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Big Ten Tournament 2016: How Northwestern will win four games in four days

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David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Digging deeper and deeper into this Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament, there seems to be only one plausible outcome: a Northwestern Wildcats run through the bracket and into the Big Dance.

Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but I've laid out below how it could happen using, for the most part, actual basketball analysis. Let's start with Northwestern's first game against 8th-seeded Michigan:

SECOND ROUND — NO. 9 NORTHWESTERN VS. NO. 8 MICHIGAN
The Numbers
Record Big Ten Record KenPom Rank Head-To-Head
Northwestern 20-11 8-10 76 Michigan 72, Northwestern 63
Feb. 24
Ann Arbor
Michigan 20-11 10-8 54

The biggest reason why earning the ninth seed was important for Northwestern: this game. The Wildcats match up better with Michigan than they do with No. 7 Ohio State, and few teams are playing better than No. 6 Wisconsin has over the past month. The Wolverines are really the only team, other than Wisconsin, in the conference's top eight that will not overwhelm Northwestern athletically. Michigan wins with its offensive scheme and three-point shooting, both of which are things Northwestern can gameplan to try to take away.

Northwestern, frankly, outplayed Michigan for 30 minutes in the teams' only matchup of the season. In the second half, though, Northwestern was unable to control Derrick Walton, who got into the lane at will. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman shot 8 of 12 from the field for 19 points as well. The backbreaker was Aubrey Dawkins coming off the bench to hit all three of his second-half triples, which turned the game in Michigan's favor.

Northwestern has a few things going for it though. In the teams' first meeting, the Wildcats got almost nothing from Bryant McIntosh in terms of scoring. In 36 minutes, he took 7 shots and scored just 4 points. Even a mediocre offensive game from the sophomore could have put Northwestern over the top.

Michigan also struggles to defend the rim, which Alex Olah took advantage of with his 19 points. He took six threes, though, which cannot happen again. As a team, Northwestern attempted 26 threes to 28 twos and shot 31 percent from deep and 61 percent from inside the arc. If the Wildcats can make a conscious effort to attack rather than settle, they could really hurt Michigan where its weakest: in the paint. Michigan has allowed opponents to shoot 64 percent at the rim this season, according to data from ShotAnalytics.com.

For Northwestern to win, it'll have to play much more like it did against Nebraska, another team that is weakest inside. The Wildcats shot 39 twos to just 14 threes in the season finale. If that happens, I'll say Northwestern wins it 69-61.

THIRD ROUND — NO. 9 NORTHWESTERN VS. NO. 1 INDIANA
The Numbers
Record Big Ten Record KenPom Rank Head-To-Head
Northwestern 20-11 8-10 76 Indiana 89, Northwestern 57
Jan. 23
Bloomington
Indiana 25-6 15-3 9

Looking at Indiana's three losses in Big Ten play, Northwestern really has three options. Two of those options are somewhat realistic. Emulating Michigan State probably isn't.

Northwestern could follow the strategy Penn State employed in its 68-63 win over the Hoosiers on Feb. 6, which was basically to force Indiana to launch 57 percent of its shots from three and hope they don't fall. In that game, Tom Crean's bunch made just eight two-point field goals all game and went 9 of 27 from deep. Ultimately, Northwestern may have to resort to Pat Chambers' strategy, but a more sound plan would seem to be the one Wisconsin used in its 82-78 overtime win.

Indiana is one of the best shooting teams in the country. And off the catch-and-shoot, they are pretty much lethal. What Wisconsin did was limit Indiana's assisted field goals. The Badgers held the Hoosiers to just six assists on 28 field goals. That forced Ferrell to become a one-on-one driver, and although he ended up with a remarkably efficient 30 points on 20 shots, he only recorded one assist. Aside from Ferrell, who has the rare ability to hit triples consistently off the dribble, Indiana's other shooters were a combined 2 of 10 from behind the arc. Against Northwestern, Ferrell finished with six assists, but, as a team, the Hoosiers assisted on over 70 percent of their field goals. Every single one of Indiana's 13 made three-pointers against Northwestern was assisted on. Only two of seven makes were assisted on against Wisconsin.

It feels weird to think about, but Northwestern's best shot might be to stay home on shooters and force Ferrell to attack off the dribble. He's going to get into the lane against Northwestern's guards either way, so Collins might have to pick his poison. The only way the Wildcats gets by on this one is if they work Wisconsin's strategy perfectly and hope Ferrell has an off day.

Offensively, the Wildcats would need about 40 combined points from Demps and McIntosh, and another three players (probably Olah, Aaron Falzon and Scottie Lindsey) to combine for almost 40 as well. There's a chance, though, and Northwestern could pull a shocker, 74-70.

SEMIFINALS — NO. 9 NORTHWESTERN VS. NO. 4 PURDUE/NO. 5 IOWA
The Numbers
Record Big Ten Record KenPom Rank Head-To-Head
Northwestern 20-11 8-10 76 //////////////////////////////////////////////
Purdue 24-7 12-6 16 Purdue 71, Northwestern 61
Feb. 16
West Lafayette
Iowa 21-9 12-6 17 Iowa 85, Northwestern 71
Jan. 31
Iowa City

Northwestern's magical run could take two very different paths following the team's miraculous upset of top-seeded Indiana in the quarterfinals. The most desirable path is through Purdue. The Wildcats played pretty well in a 10-point loss in West Lafayette a few weeks back — well enough to inspire a decent smattering of logical confidence.

