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What must Northwestern do in Big Ten play to realize its NCAA Tournament Dreams?

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The Wildcats have positioned themselves well with their non-conference play, but their postseason fate rests on how they perform in the league.

NCAA Basketball: ACC/Big Ten Challenge-Wake Forest vs Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday night, Northwestern men’s basketball predictably closed out its non-conference slate for 2016 with a win over Houston Baptist at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Despite their performance in the win being far from perfect, the result means that the Wildcats will enter Big Ten play with a noteworthy 11-2 record and an eight-game win streak to boot.

Those simple figures may not seem noteworthy in and of themselves. After all, at this same juncture just last season, the Wildcats found themselves with both a win total and a win streak that was one better. However, when looking at the total package of this team’s non-conference exploits, the Wildcats have positioned themselves better than any Northwestern team in recent memory to make history and break the program’s NCAA Tournament duct.

Coach Chris Collins and his troops have managed in the first two months of the season to build a sturdy and expansive foundation for their post-season resumé. They avoided any bad losses, picked up quality wins over Texas (Ranked No. 23/22 nationally at the time) and Dayton (a Tournament participant three straight years) at neutral venues, notched impressive home victories against power conference opponents Wake Forest (ACC) and DePaul (Big East), and only succumbed to their two losses by a combined six points on the road against two Top-25 opponents in Notre Dame and Butler. In fact, the building of this foundation has been impressive enough to earn national recognition, with the Wildcats featuring in multiple early Bracketology projections as well as receiving votes in the latest AP Top 25 Poll.

However, while this foundation is — and its building blocks are — no doubt worth the admiration, Northwestern’s postseason prospects are entirely dependent upon how it can build upon it during the next three months in Big Ten play. In a conference this year with so much quality and depth, every single game will have the potential to help make or break the Wildcats bid for history. Below are the criteria that must be met by this team in conference play to see them through into March for the very first time:

The recent standard for Big Ten bubble teams:

Since the NCAA Tournament added the First Four and thus expanded to 68 teams in 2011, the Big Ten has displayed enough quality and depth over those years to consistently establish itself as a seven-bid conference. In two of the six years since expansion, the recipient of the league’s sixth and final at-large bid has found itself playing in the tournament’s official first round in Dayton. Because the four at-large participants in those play-in games are in theory the last four teams to make the cut, it seems appropriate to use the résumés of the two Big Ten teams that the selection committee has placed there — the 2014 Iowa Hawkeyes and the 2016 Michigan Wolverines — as the minimum standards of achievement for this year’s history-chasing Northwestern team.

The season of Fran McCaffery’s squad three years ago was so topsy-turvy that it is perhaps to difficult to draw many meaningful takeaways from it as it pertains to Northwestern’s 2017 tournament prospects. While the Hawkeyes’ 11-2 non-conference exploits were similar to what the Wildcats produced this campaign, their Jekyll-and-Hyde Big Ten performance (9-9) saw them amass five bad losses against teams that did not make the post-season (including this), yet save themselves with a slew of quality wins and close losses against upper-echelon teams.

The résumé of the 2015-16 Wolverines squad is perhaps one that can provide more clues. John Beilein’s team achieved their controversial inclusion in the Big Dance last year despite heading into Big Ten play with a foundation of non-conference accomplishments slightly inferior to what Northwestern has put together this year. They finished the season’s first phase with 3 losses — all blowouts against tough opposition in Xavier, SMU, and UCONN — and only managed to pick up wins of any clout in close games against Texas and NC State (both unranked all year).

Starting their conference schedule with worse losses, worse wins, and a worse overall record than the Wildcats did this year, the Wolverines’ formula for post-season qualification was still more or less straightforward. They kept their tournament chances afloat by avoiding any bad losses (their only two defeats against unranked opponents came on the road in Columbus and Madison), nabbed two wins in nine opportunities against the Big Ten’s top-tier teams (at home against Maryland and Purdue), and put the cherry on top of their March résumé with an upset of No. 1 seed Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals after sneaking by Northwestern.

