Credit: Stephen J. Carrera/Northwestern Athletics

For a thrilling moment, Northwestern grabbed the lead and the momentum last Sunday against the seventh-ranked Baylor Bears—one of the Wildcats’ biggest basketball matchups in years.

Of course, that was just the first basket of the game—and the Cats followed it up by surrendering ten straight points. They never recovered. Unable to cope with Baylor’s swarming zone defense, they fell behind by 17 before the opening half was over.

In fact, it turned out that the most exciting part of the game for NU fans came during the halftime show, which featured trained dogs chasing down Frisbees on the court. As cheers erupted for some particularly athletic catches, word spread in the stands that the 6-6 Wildcats football team had been invited to play in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston on New Year’s eve.

At least it was something to cheer about, because the Baylor mishap was cause for more disappointment than your average 69-41 drubbing. For many of us, it brought back a familiar, sinking feeling that the Cats will never be ready for the Big Dance.

Northwestern has played men’s basketball for 108 years and the NCAA tournament has been held for 73. In fact, the first NCAA championship game was played on the NU campus in 1939, with Oregon beating Ohio State 46-33.

But the Northwestern men’s team has never been in the NCAA tournament.

That is, never—not once. Not even a one-and-done play-in game. No appearances—nada.

There are a few other teams who share this distinction, including the California-Irvine Anteaters, the Stetson Hatters, and, closer to home, the Western Illinois Leathernecks. Yet NU is the only school from a major conference that’s never received an invite to the tournament.

It’s not that the Cats don’t have any basketball tradition. It’s that they have a tradition of poor luck on top of poor play.

In the early 1990s, for example, they appeared to have a decent team forming around guard Rex Walters. Then he decided to transfer to Kansas, which he led to the Final Four before he moved on to the NBA.

The Cats’ next game-changing recruit was 6-11 center Evan Eschmeyer, who arrived on campus and promptly fractured his foot so severely that he was told he might never play again. Yet Eschmeyer hung in there. In what seemed like his 11th year in school, after he was granted a medical redshirt or two, he led the Cats to the NIT for the third time in program history.

Sadly, even Eschmeyer was finally forced to graduate, and the next year the Cats finished 5-25.

In 2000, Northwestern hired coach Bill Carmody away from Princeton, where he’d been one of the masterminds of the back-cutting offense that bears the school’s name.

Under his tutelage, the Cats have become competitive. They’ve even upset some of the toughest teams in the Big Ten over the last few years.

They’ve also maintained their tradition of devastating injuries, losing their top scorers for much of the last two seasons.

And so many winnable contests have slipped away in the last minutes that it often feels like something theological is at work. Against all odds, sure-handed shooters will lose their touch, or solid defenders will commit inexplicable fouls. Other times the ball just bounces into the other team’s hands with precisely enough time for them to hit the clinching shot.

Seeing this happen year after year inspired one anonymous fan to create the Fire Bill Carmody blog. It features expert insight and commentary, such as the post that followed a devastating loss to Penn State last year: “We’re fucked.”

Still, it’s just as easy to credit Carmody with helping to raise expectations. Since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Northwestern has finished just six seasons above .500. But three of them came in the last three years.

In fact, the 2010-2011 campaign was arguably the best in Northwestern’s history. The Cats won 20 games for the second season in a row and advanced to the third round of the NIT—farther than ever.

That made this season even more promising. Aside from veteran point guard Juice Thompson—a Chicago kid now playing pro ball in Germany—all the key players returned, starting with top scorer John Shurna and athletic forward Drew Crawford.

For the first few weeks, the Cats didn’t disappoint, running around and shooting over their opponents en route to a 7-0 start.

Then Baylor came to town. Make that a 7-1 start.

After years of reflection, one friend of mine thinks he’s figured out what NU’s problem is: “They’re not good.”

But now that I’ve had a few days to recover from the Baylor mess, my head is no longer ringing with the reverberations of errant shots clanging off the rims, and I’m ready to declare that losing doesn’t have to be the final word.

After a break for semester exams, the Cats will have a chance to rack up some Ws against a couple of underwhelming foes. Then they take on a top-25 Creighton squad and plunge into Big Ten play with a game against Ohio State, currently the second-ranked team in the country.

In other words, there’s still plenty of time to make a run for the tournament—though we should probably keep the dogs and Frisbees ready, just in case.