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Progress is Evident for Northwestern Basketball

Jared Swopshire is one of many newcomers who will try to help NU keep progressing. (Photo courtesy Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

Kansas, Ohio State, Duke, Georgetown and Northwestern. What do these five schools have in common? Very little it would seem, except for an ability to continually take advantage of college basketball’s weaker programs.

The official Twitter page of the Northwestern men’s basketball team boasted Wednesday that the Wildcats hadn’t lost a game to a team with an RPI of 100 or greater during the past two seasons, making them one of only five teams in the country to accomplish that feat.

Baseball announcers pull out these types of comparisons all of the time. Some guy hits a triple and a homerun in his first major league game, and suddenly he joins Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Daryl Strawberry as the only professional baseball players to ever pull off a feat like that.

To be clear, some major-league rookie is not comparable to Ted Williams. And Northwestern is not comparable to Duke. But it does speak favorably of the Wildcats that they share anything in common with programs of the stature of a Duke, Kansas or Ohio State. And it speaks favorably of the Wildcats that they’re winning the games that they’re supposed to win.

I get it. A statistic like this is easy to pooh-pooh. Certainly, Northwestern is also notable in that it’s the only one of those five schools not to make the NCAA Tournament in the last two years — or ever. Clearly, the “no bad losses” mantra has not worked out for Northwestern on Selection Sunday.

But this achievement should be lauded in itself. Whether or not such success has led Northwestern to the Promised Land, it is remarkable. It’s also hard to figure. Just watch the Wildcats’ two bungling performances against Texas Pan-American in 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 and tell me that this is a team that knows how to take care of its business.

And yet, somehow, the Wildcats have plodded along. Slowly, they have become a team that can be relied upon to win their must-win games, whether or not they make it look pretty. Whether it was beating the Hawkeyes in Iowa City or crushing the Cornhuskers at home, whether it was edging Akron in the first round of the NIT or crushing Georgia Tech at Philips Arena, this Wildcats team has actually become fairly adept at winning the games it ought to win. And that is something that they ought to be commended for.

It’s funny. Those who have grown weary of hearing about Northwestern as a NCAA Tournament contender, only to see the Wildcats blow every chance they’re given, have begun to dismiss the fact that Northwestern has no bad losses. They swat away a statistic like this as if it were simply a pesky fly.

But I doubt Wildcats fans would have thought that way back in the spring of 2010, when two losses to Penn State, a loss to a very bad Indiana team and a loss to a similarly bad Iowa team killed Northwestern’s tournament chances. At least, now, the Wildcats are giving themselves a chance, and as a result, they entered this past edition of the Big Ten Tournament with a real chance to make a slightly more noteworthy tournament. That’s called progress, my friends.

But beyond representing progress toward the eventual program goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament, Northwestern’s ability to go two whole years without a loss to a team with a triple-digit RPI is truly impressive. It demonstrates great focus. Unlike the college football season, where teams can easily get amped up for 12 Saturday afternoons, the college basketball season lags on, seemingly with no end in sight. For the Wildcats to travel all over the nation and never let one slip is a tremendous achievement.

If you take a look at the other four teams not to be defeated by a team with an RPI of 100 or greater, they are all basketball powerhouses, which means that they have enough star power to escape any one player’s bad night. If Seth Curry has a bad night, Austin Rivers is there to step up. If they both have a bad night, it’s hard to ignore Mason Plumlee.

Such dominance extends outside of the Tar Heel State. I mean, just look at Ohio State. If Jared Sullinger has a bad night, the Buckeyes can lean on preseason Wooden Award candidate William Buford. If Buford has a bad night, they can toss the ball over to a slick point guard by the name of Aaron Craft.

All of these schools have benches full of four-star recruits. Northwestern has a bench full of — well, Nick Freundt and Davide Curletti. At a school like Duke, Kyrie Irving can injure his toe in the team’s eighth game of the season, miss the remainder of the year, and the Blue Devils can still win the Atlantic Coast Conference. At a school like Northwestern, John Shurna crashes into a basket post, and his team isn’t the same. Duke will always be Duke. On the other hand, without John Shurna and Drew Crawford, it wasn’t necessarily clear what this Wildcats team would be. And thus the fact that they were able to keep on winning, even when Shurna had an off night, even when Crawford had a bad game, is nothing short of remarkable.

And while these wins have yet to give Northwestern its first NCAA Tournament berth, they continue to give the Wildcats a chance. Whether it was entering Big Ten play with a 10-1 record in 2010-2011 or winning the Charleston Classic in 2011-2012, these wins have put Northwestern in the national conversation. Now, it’s simply a matter of remaining there.