Barring a stunning run in Chicago next month, Northwestern isn't going to make the NCAA Tournament; that ship sailed a while ago. But that doesn't mean the Wildcats aren't playing for seeding right now. The Big Ten Tournament, which will be held at the United Center, is on the horizon. And that's why the Wildcats' win last night in Minneapolis actually has some significance.
A week ago, Northwestern was buried in the Big Ten basement. Chris Collins' team was a game behind Rutgers (in the win column) and two behind Penn State in last place, and was staring the 14-seed in March's Big Ten Tournament right in the face.
But two wins in two games now have NU up out of the cellar and into 12th place. They also have us pondering possibilities for tournament seeding and matchups.
There are a few things to consider when looking ahead to the Tournament. First of all, Northwestern still has an outside shot at avoiding a Wednesday game. With 14 teams now, the Big Ten has gone to a five-day event, with the bottom four teams in the conference playing on the opening day before the other 10 get involved. Here's the full tourney bracket from the Big Ten's official website:
So it would be huge if Northwestern could jump two more teams. The most likely candidates would be Minnesota (over whom the Wildcats now have the tiebreaker) and Nebraska (over whom they don't have the tiebreaker), though that would require getting to six Big Ten wins. Here are the standings after last night (via ESPN.com):
However, another big consideration, especially if we're going to dream of that stunning run, is avoiding Wisconsin's side of the bracket. Wisconsin is the one team Northwestern has next to no shot against. That's why the 10-seed would be the perfect scenario. It would probably give Northwestern a road to Sunday that would, barring upsets, go through Iowa/Illinois, and two of Michigan State/Maryland/Purdue. That's not easy--it's not going to be easy for Northwestern to beat any three Big Ten teams in a row--but it's not impossible either.
If the Wildcats can't drag themselves out of the bottom four though, avoiding the Badgers is still a consideration. They'll be the 1-seed, so leaping ahead of one of either Minnesota or Nebraska is huge, even if it still means NU plays on Wednesday. The 11-seed would be a much better spot than the 12-seed. And with the tiebreaker over Minnesota, and with the Gophers' next three games at Wisconsin, at Michigan State and home against Wisconsin, the 11-seed is within reach for Northwestern.