to be a part of something special. Create your own memories. That seemed like something they could do together.” It worked. On Sept. 9, the McIntosh family hosted Collins and Gates for an in-home visit. “The coaches were talking to me about the future and I just got so excited,”Bryant says.
He pulled two poker chips out of his pocket, sliding one to Gates and the other to Collins. They read, “All N.” Collins jumped off of the couch and hugged the entire family. Bryant McIntosh had committed to Northwestern.
“He wanted to go to a place where he could take a school to the next level and be remembered for that,” Fox says. “He never thought about the losing culture. He always took the positive: ‘It’s going to be the first time we make the NCAA Tournament when I’m there.’”
Collins’ first recruiting class included McIntosh, Vic Law, Gavin Skelly, Scottie Lindsey and Johnnie Vassar (who transferred after his freshman season). Law struggled early in the 2014-15 season, but played well down the stretch. Skelly is one of the team’s best candidates for improvement. Lindsey emerged as an impressive three-point marksman.
Something clicked with Bryant early on. He would attack the rim. He knocked down threes. He improved his defense, which had been a weakness throughout his career. “Honestly, I knew Coach Collins was going to have him ready to play,” Scott says. “I knew deep down he was ready. But did I know he was going to come out and do everything he did? No, but it was great.”
Fans tempered their expectations at first. Northwestern lost 10 of its first 11 conference games. Against Maryland – a top-15 team for much of the year – NU led by 10 points with four minutes remaining and lost in the closing seconds. And against Michigan, with NU down 56-54 in the closing seconds, Bryant drove to the rim for a wide-open layup but couldn’t convert. He was the first one in the gym for practice the next day.
NU doesn't want Bryant McIntosh to make history; they want him to end history.
On Feb. 15, fans packed Welsh-Ryan for a game against Iowa, the heavy favorite. Bryant erupted for 18 points and the Wildcats earned the overtime win. They also won four of their next five games, culminating in a memorable double-overtime win against Michigan March 3. NU’s season ended with a second-round loss in the Big Ten Tournament, but the offseason brings promise.
“I’m not going to lie, even this year, Bryant would call me and say, ‘We’re so close’ after the games they lost,” Scott says. “Are they going to make the NCAA Tournament? Yes. To hear him say it, I believe him.”
Now, add another top-100 recruit Aaron Falzon and Virginia Tech transfer Joey van Zegeren. Keep junior Alex Olah, who averaged 11.7 points and 6.9 rebounds this year, and Tre Demps, who led the team with 12.5 points per game. Seven of their eight top scorers are returning.
NU doesn’t want Bryant McIntosh to make history; they want him to end history. They want to be a program that people can believe in. And the first Tournament team will be one they remember. Bryant holds the ball.
“He believes in our vision,” Gates says. “That’s what it starts with. For him to be the point guard and believe it, as a coach it just gives you goosebumps. He wants to go through the blood, sweat and tears with us. It’s the best thing ever. It’s priceless.”
Bryant was the underdog at Greensburg and they won it. Now he has to give Northwestern fans what they’ve been waiting for a very, very long time.
“I’m going to make the NCAA Tournament,” Bryant says. “It’s only a matter of when.”