Northwestern women’s basketball (13-7, 6-3 B1G) is back in NCAA Tournament contention. After a handful of rebuilding seasons, the Wildcats have proven that they have what it takes to remain competitive in an extremely talented Big Ten conference this season and even make a run for the title. With a little over a month left in regular season play, the Northwestern women must persevere through the last half of their conference schedule in order to have any chance of extending their season.
The Big Ten conference exceeded expectations this year from the start. With four ranked team heading into February, the Big Ten stands as one of the toughest conferences in women’s college basketball. Northwestern, who is currently tied for fourth in the conference after Sunday’s win over Illinois, sits just one game behind second place but just one game ahead of seventh place. The conference is tighter than ever and could be completely turned upside down by the time March rolls around.
The most recent iteration of ESPN’s bracketology includes six Big Ten teams, with NU ranked in the Next Four Out category. Joining Northwestern in the Next Four Out are Auburn, Kansas State, and LSU. Strength of schedule is going to be a problem for the conference. No. 14 Rutgers is the favorite to win the conference, but is only ranked as a No. 4 seed. No. 11 Maryland sits as a No. 4 seed as well, and No. 17 Iowa is a No. 3 seed.
Ranked No. 69 in RPI, the Wildcats badly need another marquee conference win to make up ground against SEC and Pac-12 teams with stronger RPI ratings. Road opportunities against Iowa and Maryland will be critical for Northwestern to feel better about its chances come March.
Of the nine games remaining, Northwestern should win four: Ohio State, Penn State and Minnesota (twice). The game against Nebraska could be a toss-up, but since it is a home game, the Wildcats should be able to take care of business. The remaining four games (Maryland, Purdue, Indiana, Iowa) will all be tough but winning at least one, if not two is necessary.
Finishing conference play strong will also mean a higher Big Ten Tournament seed, and a better chance for NU to turn some heads at the conference tournament.
If Northwestern can win the four expected games and beat Nebraska, the women will finish with a conference record of 11-7. Last year, five Big Ten teams made the tournament and 11 wins was the right on the cusp of making it or not. This is why beating Indiana or one of the tougher opponents is necessary. Twelve wins in the conference including one over Iowa or Maryland will make Northwestern’s chances far more likely of making the tournament for the first time since 2015, which also happened to be its last 12-win season in conference play. Even still, the Wildcats might need to make noise in the Big Ten Tournament to get on the right side of the bubble.
The road to the tournament is not at all impossible, but it won’t be easy. The Northwestern women need to buckle down and continue to play like they have in the past few games if they want a chance of gaining the respect that they deserve.