by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
There are a handful of reasons why Northwestern’s home matchup with Iowa is the most important game of its season so far. Let’s start with the basics. Northwestern didn’t get the wins it needed to in nonconference competition. The Wildcats could use a credible resume data point, because even if you’re willing to spin the Baylor win into some crowning road achievement, the fact of the matter is Northwestern hasn’t beaten anyone of real substance. Baylor is as good as they are mercurial, and that win could well deflate into a plainly mediocre feat over the course of the conference season.
Then there’s the fuzzy but plausible idea that the Wildcats got a huge boost of momentum from the Penn State win, and the only way to sustain those positive emotions is with another victory. To me the biggest reason this is such a crucial game has nothing to do with the Penn State win, and what it said about Jared Swopshire and Dave Sobolewski and Northwestern’s ability to handle a Big Ten road game. The Wildcats cruised against Penn State, and that’s nothing to overlook. But if there’s anything we’ve learned about this year’s Big Ten, it’s that you can’t squander prime opportunities on your home floor, and a game against a projected mid-table finisher like Iowa is exactly the type of fitxture Northwestern needs to pull off to remain afloat in the nation’s toughest league.
When you survey the Big Ten landscape, in my mind there are four competitive tiers separating the elite (Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota), the challengers (Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State), the middlers (Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue) and the rest (Northwestern, Penn State, Iowa). These are not definitive demarcations, and they’ll only become more or less credible as the season progresses and we learn more and more about each team. For now, this is my way of layering the nation’s toughest league. It is, like it or not, the lay of the land in my universe of B1G hoops perceptions.
The reason I excluded Northwestern from the middle pack group is because I haven’t seen anything to make me believe it warrants a promotion at this stage of the season. As detailed above, beating Penn State was a nice accomplishment. Swopshire arose from his scoring slumber. Sobolewski rediscovered the aggressive side of his offensive repertoire. And defensively, the Wildcats allowed just 0.90 points per trip, which is a huge improvement given the 1.21 mark they granted Minnesota four days earlier.
The truth remains that Penn State is probably the worst team in the league. Maybe it’s Nebraska. For the purposes of this argument, it need not matter. The point is, until Northwestern beats someone of real standing in league play, it is more likely to be lumped in with the PSU-Nebraska morass than the slightly-redeemable middle tier. I’m not claiming the Wildcats need to go out and sweep Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota. Those are really tough teams to beat; no one would pick the Wildcats to win any of those games in good conscience, even with a healthy Drew Crawford and not-suspended JerShonn Cobb.
There are more modest goals afoot. Beating Iowa, an NCAA Tournament hopeful desperate for its first league win, is not too much to ask. The Hawkeyes are, for all intents and purposes, the baseline for Big Ten tournament inclusion. Depending on how the other leagues shake out, and the cushion on this year’s bubble cutline, the league should send seven or eight teams to the Big Dance. The league hierarchy will crystallize over the next few months, and Iowa could very well climb in the standings or fall out of at-large considerations, but based on how Fran McCaffery’s team has looked to date, a seventh/eighth place finish feels just about right.
None of which means Northwestern should view this game as some kind of unspoken bubble positioning grudge match. More than anything, it is a veritable measuring stick of the Wildcats’ place in the conference pecking order. If they lose this game – and more specifically, if they look as woeful as the Michigan and Minnesota games in the process – then the trajectory of Northwestern’s season will have a clear end point. A loss here, at home, following arguably the best performance of the season, means the Wildcats probably aren’t very good – that if we’re waiting for this team to overcome injuries and suspension and turn a salvage a ho-hum nonconference season and embarrassing start to Big Ten play, maybe we’re better off waiting until next season. If the Wildcats belong somewhere above the Big Ten cellar, they’ll prove it in this game.
Northwestern halted an ugly start to the Big Ten portion of its season by beating Penn State. That game told us little, if anything, about its ability to compete in the Big Ten this season. A home date with Iowa will be an enlightening barometer for the second half of the season.