Before the start of the 2015-16 season, the big question surrounding the Northwestern basketball program was whether or not this year was going to be the year. Chris Collins, who regularly participated in the Big Dance as a player and coach at Duke, had built a promising program in Evanston, and it seemed like this season could be the one for Northwestern to do what no team in school history has ever done.
With a 12-1 record through conference play (the only loss coming against highly ranked North Carolina), the Wildcats appeared well on their way to pushing themselves squarely onto the NCAA Tournament bubble, even with the injuries to Vic Law and Alex Olah. But, after a win over Nebraska to begin conference play, the Wildcats have fallen short in their last two games, home losses to Maryland and Ohio State.
In fact, Northwestern seems to be following a similar path as it did last season through three conference games. In the 2014-15 campaign, the Wildcats were 9-4 through non-conference play, beat Rutgers in their Big Ten opener and then lost back-to-back games against very good teams in Wisconsin and Michigan State. After those setbacks, Northwestern would lose its next eight games to drop to 1-10 in conference and eliminate any positive momentum from the decent start.
The key for this year's team, in order to distinguish it from last year's version and potentially compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, is to stop this two-game losing skid before it picks up steam and sends this season spiraling out of control.
"You've gotta stop the bleeding," Collins said after Wednesday's loss to Ohio State. "I don't want to draw upon [last year] too much because it's a new year, new group, but we had a chance to stop the losing streak five or six times, and... we had a number of close losses. The one thing you can learn from experience is, you gotta hate losing, and put whatever you can into that next game."
Luckily for the Wildcats, that next game is against lowly Minnesota (6-9 overall, 0-3 Big Ten) Saturday afternoon in a game that, for NCAA Tournament purposes, has nearly turned into a must-win.
Richard Pitino's Golden Gophers have lost four games in a row and seven of their last eight overall as they have struggled mightily without their two leading scorers from last season, Andre Hollins and Maurice Walker, who have since graduated.
While Minnesota has had issues on the offensive end of the floor — the Golden Gophers are actually down two points per game from last year even with the new 30-second shot clocks — its defense has been the biggest issue. Minnesota has allowed 73.5 points per game so far this season, which is third-worst in the Big Ten, and is dead last in the conference in adjusted defensive efficiency, giving up an adjusted 1.05 points per possession (Northwestern gives up 0.997).
Minnesota isn't good at shooting (last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage), rebounding (tied for last in rebounding margin) and a host of other key categories, so it's clear the Gophers are an inferior team, at least talent-wise, to Northwestern, even without Law and Olah.
Northwestern simply cannot afford to lose this game. Outside of Rutgers, Minnesota might be the worst team the Wildcats will face this season in the Big Ten, and is a team the Wildcats have to beat if they want to maintain any semblance of hope of appearing in the NCAA Tournament in a few months. A loss, which would be NU's fourth of the season, would put the Wildcats' tourney hopes on life support.
It's hard to count a team out of the tournament picture in early January, but with NU's subpar non-conference schedule, major injuries and uneven start to conference play, Saturday's game is as close to a must-win as an early January game can be. Last season, when Northwestern lost to Illinois 72-67 for its third-straight Big Ten loss — the third of the eventual 10-game skid — it continued the stretch of poor play that ruined the entire season.
Tomorrow's game could either be like that Illinois loss, and derail the promising start, or it could be a streak-breaking win that turns NU's season around. It's that important.