Ever wish that more things worked like college brackets? That you could seed everything that way? Top 64 pre-game foods. Top 64 college players. Well, now you can do just that with your friends, with the Allstate BFF Brackets, which takes your 64 top Facebook friends (an algorithm seeds them based on interaction) and seeds them in four regions, exactly like the real tourney. Once the tourney starts, your friends advance with the corresponding seeds – till one is left standing. Check it out at http://apps.facebook.com/bffbrackets/
So: remember when I told you how Northwestern could win the Big Ten? Well, it didn't pan out. In fact, we pulled up three games short. It would be less strange than that one weird kid who friended six hundred kids the July before college started off the "Northwestern 20XX" facebook group advancing far in the friends bracket thing I discussed above.
But the Cats came closer to beating Ohio State than anybody else, and in my opinion probably closer than anybody will for the rest of the year. (Writing this sentence caused a foul to be called sending Jared Sullinger to the line for two shots.) I think the main reason they came close is because they read my post and were filled with hope.
So obviously, I have to do the same thing for the NIT. It's a little bit more sensible with this tournament: the problem with the Big Ten tournament was that Northwestern was the eighth-best team in a tournament where the top seven teams were capable of making the NCAA tournament. In the NIT, NU is the... who knows what number best team in a tournament featuring 32 teams incapable of making the NCAA Tournament.
So let's take a look at the road ahead for NU and how to get the Cats to Madison Square Garden for the second time this season. (Note: I'll obviously write previews as the NIT goes on, but, until then, let's look at this to hold us over.
Game 1: Vs. No. 5 Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers, 19-13, 13-5, kenpom ranking 148, Wednesday, 9 p.m.
Well, it's pretty easy to be optimistic about this team when you look at Milwaukee's kenpom ranking: NU didn't lose to a team worse than Minnesota (62) all season, so there's that. However, Milwaukee can scare you when you look at their regular-season sweep of Butler (although they ended up losing to the Bulldogs in the Horizon League Tournament.) One of those was apparently an example of literally everything possible going right for the Panthers: leading scorer, 6-7 power forward Anthony Hill shot 9 of 10 from the field, the team went 11-23 from behind the arc, and point guard Kaylon Williams had a basic minimum triple-double with 10 points, rebounds and assists.
The key to beating the Panthers is containing their de facto big man, Hill. The good news for NU is that while he tore apart Horizon League competition, he's still only 6-foot-7. While Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti aren't the best examples of Big Ten centers, these guys just did an admirable job one-on-one against Jared Sullinger, and Hill is no Sullinger. NU has eschewed the 1-3-1 zone for the most part down the stretch, and that should hold true again against Milwaukee: make Hill do work down low, but stick to shooters like the 6-foot-8 Tony Meier, who is not only the team's tallest rotation player but also most accurate 3-point shooter at 42.8 percent. Threes account for 40 percent of the Panthers' shot attempts, so I'd work on clamping down out there and hoping Mirk and Curletti can do work on Hill. I have faith in NU's Princeton Offense against a team that probably has never seen anything like it. I like NU's chances of moving out of the first round of the NIT after failing to do so in back to back years.
Game 2: (most likely) @ No. 1 Boston College Eagles, 20-11, 9-7, kenpom ranking 66 (or McNeese State technically)
First off, there's some very scary things. BC's offense, for starters: No. 16 in the nation at 116.0 offensive rating - better than NU! They shoot more threes proportionally than all but seven teams in the country! NU sucks at defending threes! They went above .500 in the ACC! GAHHHHHHHHH.
But, as noted, kenpom ranking of 66 - as noted, worse than any team NU has lost to all year. And this team is bad defensively - really bad. They run a 1-3-1 a lot of the time, and hint, if they do, NU will MURDER it. They're worse defensively than NU, which is really saying something, and while going above .500 in the ACC is damn impressive, but, well, the ACC was worse than the Big Ten this year. If NU can guard the perimeter for a second consecutive game against the Eagles, they'll be in good shape. BC should win a matchup, because of home court advantage, but these are two very even teams and it wouldn't be that much more than a toss-up.
Game 3: Vs. No. 2 Washington State, No. 3 Oklahoma State, or No. 6 Harvard
Toss-up on who makes it out of this bracket - kenpom rankings of 50, 75, 77. People probably don't see NU winning this tournament as a plausible thing, but, look at the first two games, then realize that this would be the game that would put NU in the semis at MSG. None of these three teams are so good that NU should be afraid. Obviously, NU should pull for Hahvahd in hopes of getting another home game, and also having another NERD showdown. Washington State is the only team with a better Kenpom ranking than NU in our region, so you'd have to be worried about them in Washington. Also, at a certain point you have to think about motivation - NU will hopefully be more excited about this tournament than these other teams that have had modicums of basketball success in the past.
Semifinal: vs. possibly No. 1 Virginia Tech
The Hokies were seriously snubbed for the NCAA tournament and should destroy their bracket, although Wichita State and Cleveland State certainly aren't horrible. I wouldn't like NU's chances of playing against Virginia Tech - they're the best team in the NIT by a long shot, and quite frankly it isn't that close. Malcolm Delaney will be playing for his career to continue and for NBA draft status.
Finals: Vs. Who cares?
I'd be pretty pumped just to be here. Throw in the fact that nobody NU could play from the other side of the bracket has a kenpom higher than 47 - that's St. Mary's - and you realize that an NIT W isn't fully improbable.
NU isn't the most likely team to win this tournament, not by a long shot. I wouldn't expect them to. But a decent run - and perhaps even a return trip to Madison Square Garden - isn't fully out of the question