The Wildcats shot just 6 of 27 from three against Purdue, and with a hot shooting day, they could definitely pose issues for the Boilermakers, who often play with two bigs in Caleb Swanigan and either AJ Hammons or Isaac Haas. But Northwestern will also have to attempt to go down to Olah or drive at Hammons early in the game, potentially getting him into some foul trouble. Limited minutes from Hammons combined with 10 made threes will give the Wildcats a 73-67 win and a trip to the finals.

Iowa, though, poses a different and arguably more daunting set of challenges. Northwestern has no one who can adequately match up with either of the Hawkeyes' two stars, Jarod Uthoff and Peter Jok. In the two teams' only meeting, Uthoff and Jok combined for 49 points.

The biggest sign of encouragement for Northwestern, though, is that in the Wildcats' 14-point loss in Iowa City, McIntosh, Olah and Falzon combined for 4 total points. That won't happen again, and Northwestern will be able to capitalize on a slow start from Uthoff (something he is prone to) and hang on for a 65-62 victory. (By the way, Iowa lost five of seven games to finish the regular season.)

FINALS — NO. 9 NORTHWESTERN VS. NO. 6 WISCONSIN/NO. 3 MARYLAND/NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE
The Numbers
Record Big Ten Record KenPom Rank Head-To-Head
Northwestern 20-11 8-10 76 //////////////////////////////////////////////
Wisconsin 20-11 12-6 26 Northwestern 70, Wisconsin 65
Jan. 12
Evanston
Maryland 24-7 12-6 24

Maryland 72, Northwestern 59
Jan. 2
Evanston
Maryland 62, Northwestern 56 OT
Jan. 19
College Park

Michigan State 26-5 13-5 3 Michigan State 76, Northwestern 45
Jan. 28
Evanston

Who said three wins in three days is so hard? Just like that, we've found ourselves watching Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game with an automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament on the line and its membership in the Never Made The Tourney Club in danger of being revoked.

A quick aside: At this point, Northwestern may be in the discussion for an at-large bid with a 23-11 record, a road win at Virginia Tech, a home win against Wisconsin and neutral site victories over Michigan, Indiana and Iowa/Purdue. But Northwestern would likely still have to win the Big Ten Tournament. We won't get into it too deep here because, frankly, it won't matter. Northwestern WILL win the Big Ten Tournament no matter who the team plays in the finals. The at-large bid is the Wildcats' to lose.

So, who might America's sweethearts find themselves battling in the final? Will it be feel-good story Wisconsin who stuck by a longtime assistant en route to one of the best midseason turnarounds in recent memory? Or might it be Maryland, a team with more talent than almost any opponent it plays? Perhaps it will be Michigan State, the ultimate Goliath to Northwestern's David.

Let's start with the 6-seed, Wisconsin. The Badgers would be the ideal matchup for the Wildcats in the final. Northwestern defeated Wisconsin in Evanston earlier in the year, albeit when the Badgers were at their worst.

Defensively, Northwestern didn't do a ton to try and bother Nigel Hayes. Instead, its zone was really effective in forcing point guard Bronson Koenig to settle for threes. He shot 8 of them on the night and made 3. He only attempted one shot inside the arc. Koenig is best when he is able to probe the lane. He's crafty in tight spaces, so Northwestern could employ its zone once again to keep Wisconsin out of the paint.

Offensively, the Wildcats can't count on McIntosh having the most impressive performance of his career, so Demps, who struggled mightily in the teams' regular season meeting will need to step up. Northwestern will take this one 69-63.

More likely, though, Northwestern will face either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed. Maryland provides an interesting matchup for the Wildcats. Twice in the past two seasons, Northwestern has played well enough to beat the Terps in College Park, but both times the team came up short.

The Wildcats actually didn't play all that bad in their 13-point home loss to Maryland. They shot a killer 2-of-20 from three in that game. Where Northwestern has been able to hurt Maryland this season is on the offensive glass. The Wildcats collected 29 combined offensive rebounds in the two contests to the Terrapins' 10. If Northwestern can continue to crash the offensive boards and improve on the 7-of-42 (16 percent) effort from three in the two games combined, it'll have a real shot. The Wildcats will win a close one: 66-64.

I really tried to dig deep here to find a logical way for Northwestern to beat Michigan State. I really did. But, when a team's shot chart looks like this...

msu shot chart

... it's easy to see why the Spartans are arguably the top team in the nation right now. In a basketball sense, Northwestern could hang close if it does three things: make 13-15 threes, keep the game below 63 possessions and hope Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes are off — way off.

It's clear. Michigan State poses the greatest test of any team to destiny. But the inevitable is bound to happen and even Tom Izzo can't stop the speeding train that is Northwestern. There's really no point in breaking this one down because Northwestern will win and it will be the greatest moment in conference tournament history. I think it'd be nice if McIntosh, the hometown kid from Indiana and the ultimate underdog (not really), sinks a game-winning triple as time expires in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Yep. That's how it's going to happen. Northwestern 77. Michigan State 75.

WELCOME TO THE DANCE!