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Northwestern has a path to March Madness, but it won't be easy

Disappointing performances in non-conference play creates a desperate situation for the Wildcats.

NCAA Basketball: Lewis at Northwestern Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

In November, I wrote about Northwestern’s non-conference opponents: Creighton, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Georgia Tech. All were unranked. Northwestern, meanwhile, was ranked No. 20. The Wildcats, for once, had expectations. The consensus among basketball aficionados nationwide was that Northwestern basketball was here to stay.

After last years successes, a few Wildcats were invited to attend the ESPYs. The players walked the red carpet with tailored suits and snazzy sunglasses, fitting right in with some of sports biggest stars. They shook hands, shared laughs and took pictures with Michael Phelps, Aaron Rodgers and Stephen Curry.

This year was supposed to be the apex. The on court product would be the culmination of hard work, talent and a winning expectation. It would make us fans look foolish for so widely and publicly celebrating such minor and trivial success.

Northwestern had its best players back (minus Sanjay Lumpkin), and it had a 2018 recruiting class that was its best in program history; a recruiting class that would take the program to new heights in the brand new Welsh-Ryan Arena. Bigger things were to come.

When Bryant McIntosh spoke of his ultimate goal, making the final four, it seemed legit and to some, possible.

The praise was validation for the players and the program. They had made Northwestern basketball relevant, and the good vibes permeated throughout the student body.

When writing that piece about Northwestern’s early season opponents, I presented a bunch of seemingly significant statistics and records from the 2016-2017 season that I thought would accurately forecast the success of Northwestern this November and December.

Seven week later, things are different. We weren't foolish for celebrating last year's success (obviously), but greedy for expecting such quick and profound improvement upon it. It might've been premature to anoint Northwestern among the Big Ten's elite, as is evidenced by the team's performance through 15 games.

The Wildcats have no good wins and one bad loss — the heartbreaker at Georgia Tech. The non-conference schedule proved tougher than anticipated, but those opportunities for valuable wins came and went without NU capitalizing on any of them.

Northwestern heads into conference play with its one matchup against Purdue behind them. NU plays Michigan State at home on a Saturday afternoon in mid-February, which should give students and fans an opportunity to have some fun within the confines of the warm and not-so-hostile Allstate Arena. That is the best shot Chris Collins & Co. have to elevate their Tournament claim.

KenPom has the Wildcats ranked 53, good for eighth in the Big Ten. The site has them going 9-9 in conference play and finishing 18-13 overall. Both are marks that would surely leave the ‘Cats outside the field of 68 come selection Sunday.

But let’s look at things positively. The ‘Cats are one stop in Atlanta, and one B-Mac three in West Lafayette away from a potential 12-3 record, and an unblemished 2-0 in conference play.

McIntosh's knee injury against Brown was a major scare, but MRI results revealed no ligament damage. He is day-to-day and should be back relatively soon.

If he misses any time, his absence may foster an offense oriented on ball movement rather than B-Mac's individual playmaking, which could be a long-term positive if the team can survive without him. NOTE: THAT IS A HUGE IF.

Maybe Northwestern will find out some fundamental truths about themselves — that the team is better off when its best player, Vic Law Jr., is aggressive offensively, and that defensive tenacity in the form of Jordan Ash is what this team has been missing since Sanjay Lumpkin’s departure.

How much Collins trusts Ash and Isiah Brown has been a storyline all season, but B-Mac's injury will, in all likelihood, force that duo to play starters' minutes. Collins will have no choice but to play both inexperienced guards for long stretches.

Brown has become a spark plug off the bench, which was a needed development for a team lacking significant bench scoring in November and early December. Ash has grown more and more confident as the season has worn on. But neither has had to shoulder the load of running the offense like B-Mac has for so long.

Looking at the middle tier of the Big Ten, there is an opportunity for Northwestern to do some damage. Maryland lost arguably its best player, and preseason All-Big Ten teamer, Justin Jackson for the season this past week. Despite fast starts, Penn State and Ohio State are young (they rank as the 249th and 180th oldest teams, respectively) and inexperienced. Wisconsin has a lot of issues. Michigan and Minnesota have the talent to be in the upper tier of the conference, but both have looked beatable at times.

While it seems no one will challenge Michigan State and Purdue in the Big Ten, Northwestern has an outside shot at third if it can get things going. 2018 presents another potential reboot for this suddenly desperate team.

The grind that is Big Ten play officially began a few weeks ago, but it really begins against Nebraska. With what looks to be a muddled middle of the conference, Northwestern could maybe, just maybe salvage a Tournament bid by catching fire and going 11-5 in its next 16 games. Anything short of that seems like it won't be enough, sans a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament.

The weakness of the Big Ten presents fewer opportunities for good wins while also creating more winnable games.

As NU moves into conference play, it will likely be forced to experiment with some lineup variations - small ball looks with Aaron Falzon at stretch five, or gigantic switch heavy defensive lineups with Anthony Gaines at the point. When McIntosh does return, maybe he'll find the offensive rhythm that has eluded him thus far this season.

KenPom still has Northwestern within striking distance of a top five spot in the Big Ten, which would likely earn the Wildcats a Tournament bid should it happen. The Wildcats were disappointing in non-conference play, yet they still have an opportunity to play meaningful games in late March should they capitalize on their fortuitous schedule in the aforementioned weak Big Ten (they play both Purdue and Michigan State just once).

The early season hype was awesome. After their slow start, however, the ‘Cats need to turn things around quickly if they want another crack at March Madness. That starts with the return of Big Ten play Tuesday night against Nebraska.