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Wildcat Shootaround: Will Northwestern make the tournament?

The question you’ve all been waiting for...

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern is in the midst of a week-long break between a win over Iowa and a matchup against Ohio State in Columbus. At 4-2 in the Big Ten and 15-4 overall, the Wildcats are a third of the way through the Big Ten conference slate, and while there’s a long way to go, the impressive start has the bracketologists impressed. A tough slate awaits, though, so will the Wildcats be able to keep performing at a high level and earn their first berth? Our writers discuss:

Zach Pereles: Yes

Did I just jinx it? Oh, what have I done? If you asked me this question before the Iowa game, I would have said no. And it wasn’t that Northwestern won, which I predicted, or even that Northwestern won by a lot that changed my mind. It was how they won: with defense. It’s a defense that is in the top 10 nationally in efficient field goal percentage allowed. That’s unprecedented for this program. Vic Law Jr., Scottie Lindsey, Sanjay Lumpkin and Dererk Pardon are all plus defenders, and even when the shots aren’t falling (see: at Rutgers), the Wildcats can weather the storm to hang with most teams and even beat some of them.

Caleb Friedman: Yes

A few weeks ago my answer to this question would’ve been different. Northwestern had lost to Michigan State and Minnesota—albeit good teams—and looked out-of-sync offensively for long stretches. But as Big Ten play has unfolded, the Northwestern offense has picked up, there are no teams in the conference the Wildcats can’t beat. Beating teams like Purdue or Wisconsin will certainly be difficult, but those teams are fringe top-20 teams at this point (the Wildcats aren’t too far behind). KenPom gives the team a 50 percent chance or higher in nine of 12 games over the rest of the season, and I think seven wins gets the ‘Cats in. They should get those seven wins, which would mean...well, you know what it would mean. I can’t believe I’m saying this.

Sam Brief: Yes

Like Caleb, I’ve been a doubter on this front for most of the season. Last year, Northwestern proved to us that a stellar non-conference start (with a weak schedule) can be deceiving. But this year, it was different almost instantly. They beat Texas. They came oh-so-close to taking down Butler and Notre Dame. And the Wildcats’ convincing win over Iowa (in which they held Peter Jok to four points) cemented what we know: This is the best Northwestern team ever. Zach wrote above about their efficient defense — and let’s not forget that their effective field-goal percentage (which takes three-pointers into account) is ninth in the nation. This team is legit. It has consistent scorers. It has depth. It has energy and balance. It has received a handful of AP Top 25 votes for a reason. Out of the 12 remaining conference games, seven are really winnable, as Caleb said, and I think that’s enough to get them in. If they eclipse that, beating teams like Wisconsin or Purdue, Northwestern can really put a bow on their résumé. Of course, this is a prediction. I’m assuming Northwestern stays healthy and that the team continues playing at a high level. Both of those are far from certain, so it’ll be an interesting couple of months. For now, they’re in. Wow.

Chris Grismer: No

As promising as the team’s non-conference performance appeared, a closer look indicates that Northwestern didn’t bank any truly impressive victories. Texas was ranked nationally at the time but has turned out to be a disaster. Dayton and Wake Forest aren’t great teams. In fact, the two games that would’ve given the Wildcats a legitimate win ended up being losses to Butler and Notre Dame. In order for Northwestern to make the NCAA Tournament, it will have to do two things. First, the team will have to win every game it should. That means beating up on Illinois (twice), Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Rutgers. Second, the Wildcats will need to pull at least one upset against Indiana (twice), Maryland, Purdue (twice) and Wisconsin. Don’t let the Hoosiers’ record fool you; they’re a good team. Quite frankly, I’m not convinced Northwestern will win every game from that first group, and the Wildcats just don’t have the talent to compete with any of the teams in that second group. In short, it would take a miraculous run in the Big Ten Tournament for this team to sneak into the Big Dance.

Josh Burton: Yes

Northwestern might not have many big wins — the Dayton victory notwithstanding — but the Wildcats have yet to really lose to a “bad” team so far this season, which means almost as much. The RPI and KenPom ratings keep creeping up so as long as Chris Collins’ team can keep holding serve against the unconvincing middle 60 percent of the Big Ten, the wins will pile up as well. Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law have led the way — on the court, as Chris Collins would point out — for Northwestern’s offense so far and while that has been enough against the likes of Penn State or Nebraska, they’ll need a resurgent Bryant McIntosh to beat the Wisconsin’s and Purdue’s of the conference. The good news is that McIntosh seemed to get back to his old self in the Iowa win, so an already overperforming Northwestern team will likely get better as the season drags on.

Isaac Bushnell: Yes

Regardless of how topsy-turvy and parity-stricken the conference has been this year, the Big Ten is still at least a six-bid league when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. Questions over future strength of schedule and quality wins aside, Northwestern has most certainly done enough this year to prove that they are one of the Big Ten’s best six basketball teams. They are tremendous on the defensive end both individually and as a team, they shoot the three well, and have numerous go-to options offensively who have all shown that they can be reliable in a leading role when necessary. On the basis of their talent, balance, coaching, and experience playing together, the Wildcats are a tournament team, and come the end of the season, their record and résumé will reflect that.

Henry DaMour: Yes

This is tough for me. This feels like a movie we’ve seen before, but something’s off. The non-conference schedule, for one, had some uncharacteristic bright spots. Where before they would roll through a weak schedule for a nice inflated mark of something like 11-1, what made me believe this year was the performance in the Legends Classic. Coming into B1G play, Northwestern’s two losses came in frustratingly close fashion to Butler and Notre Dame, now ranked No. 13 and 15, respectively. Big Ten play has been rocky, but the Wildcats’ blowout win over Iowa at home silenced a lot of critics. The defensive caliber of this team reached a new level, highlighted by the fact that they held the Big Ten’s leading scorer in Peter Jok to only four points. But something that this game also reinforced for me is that this team rises and falls as Bryant McIntosh does. He is the basketball team’s Justin Jackson. His shooting has been streaky, but what is encouraging is that he has shown the ability to be Mr. Clutch and take over a game, a la Wake Forest. B-Mac’s second half performance in that game was just about as perfect a half as one could put together. The ‘Cats have the potential to finish in the top five in the B1G, and I say they’ll reach that ceiling. But it’s going to be a bumpy ride.