As the clock hit zero on a frigid Wednesday night, a far-from-capacity crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena exhaled a sigh of relief. But none was bigger than that of Chris Collins. His team had narrowly escaped an inspired upset bid from the lowly Chicago State Cougars, a team that went 4-28 last season and was rated among the worst of all 351 teams in NCAA Division I basketball.
Collins’ team heads into the State Farm Chicago Legends looking like a newborn deer finding its feet first time: nothing short of shaky after Wednesday night. That doesn’t change the significance of Northwestern’s non-conference slate. Each win is one more step closer to an ever-elusive NCAA Tournament berth. A loss, depending on the team, could spell devastation.
It seems surreal to say but ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Northwestern on his next four out. It’s the Wildcats first appearance on Bracketology since the 2011-2012 season and that heart-breaking loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament. Four seasons have gone by since Northwestern has even sniffed the NCAA Tournament, so the program had to change.
Athletic Director Jim Phillips brought in an assistant coach from Duke who played in three NCAA Tournaments and coached in 13 more, never mind his NBA connections (sorry, Doug, we still appreciate you). Together, they somewhat bolstered the non-conference schedule to help accommodate for RPI and all of the various advanced metrics. That’s why this season means so much for Northwestern (39 RPI).
What has to happen next is a win on Saturday. It couldn’t be any more clear. Dayton (7-2) is a good team with a generous top 30 RPI (28) that will likely hover in that range as the Flyers almost certainly finish near or at the top of Atlantic-10 play en route to a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth. Northwestern has had two opportunities thus far to secure wins over Butler and Notre Dame, both RPI top-50 teams. Without tearing open sealed wounds, Northwestern lost by a combined six points and approximately 30 seconds of game time.
Dayton, just like Northwestern, has lost its two games by six points, and Archie Miller is a heck of a coach. With Aaron Falzon and Dererk Pardon out, Northwestern’s depth will certainly be tested, and the Wildcats must respond better than they did on Wednesday night. A win over Dayton is by no means a postseason bid, nor is a loss a dagger. But on Selection Sunday when the “selection committee” is scrutinizing résumés — and if Northwestern happens to be one of those teams in the mix like Lunardi is predicting — a quality win of this sort would go a long, long way.
Northwestern’s final two non-conference games, against the IUPUI Jaguars and the Houston Baptist Huskies, are high-risk, low-reward games, hopefully serving as tune-ups for Big Ten play. These are two that are must-wins.
Even if Northwestern heads into Big Ten play 11-2, its non-conference opponents still carry significant weight. Collins and company must hope Butler and Notre Dame continue their success and finish as top-50 teams. Wake Forest and its unprecedented RPI of 13 has a chance to pick up a huge win over Xavier on Saturday night. Texas, very similar to this year, started slowly last season before finishing 20-13 and becoming a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Rooting interests span levels beyond the conference.
Interestingly enough, the 2015-2016 Michigan Wolverines followed a eerily similar path to March that Northwestern is attempting, ultimately securing an 11 seed as one of the last four teams in. Michigan ended non-conference play at 10-3, with three respectable losses to Xavier, UConn, and SMU (all top-50 teams), and a lone top-50 win over Texas. The rest of its opponents were underwhelming, and I say that generously. That was the thing working hardest against the Wolverines nine months ago. Northwestern has a chance to have a more impressive non-conference résumé with a win on Saturday, although wins over Texas and Wake Forest might already be an advantage.
However, Michigan masterfully handled a tough Big Ten schedule. Facing Maryland, Purdue, and Indiana twice, the Wolverines were able to split with all three teams. Almost more importantly is that the Wolverines avoided a bad loss. Amazingly, its only loss to a team with an RPI between 51-100 (and worst loss of the season) was to Ohio State on the road. That’s a loss that the “selection committee” can forgive, if you will. Michigan took care of Illinois, Penn State twice, Minnesota twice, Rutgers, Nebraska, and Northwestern twice. The team finished conference play 10-8 and made a run to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament with wins over Northwestern and Indiana, finishing 4-11 against RPI top-50 teams.
So how does Michigan’s path to the NCAA Tournament set the standard for Northwestern? Well, it creates a precedent. Northwestern needs to beat its inferior Big Ten opponents. With a pair of games against each of Rutgers, Illinois, and Nebraska, they will certainly have that opportunity. It also shows that Northwestern needs to have that signature win that was absent last year. They’ll have plenty of chances to do so: home and home with Indiana and Purdue will have major implications, as will a trip to the Kohl Center to take on Wisconsin, and even wins over Maryland (33 RPI) and Minnesota (12 RPI) would greatly bolster the résumé.
The Cubs won the World Series in 2016, and Chris Collins is a local guy. He knows that if 108 years of history can be reversed, 77 years is very much a possibility. Collins has his team in a position where they haven’t been for five years, and that’s exciting. It’s still very early, but it can get a lot more exciting on Saturday.
*I have been knocking on wood this entire article.*