What this means for Northwestern:

The Michigan method of avoiding bad losses and stealing a few quality wins to headline a résumé will be much harder to follow for Northwestern on account of the way the conference landscape appears to have shifted from last year to now. Last year in this league, there was a large peloton of contenders at the the top, a sizable trash heap at the bottom, and a very small group of teams fighting it out in the middle of the pack for the last tournament bid. With both Northwestern and Michigan being in that pack, that meant that most of the conference schedule was either routine wins or protracted defeats, and very few games were toss-ups. From the perspective of a tournament chasing team, this layout was ideal. There was very little threat of losing to teams below you, and ample opportunities to grab noteworthy wins against the teams above you. Take advantage of a few of those opportunities and beat the couple of teams around you, and voila, you’re in the tournament. Michigan did those two things and Northwestern did not. The results speak for themselves.

This year, numerous programs from both the bottom and the top appear to have converged on the middle of the conference landscape. Only three distinct top-tier teams remain from the six last season in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Purdue, and the likes of Minnesota, Illinois, and Penn State all have the potential to rise from the depths to make some noise as well.

With so many more competitive games and far fewer walkovers and upsets, the key for Northwestern this year will be the toss-ups rather than the potential giant killings. With 18 conference games in total, and likely only five or six opportunities for truly flagship wins depending on how the season shakes out, head-to-head scenarios against other tournament chasers will be what makes or breaks the Wildcats’ résumé. Directly proving to the selection committee that they are better than the glut of other Big Ten teams vying for at-large bids 4-7 will be what the most important task for Collins and his team throughout conference play.

Path to the tournament:

The Wildcats conference schedule can be broken up into five tiers of games from what we’ve seen this year:

Tier 1: vs. Indiana (1/29), @ Purdue (2/1), @ Wisconsin (2/12), @ Indiana (2/25), vs. Purdue (3/5)

These are the games that Northwestern should and will likely lose, yet would be momentous wins to put at the top of their tournament résumé should the team pull off upsets.

Tier 2: @ Michigan State (12/30), @ Ohio State (1/22)

The games that the Wildcats would be underdogs in, but also provide them with a very good shot at picking up résumé building wins.

Tier 3: vs. Iowa (1/15), @ Illinois (2/21), vs. Michigan (3/1), vs. Maryland (2/15)

The games that will be competitive and crucial for the Wildcats to win to keep their postseason hopes afloat.

Tier 4: @ Penn State (12/27), vs. Minnesota (1/5), @ Nebraska (1/8), vs. Nebraska (1/26), vs. Illinois (2/7)

The games in which Northwestern will be favored, but that carry very real upset potential.

Tier 5: @ Rutgers (1/12), vs. Rutgers (2/18)

Wins.

The most cut and dry scenario for this team making the tournament is for them to sweep tiers 3-5. If they drop all games in tiers 1 and 2, that will give them an 11-7 conference record and a 22-9 mark on the season, as well as a favorable first round opponent in the Big Ten Tournament. Even with the likes of Iowa and Michigan at home ranking as their highest quality wins on the season, 23 wins on a power conference résumé would have the Wildcats sitting pretty for March. However, slip ups in the middle and bottom tiers will make it necessary for this team to make noise in the top tiers.

Tier 3 is easily the most important, seeing as wins in those games would not only help the Wildcats résumé but in equal measure hurt their opponents on the bubble. Drop a Tier 3 game and Northwestern would need to win one of its two challenging tier 2 road games, or pick up two wins in the conference tournament to squeak into the field of 68. Drop two tier 3 games and the Wildcats would need to have at least two games from Tiers 1 and 2. Lose more than half of their Tier 3 games, and they would need to pull off multiple top tier upsets and/or a deep tournament run.

The NCAA selection committee has shown in recent years that impressive wins are more helpful than disappointing losses are detrimental to a team’s tournament prospects, meaning that exchanging a loss in Tier 4 for a win in Tier 2 or 1 would actually be beneficial for the Wildcats résumé as a whole. However, many of the Tier 4 games are far more losable than the top tier games—especially those in Tier 1—are winnable, meaning that more than one loss in Tier 4 would likely be hard to rebound from.

Overall, Northwestern’s road to the tournament will more likely be navigated with quantity rather than quality. There are enough competitive games in Big Ten play that are there for the taking that this team should not have to panic about pulling off enough headline wins to ensure that they are dancing in March. That 23-win plateau (conference tournament victory included) should be the goal for Collins and his team, and no matter who those wins come against, that figure will likely be enough to get the Wildcats into the ever-elusive dance.