After an upset win at Wisconsin on Thursday, Northwestern's hopes to play in the postseason are alive and well. Three weeks ago, this didn't even look like a possibility, but the win at the Kohl Center puts the Wildcats at 4-5 in the conference and in position to make a run toward some sort of postseason tournament. We break down the possibilities here.
The Chicago Tribune might be buying Northwestern to make a run at history, but realistically, the NCAA Tournament is out of the question. If the Wildcats win out, they'll finish 20-11, which would probably put them on the right side of the bubble. However, that's probably not going to happen. The "easiest" avenue to March Madness would be winning the Big Ten Tournament. So with that in mind, the NCAA Tournament dreams will have to linger for one more year.
Oh boy, here we go.
First off, let's look at the requirements: Technically, teams do not need to have a .500 record to compete in the NIT. However, no team below .500 has ever competed in the tournament, so it's unlikely that will change this year. With that in mind, it looks like the Wildcats will have to finish the season 5-4 (or 4-5 with a 2-1 record in the Big Ten Tournament) to be considered for the NIT.
If the Wildcats do go 5-4 the rest of the way and finish above .500, you have to like their chances to be selected. The NIT selection committee places more weight on the end of the year than the NCAA Tournament selection committee does, and the NIT wants fan bases that are excited to be there to help with exposure and ticket sales (see: 2012 Iowa). Selection committees can be nutty, so there are no guarantees, but precedent says NU would be a solid candidate.
Now, about the likelihood of NU getting to .500. Last night, prompted by some Twitter users who we thought were overestimating the chance of NU making the NIT, we used KenPom win probabilities to look at the probability of it happening. Not surprisingly, the numbers don't give the Wildcats a great chance. It's true that the probability is probably greater than KenPom projects because NU has been much more successful with its new style of play, but the chances still aren't good. That had people up in arms.
The most common response from our followers was that since NU beat Wisconsin — a very improbable feat — it has a great chance to complete yet another improbable feat and make the NIT. However, to say that is to misunderstand probability. Once improbable thing happening does not affect the chance of another, unrelated improbable thing happening. That's basic probability.
If NU plays like it did at Wisconsin in every game the rest of the season, it will undoubtedly win five more games. However, this game was a statistical anomaly. It was the Wildcats' best offensive performance on a points per possession basis since beating Mississippi Valley State on December 16, and they shot well above their average from beyond the arc. There is no statistical basis to suggest that this game will start a new trend.
Right now, KenPom projects NU to go 7-11, which is incredible considering where this team was a month ago. Basically that means that if NU plays the average of how it has played this year, it will win three more games. If you only include games in the current 4-2 stretch, maybe you can add one more win. Still, NU is going to have to play better than it did in this stretch on a consistent basis — that means better than in the recent 26-point loss at home to Iowa and even in the home win against Purdue.
There are certainly some winnable games coming up — NU should be favored at home against Penn State and Nebraska, and close to it against Indiana — but to win five more games, the Wildcats are going to have to come away with two upsets (at Nebraska? at Purdue? vs. Minnesota? at Ohio State?)
Is that possible? Absolutely. Is it likely? No. Of course the improbable can happen — heck it did last night. But that game isn't evidence that it has a better chance of happening again.
If you had to pick a postseason landing spot for Northwestern, this looks like the best bet. The CBI — College Basketball Invitational — is an on-campus event that started in 2008 and has selected sub-.500 teams in the past. It's a 16-team field with a best-of-three (!!!) championship. Before last season, no Big Ten team had played in the tournament, but Purdue set a precedent for it when choosing to except an invitation. Other notable past participants include Butler, Pittsburgh, Virginia, VCU, Oregon, Creighton and Texas. That's not a bad list of names.
Would NU accept an invite? It's tough to say for sure, but it would certainly be very tempting for a school that is trying to build momentum for its program. A postseason appearance, no matter how insignificant the tournament, could be good for the school's image in Collins' first season, and it would be an even better deal if the Wildcats get to host a couple home games.
It's not the pinnacle of college basketball — not even close — but a long CBI run could be a big boost for NU's program, and it isn't even that far-fetched.
The CIT — CollegeInsider.com Tournament — is the bottom-rung college basketball postseason tournament, and it's a less-likely landing spot for NU than either the CBI or the NIT. The mission of the CIT is to invite teams that are not in the power six conferences, so even though NU will likely be better than most of the CIT teams, it's unlikely the Wildcats will be invited.