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Northwestern’s unlikely, difficult, but still possible path to the NCAA Tournament

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We’ve been waiting to write this all season.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Northwestern Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, for the first time in a long time, the slipper still fit. Northwestern got its first win over a ranked team after coming up short three times; the Wildcats played their best defensive game of the year and left Allstate with a critical victory over No. 20 Michigan. On offense, Bryant McIntosh matched a season high in points and Scottie Lindsey knocked down open threes. It all amounted to Northwestern’s unmitigated best win of the season and kept Chris CollinsNCAA Tournament hopes alive. Barely.

To make this very clear and put the point of this article in perspective, ESPN categorizes teams into three groups in its “Bubble Watch.” There are the Locks, the Should Be Ins, and the Work to Dos. Then there are a couple dozen teams. Then there’s Northwestern. The Wildcats are 71st in Kenpom and 83rd in the more-important RPI (behind teams like Charleston and Utah Valley). Under no circumstances should you be getting ready to buy tickets.

Here’s are the two ways for Northwestern to punch its return ticket to the “Big Dance.” Maybe we’ll even get a “Second Dance” documentary if this miracle run happens.

I. Win the Big Ten Tournament

Easy enough. Northwestern is seventh the Big Ten right now, and if the season ended today, it would play 10-seed Wisconsin for the opportunity to play Purdue. If they snuck past Purdue somehow, the Wildcats would likely face the winner of Michigan State and Penn State and then play Nebraska, Michigan or Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. That’s a gauntlet.

Realistically, Northwestern’s ceiling in the Big Ten looks like a sixth-place finish, like last year. That sets up a matchup against the winner of the 11 seed-14 seed game and then a more daunting game against the 3-seed, which is looking like Michigan State.

If nothing else, this is the path of least speculation.

II. Finish the season at least 5-1 with a win over Michigan State and win two games in the Big Ten Tournament (22-12 overall, 11-7 Big Ten)

Here’s what NU has left:

Feb. 10: at Maryland (RPI 56)

Feb. 13: at Rutgers (RPI 203)

Feb. 17: vs. Michigan State (RPI 20)

Feb. 19 : vs. Maryland (RPI 56)

Feb. 22: vs. Wisconsin (RPI 157)

Feb. 25: at Iowa (RPI 144)

Of the 46 bracket predictors included on bracketmatrix.com, Northwestern is not included in a single one. A glance at the Wildcats’ resume explains that.

RPI: 83

SOS: 74

vs. RPI Top 25: 0-5

vs. RPI Top 50: 1-6

vs. RPI Top 100: 2-8

vs. RPI Top 150: 4-10

I kept waiting for that win-loss record to get better and it just never did. 10 of Northwestern’s wins are against Sub-150 RPI teams and one doesn’t count because it was against D-II Lewis. The Wildcats desperately need some quality wins. It would’ve also helped a lot if they hadn’t lost at Georgia Tech.

They’ll get a chance on Saturday at Maryland. The Terrapins are No. 56 in RPI and probably look a bit better than they are with that huge non-conference win over Butler before they lost forward Justin Jackson for the season. A loss isn’t a dagger, but it makes the margin for error basically zero. If you’re going to split with Maryland, you’d much rather win the road game because under the NCAA’s tier system, a road win over Maryland would be valued in Tier 1.

Northwestern has no Tier 1 wins so far. The Wildcats have two Tier 2 wins (@ Minnesota, vs. Michigan), six Tier 3 wins (the four other Big Ten wins plus La Salle and DePaul), and six Tier 4 wins.

In their final six games, the Wildcats have two Tier 1 opportunities, a Tier 2 chance (vs. Maryland) and then three potential Tier 3 wins.

Northwestern needs the Michigan State game more than anything. This is its shot at a signature win against an RPI Top 25 team and it couldn’t come an a more opportune time. Tom Izzo’s team has played four consecutive single-digit wins over Maryland, Penn State, Indiana and Iowa. He can downplay the outside distractions all he wants, but the Spartans don’t look like the No. 4 team in the country. Splitting with Maryland, handling Rutgers, Wisconsin, and Iowa (easier said than done at Carver-Hawkeye), and beating MSU would legitimize Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament chances. This is the signature win that Northwestern has to have.

11-7 in a watered-down Big Ten with your best non-conference win over the Blue Demons isn’t nearly enough. Likely the sixth-seed in the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern will get one more shot at either Ohio State or Michigan State at Madison Square Garden. And they would be smart to win that one too.

Quick backtrack. Here’s Northwestern’s resume from last season.

RPI: 49

SOS: 64

vs. RPI Top 25: 1-5

vs. RPI Top 50: 5-8

vs. RPI Top 100: 9-11

vs. RPI Top 150: 12-11

Tier 1 wins: 4

Tier 2 wins: 4

This is the resume of an 8-seed. The biggest thing missing this season is anything remotely impressive in non-conference play. Tier 1 wins over Dayton and Wake Forest bolstered Northwestern’s resume last season. Loyola (Md.) and Valparaiso are meager portions on a non-conference plate that leaves everything to be desired.

Let’s say Northwestern finishes 5-1 with a loss to Maryland. It would have two RPI Top-50 wins and four RPI Top-100 wins. That’s why the Wildcats would need to win two more at MSG. Even that doesn’t sniff last year’s resume, but Northwestern would be one of the hottest teams in the country having won 10-of-13 and 9-of-11; it would at least force the Committee to take a long look at the Cats. Even if Northwestern has to play the play-in game, that would be far more than anyone expected a few weeks ago.

In Lunardi’s latest Bracketology, there are four Big Ten teams in the field of 68, so Northwestern doesn’t really have a deep conference to work with. Michigan is a seven seed. Nebraska is in the first four out. Yes, the Nebraska team that is 18-8 and 9-4 in the Big Ten is firmly on the bubble, and given how mediocre the Big Ten looks, that’s pretty fair. The question for the Big Ten is whether it will manage to get a fifth team in the NCAA Tournament. With Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota, Iowa and Indiana on down years, there’s just not many opportunities for signature wins. Nebraska is probably going to finish 12-6 or 13-5 in the Big Ten and they might not make the Tournament. Maryland is just about done for after losing to Penn State on Wednesday and falling to 5-8 in conference play. Noted college basketball math nerd Bart Torvik has Northwestern at a 1.1 percent chance of making the NCAA Tournament and a 0.2 percent chance of getting an at-large bid. The number was at 0.0 before Michigan game though, so it’s an improvement.

Being so far away from the bubble, it oddly feels like Northwestern controls its own destiny. But if you were looking for a reason to root against USC, Houston, Providence or Boise State, look no further.

One more note. Michigan started 5-6 in Big Ten play last season before winning 5 of its last 7 with wins over Wisconsin and Purdue to pretty much secure an at-large bid. Michigan then ended any speculation by winning the Big Ten Tournament. If none of this pans out, the NIT is also a definite possibility.

Hey, it’s fun to dream.