Northwestern's NCAA tournament hopes didn't die with the loss to MIchigan for the other night. I say this for two reasons:
First off, hypothesize with me: yes, no team is officially eliminated from NCAA contention until they lose or fail to qualify from their conference tournament. NU could hypothetically go on the run to end all runs, win four (since NU won't be a top 5 seed and get a first-round-bye) games in a row, and so on and so forth. It's hypothetically possible. Then again, I could also impregnate a unicorn.
Also, NU's tournament dreams were already pretty damn dead and we didn't want to admit it. Illinois will have a hard time convincing a committee, right now they're 6-5. We were 4-7, now 4-8. The demoralizing early part of NU's conference schedule ended up being a ditch too deep for NU to unshovel its way out of. We were holding on to a pipe dream, and a crack pipe dream at that. The fact that NU didn't successfully run the gauntlet shouldn't be a surprise to us, although it is disappointing for those of us who were still withholding hope.
But my point is, NU is not making the NCAA Tournament. It's a true shame this year's senior class - translation: Juice Thompson - will graduate without seeing the promised land. Whether NU should be happy with the season and whether NU has a shot for next year are posts for another time. Now, I'm concerned with how NU finishes the season, because a weak finish could be even more depressing than another NCAA-less year already is.
Right now, Northwestern is looking at the NIT - you know it, the National Invitation Tournament. The tournament nobody's proud to be in, except the guy who prints up the banners for Welsh-Ryan Arena. Even we Northwestern fans are starting to get disillusioned with college basketball's runner-up of tournaments after two consecutive berths featuring first-round exits.
However, making the NIT, as second-rate as it is, is significantly better than the alternative: either sitting at home for March, or going to the CBI or CIT, the two tournaments that make the NIT seem like paradise. If the NIT is like kissing your sister, the CBI is asking your sister out on a date only to have her turn you down so she can make out with your younger brother while you watch.
And with a few games left, quite frankly, NU has some work to do.
Last year, NU had a better tournament resume - in my opinion - than they do this year. Last year, NU went 20-13, 7-11 in-conference, with nice wins over No. 6 Purdue and Minnesota and a win in the Big Ten tournament. Last year, like this year, NU only dropped one game in the non-conference, but that loss was to No. 10 Butler, not an unranked St. John's squad.
Last year, NU was very literally the last team selected to the NIT: of all the No. 7 seeds, NU was the only one that wasn't an automatic qualifier - teams that win their conference regular season, lose their conference tourney, and don't get selected to the NCAA's. All the No. 8 seeds were also auto qualifiers.
With six games left, not including the Big Ten tournament, NU is 14-9. To finish the regular season with 19 wins as they did last year, they'd need to go 5-1. To finish the season with seven conference wins, they'll need to win three games. NU has three home games left, but Penn State and Minnesota aren't gimmes. NU might need to eke out a road win at Indiana to even get to 17-12, 7-11.
Which brings me to point no. 1: Unless NU plays well - wins three or more games down the stretch - they're in serious danger of missing the NIT.
Which brings me to point no. 2: you know what qualifying for the NIT, playing a single road game ,and losing it is? Depressing. I watched last year's game against Rhode Island in the Buffalo Wild Wings in Evanston, and no part of it was enjoyable.
If NU does make the NIT, I'd like to see them win a few games, and I'd like to see them win at least one in person. For that to happen, they'd have to be one of the top four seeds. That's not that difficult to attain: maybe four wins and a few in the Big Ten tournament, and NU doesn't quite re-put themselves onto the NCAA bubble, but they're certainly safely in the NIT, and the chances we'd get an extra home game at Welsh-Ryan to say peace to Juice Thompson are greatly improved.
So, yes, be disappointed NU failed its goal of making the NCAA's this year. I'm not proud of the fact writing a post about the NIT and how it's important in some way as opposed to just being a consolation tournament. But there's a difference between a failure and a complete, utter, depressing failure. A failure would be a trip to the NIT. An epic failure would see NU miss out on that or get like a six seed and get bounced immediately. That's just my opinion.