With seven games remaining in its regular season, Northwestern basketball sits on the fringes of the NIT bubble. After a five-game losing streak that required a matchup with Minnesota (0-10 in the Big Ten) to finally come to an end, the Wildcats are on the outside looking in, and a postseason berth, for a third straight year, looks somewhat unlikely.
But would missing out on the postseason be a major negative for Chris Collins and the Wildcats?
We presented the following question to our staff: How important would an NIT berth be for Northwestern basketball?
Here are the responses:
Josh Rosenblat: Northwestern should be ecstatic with an NIT berth. But it, in all likelihood, won't happen. At worst, it seems Northwestern will have to split its remaining road games: at Ohio State, at Purdue, at Michigan and at Penn State. The Wildcats will also have to take care of business at home against Illinois, Rutgers and Nebraska. The NIT was the ceiling for this team, and with Alex Olah still playing at somewhere around 50-percent health, reaching the NIT would be a tremendous accomplishment for an admittedly undermanned team. But is it important? Not totally. The experience will be great. And, while it's no NCAA Tournament, it would be nice to see Olah and Tre Demps go out with a postseason berth. Overall, though, an NIT berth just isn't that important for this team. No one should lose his job over it. No one should be ridiculed for it. Just look at the talent on this team. Aside from Demps, the team's best healthy players are all underclassmen. And while the potential is there for those players to grow into a special team, the talent just is not there right now.
Henry Bushnell: I think Josh might be underestimating the importance a bit. This is Chris Collins' third year at NU. The first two ended without postseason play. The third was supposed to be the year. "We've got to make the jump," Collins said at the end of last season. "It's time." As Josh mentioned, for multiple reasons out of Collins' control, it hasn't been time. But at one point or another this year, I think Collins and the players all believed it was time too. I don't think the NIT is important from a public perception point of view — in the end, that doesn't matter — but I think it's important for the players to see tangible evidence of progress. Belief can drive a team throughout an offseason. The moment that belief is lost is when a program's growth is inhibited. And "belief without evidence" is a difficult thing to have. The NIT would be the evidence, an emblem of progress, and a hook to hang that belief on. Without it, there will be a lot of questions heading into next season, and what's to say some of that questioning won't extend to the players too?
Zach Pereles: An NIT berth this year would be huge for this program for three main reasons. First, it would mean Northwestern plays well the rest of the season. If Northwestern takes care of business in five of its remaining seven games, they should lock up an NIT bid, and finishing 9-9 in the conference would be a big step for this program, especially considering that it doesn't have one of its best players (Vic Law) and had to recover from a five-game losing streak. Second, the NIT is a tangible sign of progress for the program and something that Chris Collins can use in his recruiting pitch: "Want to make history at Northwestern? We're one step away." Finally, this would be a terrific experience for Collins's team — and a nice send off for his seniors — on the national stage. Northwestern played one of the weakest non-conference schedules possible. Getting this tournament experience and playing some more quality opponents would undoubtedly help this team moving forward toward the goal of an NCAA Tournament.
Kevin Dukovic: Every NIT berth is important when you've only qualified seven times in program history. Obviously an NIT appearance pales in comparison to a trip to the Big Dance, but it's a step in the right direction. The extra practice and game reps and national exposure can only help NU in player development and recruiting. But more than anything, the implications of an NIT bid — NU will have to play well the rest of the way to have a chance — would create some much-needed momentum heading into a crucial 2016-2017 campaign.
Ian McCafferty: The NIT is not the NCAA tournament, and no one is going to try and convince you that it is, but securing a NIT berth would be incredibly important for Northwestern — for this year, and for the future. This year, it helps salvage a season that many people thought would be 'the one' when Northwestern sat at 13-1 at the end of 2015. Northwestern has had great fan engagement for most of this season, and making the NIT would keep the interest going just a little bit longer. Also important is the fact that the Wildcats have to win some more games to even be considered for the NIT, so that in itself would be big. For the future, it shows the progress of the program and gets the younger guys some more reps before the season ends. It would be at least somewhat of a recruiting point as well. However, most importantly it just provides hope for the fan base. The NIT is not the NCAA tournament, but it's much closer than any Chris Collins coached Northwestern team has ever been.
Josh Burton: Sure, it would be nice for Northwestern to make the NIT, both from the national stage of the tournament and the additional game experience it would give the Wildcats' underclassmen. But, I think it would somewhat cover up the underlying problems this team has and has displayed in not-so-nice fashion this season. Northwestern started this season incredibly well, but, like last year, stumbled mightily in the middle of Big Ten play — mostly against more athletic opponents — which is troubling. An NIT berth takes attention away from the obvious issues with this team that need to be solved if Northwestern is going to make its first-ever NCAA Tournament sometime soon. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is up for debate, but I don't think it's too important either way.
Sam Brief: I definitely want to avoid coming here and declaring an NIT berth to be some sort of program-saver or great necessity for Northwestern — because it's not. It's the NIT. Very few people watch it, and almost no one cares about it. That being said, and my necessary NIT-bashing aside, a berth would be a nice boost for Northwestern in what has been a disappointing season. Of course, the 13-1 start had fans labeling this as 'the year' that Northwestern would finally make the NCAA Tournament, so it seems a bit sad to sit here hoping for an NIT berth. But postseason experience against high-quality competition for younger players like Bryant McIntosh, Aaron Falzon and Dererk Pardon would mean a huge boost for the young core. There's no doubt this team has some major issues to clean up, but if it can salvage an NIT appearance out of an otherwise frustrating experience, it would signify a definite upward trajectory for Chris Collins' program.
Tristan Jung: The NIT is not very relevant. Unless Northwestern goes on a run and wins, no one will really remember an NIT berth in five years. However, the NIT is important simply because it shows that the Chris Collins era is making some progress. While the team itself has been volatile and struggled at times, the end result of an NIT bid can paper over some of the difficulties. Plus, it would be fun to see the team play some semi-meaningful basketball. Basically, I think the NIT would be mostly symbolic for this program, but sometimes symbolic victories are necessary, especially when they are few and far between.
Martin Oppegaard: Aside from giving Northwestern's young team more experience, as almost everyone has already noted, I think the NIT would be a huge opportunity for the program. Ideally, the first couple of games would be played at Welsh-Ryan, and I'm fairly confident students and fans would show up for a postseason home game. I was in attendance for the past two NIT games at Welsh-Ryan when the Wildcats hosted UW Milwaukee in 2011 and Akron in 2012, and the atmosphere at both games was surprisingly impressive. The NIT would benefit players and fans alike. Additionally, if Northwestern made a run in the NIT, playing at Madison Square Garden on ESPN is pretty solid publicity and is legitimately one step away from the NCAA Tournament. It seems like a consolation prize, but at this point in the season, it's a prize I'm willing to take.