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NIT Bracketology projections: Northwestern is last team in per DRatings.com

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Is a Wisconsin and Michigan win enough to overcome a horrific non-conference schedule and a shrinking bubble?

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

NIT bracketology is, at best, a fuzzy science. There are no Jerry Palms or Joe Lunardis, big name guys with big name sports journalism entities to back up their claims. So take whatever you see here with a pretty large grain of salt.

That being said, there are two sites of good repute that are as close to good NIT Bracketology as we can get. NYCBuckets.com and DRatings.com use different criteria, the former being more full picture-based and the latter being more statistical in nature. These are credible sources of proven record.

NYC Buckets has Northwestern out.

DRatings.com has Northwestern as the very last team in as a 7-seed, which, as we'll see below, is far from safe. More NIT automatic bids are sure to be given out.

With that explanation out of the way, we can start digging in.

How big is the bubble?

Teams can automatically qualify for the NIT by winning their regular season conference title. In the Patriot Leagues and SWACs of the world, where the top seeds don't have NCAA résumés, losses in conference tournaments turn into NIT spots. Last year, 12 teams were NIT automatic qualifiers. We've had four conference tournaments wrap up and we're five for five placing an automatic qualifier into the NIT. Expect that there will be about 12 bid stealers this year too.

That means that, at this point, any at large team seeded as a 6 or a 7 in a bracketology update now could very easily see their spot taken by an automatic qualifier. The "Last Four In" in an NIT projection right now are 5- and 6-seeds. That means a team like Northwestern, who's either the last team in or the first team out, has about 7ish teams to jump to get into the tournament. Keep that in mind as we get deeper into this.

Northwestern's Résumé

Northwestern's résumé is very much the "no bad losses" résumé. A sparkling 17-1 vs RPI sub-100 teams and a flawless 13-0 versus the bottom 150 is the strongest part of their résumé. Here's a more-or-less full picture:

RPI: 108
Non-con SOS: 337
vs D1: 19-11
vs RPI top 25: 0-7
vs RPI top 50: 1-7
vs RPI top 100: 2-10
vs RPI top 150: 6-11
vs RPI sub 150: 13-0
Best non-home win: @ Virginia Tech (86)
Worst loss: Penn State (118)

There are pretty glaring gaps in this résumé. First and foremost is the nonconference strength of schedule. Only one other team that we'll be looking at comes anywhere close to having that easy of a non-con slate. If we believe that the NIT makes its selections the same way the NCAA does, like they say they do, that 337 is a huge strike against the Wildcats.

Only two top-100 wins in 10 tries isn't phenomenal either. Virginia Tech climbing up the RPI after a nice 10-8 conference season helps Northwestern a lot. But on the whole, there isn't a lot of substance here, even less when one looks at how different Wisconsin was when NU played the Badgers compared to what they are now.

Also, the team with the lowest RPI that made the NIT last year was Vanderbilt with a ranking of 104, so NU's metrics don't look exceedingly good.

The TL;DR version of the rest of this article is that there are around 12 teams that Northwestern is within shouting distance of, of whom they'd probably have to jump around between 6 and 8. The question becomes whether or not a win over Michigan — a team that won't be in the NCAA field if it loses to Northwestern, and whose RPI sits around 70 — would be enough to boost Northwestern over that group.

I'm not so sure it would.

Who's in front of Northwestern?

Combining DRatings.com and NYC Buckets, here is the full list of teams that are fighting with Northwestern for the final NIT spots.

ABOVE NORTHWESTERN IN BOTH DRATINGS.COM AND NYC BUCKETS

Ohio State
Georgia
Washington
Alabama
UNC-Wilmington
Stanford
Ole Miss
UC Irvine
Evansville
Marquette
Clemson
Davidson
Boise State

AHEAD OF NORTHWESTERN IN NYC BUCKETS, BEHIND IN DRATINGS.COM

Fresno State
Long Beach State

Four of these teams appear to be head-and shoulders above the rest. Georgia and Washington are projected 5-seeds by DRatings.com, but 3-seeds by NYC Buckets. Alabama is projected as the a 3-seed on NYC Buckets and a 6-seed on DRatings.com. Ohio State is a 2 on NYC Buckets and a 5 on DRatings.com. Their resumes put them as near stone cold locks into the tournament.

