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March in December: Northwestern's Brutal Stretch (and what it means in the long run)

People deride the college basketball regular season: it doesn't mean anything, everything happens in the tourney anyway, why even bother watching. For Northwestern fans, this is no fun, since, you know, Northwestern doesn't really make the tournament much.

But if the Wildcats want to make the NCAA Tournament, the road to that appearance starts tomorrow night in Omaha. I mean, technically, it started a while back, as NU is 11 games deep, but the real fun starts now.

Let's talk about why.

Northwestern might have played 11 games, but it's really tough to gauge the mettle of the Cats. On the one hand, NU is 10-1 with only a single loss, which came against an undefeated Baylor squad that looks to be one of the top 15 clubs in the country. (Right now, they're ranked at No. 6, but whether they're the best team or third-best team in the Big 12 with Mizzou and Kansas in the mix is unclear.) They've got solid wins against power conference schools: LSU has looked mediocre but just handed Marquette its first loss, Georgia Tech got blown out by NU but looks like it will be middle-of-the-pack in the ACC, and Seton Hall's only loss on the season was against NU. Not bad.

On the other hand, there's signs looming. NU's one loss was a 28-point blowout that shouldn't have been that close, and in the past two games, the Cats needed a miracle 15-point second half performance featuring four made threes with no misses by walk-on Reggie Hearn to squeeze out a win over Central Connecticut State that came down to the last minute and a 9-for-12 showing from behind the line against Eastern Illinois from John Shurna that was also close in the second half.

Some would be satisfied to say that this evidence is inconclusive about whether Northwestern is a good or bad basketball team. I disagree. Looking at Northwestern, I see a tremendously inconsistent team. Northwestern lives and dies by the three-pointer, shooting 46 percent of its shot attempts from downtown. When that shot is falling, Northwestern can play with anybody. You're going to look at me like I'm crazy, but to my eyes, the perimeter defense provided by Mississippi Valley State - NU hit over 50 percent of its threes, with non-garbage time players going 19-32 - wasn't significantly worse than the defense provided by Baylor two days later - when NU shot 4-for-26, with John Shurna missing all seven attempts from downtown. I didn't see the two games this weekend, but wouldn't be surprised if the looks Shurna had Saturday - when he went 1-for-9 from downtown and finished with 12 points on 14 shots - were any worse than the looks he had Sunday - when he hit nine out of 12 and had 32 on 16 shots. What I'm trying to say is, Northwestern can beat itself or shoot itself to dramatic wins.

The time for those dramatic wins is now. @NUMensBBall highlighted the other day the rigorous nature of NU's upcoming slate: seven games, six against ranked opponents. It doesn't necessarily stop there: after that, NU will play Minnesota and Purdue, neither of whom are currently ranked, but are each top 50 Kenpom teams. Let's take a look at it:

@No. 21 Creighton, Kenpom ranking 38

@No. 2 OSU, Kenpom ranking 3

vs. Penn State, Kenpom ranking 142

vs. No. 24 Illinois, Kenpom ranking 53

@No. 19 Michigan, Kenpom ranking 43

vs. No. 20 Michigan State, Kenpom ranking 8

@No. 14 Wisconsin, Kenpom ranking 1

@ Minnesota, Kenpom ranking 41

vs. Purdue, Kenpom ranking 23

After that, NU gets a chance to play a few of the lesser teams in the B1G, but by then, much of their fate will be sealed. How NU fares in these nine games is crucial.

According to Kenpom, it isn't pretty. He sees NU losing seven of the nine, with the only wins at home against PSU and Illinois. That is to say, 1-7 in the eight games against teams he has in his top 50, 1-6 against ranked teams.

I don't think it's that bleak. I think Northwestern has a chance to beat any one of the nine teams ahead, starting with the tough non-conference road test against Creighton. Whether they will is up to the whims of their shooting. If NU can come away with four wins out of this stretch - three against good teams, one against PSU, with multiple victories over ranked teams - NU is in good shape with regards to the tourney. They'd need to finish out the season strong against weaker opponents and show up in the B1G Tournament. If not, it's not impossible, but it won't be pretty either.

It's brutal to have such a front-heavy open to conference play, plus the tough finale to the non-con. But if NU wants to go dancing, now's the time to see whether it needs to get fitted for slippers. Sorry about how awful that last sentence was.