Northwestern is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history, and Wildcat students, fans and alumni are excited as can be.

As for the players? Well, they’re excited, yes. But they’re also relieved.

“I just met with (Northwestern head coach) Chris Collins, and he said there was so much pressure on us the last month or two of the season to finally get there,” CBS Sports college basketball voice Andrew Catalon said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “He said when they beat Michigan in that wild win at the buzzer, he kind of noticed after that win the team felt a little more free. He noticed in the Big Ten Tournament he thought they were able to exhale – because no longer was the talk, ‘Will they be in?’ Finally, the answer is yes. Now they can go play. He thinks that’s worked to their advantage a bit the last couple of weeks.”

No. 8 Northwestern (23-11) plays No. 9 Vanderbilt (19-15) Thursday at 4:30 p.m. ET, with the winner to likely face No. 1 Gonzaga (32-1) in the Round of 32 on Saturday.

The Wildcats started the year 18-4 but went 5-7 over their final 12 games. They won three of four before losing to Wisconsin, 76-48, in the Big Ten semifinals last Saturday.

“They ran into a tough one in the Big Ten semis against Wisconsin, but that was after they had beaten a very good Maryland team in what was basically a home game (for) Maryland,” said Catalon, who is covering opening-round action in Salt Lake City. “There’s a ton of Northwestern fans that are out here. They were all over their open shoot-around practice a couple hours ago, and they’re going to have a lot of people on their side. I think a lot of people – just the casual fan – will be tuning in to see their story. But I get the sense that they’re in a pretty good place right now. I think they’ve been through maybe the toughest part, and that was getting into the tournament. Now they can just go out and play.”

Juniors Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey lead Northwestern in scoring with 14.4 and 14.2 points per game, respectively. Sophomore forward Vic Law, meanwhile, is averaging 12.4 points and 5.7 rebounds.

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