You can break down the remaining 12 teams into some groups to make things easier:

RPI DARLINGS

UNC Wilmington (NYC Buckets 5-seed, DRatings.com 3-seed)

RPI: 60
Non-con SOS: 309
vs D1: 21-7
vs RPI top 25: 0-0
vs RPI top 50: 0-0
vs RPI top 100: 3-2
vs RPI top 150: 10-5
vs RPI sub 150: 11-2
Best non-home win: @ Hofstra (58)
Worst loss: @ East Carolina (192)

Fresno State (NYC Buckets 7, DRatings.com not seeded)

RPI: 81
Non-con SOS: 200
vs D1: 20-9
vs RPI top 25: 0-1
vs RPI top 50: 1-3
vs RPI top 100: 1-5
vs RPI top 150: 7-7
vs RPI sub 150: 13-2
Best non-home win: @ New Mexico (131)
Worst loss: @ San Jose State (298)

Ole Miss (NYC Buckets 5, DRatings.com 3)

RPI: 85
Non-con SOS: 305
vs D1: 20-11
vs RPI top 25: 0-2
vs RPI top 50: 1-4
vs RPI top 100: 3-9
vs RPI top 150: 8-10
vs RPI sub 150: 12-1
Best non-home win: @ Tennessee (148)
Worst loss: neutral floor vs George Mason (189)

Evansville (NYC Buckets 6, DRatings.com 6)

RPI: 87
Non-con SOS: 222
vs D1: 24-8
vs RPI top 25: 0-0
vs RPI top 50: 0-3
vs RPI top 100: 3-5
vs RPI top 150: 6-7
vs RPI sub 150: 18-1
Best non-home win: UC Irvine (68, neutral)
Worst loss: @ Indiana State (172)

None of these teams have impressive, résumé-defining wins. None of them played incredibly testing non-conference schedules. In that regard, these teams are probably the most similar to Northwestern. But all these teams except Fresno State have more top-100 wins than Northwestern.

One Northwestern win against Michigan (RPI 67) on a neutral court would help Northwestern's chances to catch these teams, but it wouldn't be a miracle cure. The win wouldn't be any better from a pure RPI perspective than Evansville's UC Irvine win or Wilmington's win on the road against Hofstra. A win against the Wolverines should see NU catch Fresno State and probably Ole Miss if the Rebels go down to Alabama in their first game in the SEC Tournament. Wilmington and Evansville might not be catchable with just one more win.

TOUGH SCHEDULERS

Davidson (NYC Buckets 7, DRatings.com 7)

RPI: 61
Non-con SOS: 47
vs D1: 17-11
vs RPI top 25: 0-3
vs RPI top 50: 1-7
vs RPI top 100: 2-8
vs RPI top 150: 9-8
vs RPI sub 150: 8-3
Best non-home win: @ Richmond (125)
Worst loss: @ Saint Louis (205)

Boise State (NYC Buckets 7, DRatings.com 7)

RPI: 92
Non-con SOS: 95
vs D1: 18-11
vs RPI top 25: 1-1
vs RPI top 50: 2-4
vs RPI top 100: 4-4
vs RPI top 150: 7-7
vs RPI sub 150: 11-4
Best non-home win: @ San Diego State (45)
Worst loss: @ San Jose State (298)

Long Beach State (NYC Buckets 6, DRatings.com not seeded)

RPI: 88
Non-con SOS: 1
vs D1: 16-13
vs RPI top 25: 0-3
vs RPI top 50: 1-5
vs RPI top 100: 6-8
vs RPI top 150: 7-9
vs RPI sub 150: 9-4
Best non-home win: neutral floor vs Seton Hall (33)
Worst loss: @ UC Riverside (259)

UC Irvine (NYC Buckets 5, DRatings.com 6)

RPI: 68
Non-con SOS: 62
vs D1: 22-8
vs RPI top 25: 0-2
vs RPI top 50: 0-3
vs RPI top 100: 3-8
vs RPI top 150: 4-8
vs RPI sub 150: 18-0
Best non-home win: @ Long Beach State (88)
Worst loss: Santa Barbara (100)

These teams provide the starkest contrasts to Northwestern's resume. Where NU relied on avoiding dropping in RPI by winning games, these teams scheduled games where, even if they lost, the RPI would still be intact. No team exemplifies that better than Long Beach State, who loaded up on tough teams and was able to snag wins against Seton Hall and BYU before Big West play began.

