Barring a miraculous run in the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern's NCAA Tournament hopes seem to be all but dashed for yet another year. Sure, a stunning six-game winning streak could put NU in the conversation, but... stop. That's not going to happen. We've long since eclipsed the point where the tourney discussion was still a reasonable one.
The NIT (National Invitational Tournament), though, is still very much in play. The NIT is an afterthought for many — merely a consolation bracket — but it could be huge for Northwestern. The program needs something to hang its hat on coming out of year three of the Chris Collins era.
After a loss at Ohio State Tuesday night — Northwestern's sixth loss in its last seven games — the Wildcats are trending down. John Templon of nycbuckets.com published his NIT bracketology update Wednesday morning, and he has Northwestern on the wrong side of the bubble. Templon has NU listed in his "also considered" section, alongside North Dakota State, Pepperdine, Duquesne, Mississippi, Tennessee Tech, New Mexico, UT Arlington and Siena. That's not exactly the company Collins wants his team to be in.
The important note about Templon's projections, though, is that they don't factor in automatic bids. The NIT gives auto bids to regular season conference champions that don't win their conference tournaments, and don't receive at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.
So while Northwestern currently resides out of Templon's projected field, but seemingly close to it, NU is further away than he makes it appear. Last season, somewhere between eight and 10 mid-majors that wouldn't have earned at-large NIT bids made the NIT as automatic qualifiers. Essentially, the actual "last eight out" are the 7- and 8-seeds in Templon's recent bracket.
Now let's look at Northwestern's résumé, followed by the résumés of a few of the teams on the right side of Templon's projected bubble.
Here's a snapshot of Northwestern's résumé, courtesy of ESPN:
For a 16-9 major conference team, Northwestern's résumé is about as ugly as it gets. Critically, it boasts just one victory over a top-100 team, and that victory came at home. The strength of Northwestern's résumé is the loss column. The five losses to top-20 RPI teams, plus the defeat at Indiana, aren't harmful. What is harmful is the void in the wins column at the top of the above chart.
Now here are the four résumés of Templon's projected 6-seeds, all courtesy of ESPN:
Of the four, Marquette's résumé seems the strongest, and it is unequivocally stronger than Northwestern's. The Golden Eagles have a massive win at Providence, a road win at Wisconsin (which is more impressive than NU's home win), and then have three other Northwestern-over-Wisconsin-esque wins.
Houston, similarly, has the wins that stand out. It's not just the upset of SMU. It's the supplementary wins over LSU, Temple and Tulsa. Northwestern, as things currently stand, can't touch those.
The résumés of Davidson and Evansville are built differently. Davidson's is built on a strong RPI that is a product of "good losses" — or, in other words, beating the teams you should beat and playing a tough schedule. Despite playing in the Atlantic 10, Davidson has played a far more difficult slate than Northwestern has, and that's why, even though it hasn't come close to beating a top-50 team, its résumé is stronger — or at least Templon believes it is. For what it's worth, dratings.com has Davidson as an 8-seed rather than a 6-seed.
Evansville's inclusion in the projected field is also due to its avoidance of bad losses. Even though it hasn't played a difficult schedule, its 18-6 record and its two semi-decent wins are enough to put it in the NIT field.
Northwestern's route to the NIT follows a combination of these paths. Its argument is quantity over quality, but it still needs at least some semblance of quality. It needs at least one, and maybe two quality wins, all while avoiding another Penn State-esque loss. The Wildcats will likely get three opportunities, give or take one: at Purdue (Feb. 16), at Michigan (Feb. 24), and then whatever appears in front of them in Indianapolis at the Big Ten Tournament.
Whereas an NCAA Tournament résumé wouldn't be aided by going four for four against Illinois, Penn State, Rutgers and Nebraska, an NIT résumé would be. Getting to 20 wins and to 8-10 in the Big Ten would be significant. A 20-win résumé will have NU in the NIT conversation. But a big-time win is what the Wildcats need to drag themselves into meaningful postseason play.