Long Beach State is the most catchable team here. Losses against Cal Poly (232) and UC Riverside (259) are potential resume killers. Davidson could be caught with a win over Michigan as well. A 7-0 record against teams ranked 100-150 is nice, but it's unclear whether a top-50 non-conference strength of schedule can overcome some head-scratching losses. Boise State is probably catchable too, but huge wins over Oregon (4) and on the road at San Diego State really help out the Broncos' resume.

Irvine's RPI are tough to catch. They're probably more than one win ahead of Northwestern.

BIG WINNERS

Stanford (NYC Buckets 5, DRatings.com 6)

RPI: 73
Non-con SOS: 51
vs D1: 14-14
vs RPI top 25: 3-6
vs RPI top 50: 5-12
vs RPI top 100: 7-14
vs RPI top 150: 9-14
vs RPI sub 150: 5-0
Best non-home win: @ Oregon State (29)
Worst loss: @ Arizona State (91)

Marquette (NYC Buckets 6, DRatings.com 5)

RPI: 105
Non-con SOS: 325
vs D1: 19-12
vs RPI top 25: 0-5
vs RPI top 50: 4-8
vs RPI top 100: 7-10
vs RPI top 150: 8-11
vs RPI sub 150: 11-1
Best non-home win: @ Wisconsin (31)
Worst loss: DePaul (185)

Clemson (NYC Buckets 7, DRatings.com 3)

RPI: 113
Non-con SOS: 333
vs D1: 17-13
vs RPI top 25: 3-3
vs RPI top 50: 4-5
vs RPI top 100: 7-10
vs RPI top 150: 8-11
vs RPI sub 150: 9-2
Best non-home win: @ Syracuse (57)
Worst loss: @ Minnesota (252)

Just for kicks, let's add Kansas State, a team in the "also considered" section of NYC Buckets and behind Northwestern on DRatings, because I think the other purple Wildcats' résumé actually stacks up awfully favorably to Northwestern's in every category except overall win-loss record.

Kansas State

RPI: 83
Non-con SOS: 147
vs D1: 16-15
vs RPI top 25: 2-12
vs RPI top 50: 2-14
vs RPI top 100: 4-14
vs RPI top 150: 5-14
vs RPI sub 150: 11-1
Best non-home win: @ Georgia (72)
Worst loss: @ Oklahoma State (161)

These teams look like what Northwestern wanted to be this year. With the exception of Stanford, none of these three tested themselves too much in non-conference play and relied on conference wins to pad the resume.

The difference is that these teams found multiple major wins in conference play.

Unless these teams cough up a real hairball in their conference tournaments, it's hard to see how a win over Michigan pushes Northwestern above any of them, with the possible exception of Kansas State. Marquette has St. John's in its Big East Tournament opener, a virtually un-losable game, so their resume isn't going to get any worse. Stanford is definitely safe, but Clemson might be in trouble if they lose to Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament. If Kansas State drops its first round Big 12 Tournament game to Oklahoma State, Northwestern could jump in front of them.

So what?

Of the 13 teams listed above, I said that a Michigan win would put Northwestern ahead of the following:

Fresno State
Long Beach State
Davidson
Boise State

If the conference tournaments bounce Northwestern's way, you can also add more teams:

Kansas State
Ole Miss
Irvine
Clemson

Assuming no other funny business, that would put Northwestern as somewhere between a 5 and a 6 seed in the NIT. It sounds good. But there are more automatic qualifiers to come.

If we get the same number of AQs as we had last year, seven more spots are going to be taken. To make it easier and a little clearer, let's say those AQ teams take the lowest spots available. That would mean the three remaining 7-seeds and all of the 6-seeds would be filled up by NIT bid stealers. That means Northwestern would be squarely on the bubble.

It's also not impossible that Northwestern could get jumped from behind.

Arkansas has a junk RPI (119), but a strong non-conference SOS (67), 3 RPI top 50 wins, and a toss-up game in the second round of the SEC Tournament against Florida that could give them another boost and then a game against Texas A&M.

Pepperdine has a similarly bad RPI (127) but is 2-0 vs the RPI top 50 and 4-5 vs the RPI top 100.  If they beat Saint Mary's (RPI 36) in the WCC Tournament today, suddenly they become an intriguing team.

It's possible that I'm higher on Evansville and UC Irvine than I should be, and a Michigan win would put Northwestern a couple of slots higher than I have them. It's equally possible Boise State's and Davidson's résumés are slightly stronger than I think.

But it appears to me that currently having only one RPI top-80 win and a terrible non-conference strength of schedule are enough of a strike that even a program-record 21 wins would have Northwestern sweating out conference tournaments rooting for chalk.