After a dominating win Wednesday night over Rutgers, the 18th-ranked Northwestern Wildcats (23-3, 13-2 B1G) are locks to make their first NCAA Tournament since 2015. A postseason berth was a foregone conclusion a few weeks ago after the ‘Cats completed its most challenging portion of the schedule, and, now, riding a six game winning streak, NU is comfortably climbing the rankings of bracketologists.
The ‘Cats are the no. 10 team according to RPI, with road games against Wisconsin and Ohio State before a home finale with Illinois left on the docket. Joe McKeown’s squad has eight wins over top-50 RPI teams this season (Duke, Marquette, Maryland, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan [twice!], and Rutgers), while their three losses have been only to top 20-ranked RPI programs in DePaul, Iowa, and Maryland.
Just how high can Northwestern climb? What exactly do those bracketologists do every week when they put their brackets together? For answers to those questions and much more, we talked to Russell Steinberg of High Post Hoops, who was more accurate on his final bracket than ESPN’s Charlie Creme last season and is high on the ‘Cats right now, currently pegging them as the third seed in the Midwest.
INU: How difficult is it to put together weekly bracketology for a sport in which so few others do it? What does a given week of building a bracket look like for you?
RS: It actually makes it easier knowing there aren’t a lot of women’s basketball bracketologists out there. It means I can’t check my work against too many others, which might sway my way of thinking. I don’t want my decisions to be influenced by what someone else thinks. I’ve spent time with the committee and I know what they look for. That should be enough. Do I still find myself checking in on Charlie Creme every once in a while? Yeah, I’m human. But I’ve gotten better at sticking with my convictions — for better or for worse.
Building the bracket itself is actually the easy part. There are a lot of tricky rules to stay aware of, but that part doesn’t take too long. Ranking the teams is by far the toughest part and it involves some work every day. I have my seed list that includes every team in my field, including autobids, plus every bubble team and every team that I think could find its way onto the bubble with a nice run.
Every morning, I check the scores of the games the night before and move teams up or down accordingly. That involves checking a team vs. whoever is directly above or below. It takes a while and is difficult because when you get down to, for example, checking the second 9 seed vs. the third 9 seed, the margins are often paper-thin. I’ve found that there’s not as much movement day-to-day as I would have originally thought and that one great win may not make as much of a difference as you’d think.
INU: When a group of teams are close and you are trying to order them, what is the primary “tiebreaker” that you look at to distinguish things?
RS: This is tough because you try to think like the committee does, but every committee member is different. So there’s no one tiebreaker. It helps if teams have played head-to-head or have common opponents. If not, it often means I need to take a closer look at the numbers on the team sheet.
If both teams are 5-2 vs. RPI top 50 teams, then maybe we need to see who those teams are. Which ones came on the road? Were those teams healthy when those games happened? How competitive were those losses? How dominant were those wins? Often there’s something that comes up to break the tie.
INU: Why do you think Northwestern is being so underrated in the polls, at least compared to where you have them in your bracket?
RS: I was really surprised when that first seed reveal came out (referring to the Selection Committee’s first top-16 reveal at the start of February) and Northwestern was the last 4 seed. I think I had them as a comfortable 3 seed at the time. Thankfully, since then, I think the Wildcats have justified their ranking and I hope the committee adjusts accordingly.
It’s hard to blame them — I often find when doing my routine adjustments every day that there’s a team I had seriously underrated or overrated. It’s a constant adjustment and you have to hope that once the sample size is complete, everyone has enough data to make the best decisions. At the time, Northwestern’s non-con may have hurt it a bit. This was before Duke went on its run to jump into the field and there was nothing great on that part of the resume.
In my opinion, the wins over Maryland and Indiana offset that, but it’s also easy to argue the other way: the Maryland win could have been a fluke and the Indiana win came in OT and the Hoosiers had started to fade at the time.
INU: As they head into the final games of the regular season, what is the most impressive thing (or things) about Northwestern’s resumé as it stands right now?
RS: Northwestern is 13-2 and a half-game out of first in a league that could send eight teams to the NCAA Tournament. That alone should make it worthy of a protected seed, provided things don’t fall apart down the stretch.
I think an underrated aspect that may do Northwestern a ton of favors is that it does not have a single loss to a team not projected to host the first weekend. That’s harder than it sounds because the Wildcats have had to play 17 of their 26 games (so far) against RPI Top 100 teams. Better teams than them have slipped up against weaker competition. And it all goes to show that those signature wins — Maryland, Indiana, at Michigan — are no flukes.
INU: Looking ahead, what do you see as the ceiling/floor for Northwestern’s potential seed?
RS: Good news and bad news here. The good news is that the floor should be pretty high. The worst realistic-case scenario seems to be a 2-1 finish to the regular season with a loss to Ohio State, then a weird first-round exit in the Big Ten Tournament. That puts them at 25-5 with 8 RPI Top 50 wins. I don’t see how that puts them worse than a 5 seed at the absolute worst (and honestly they should still probably be a 4 in that situation).
The flip side to that is I’m not sure if Northwestern can get above the 3 line. That’s where they’ll have to contend with passing some of the best teams in the Pac-12, which will pick up wins over each other in the last weeks of the season. The Big Ten will send more teams to the tournament than the Pac-12, but the Pac-12 is better in the top half. UCLA and Stanford will probably still have the edge come Selection Monday.
Now, sufficiently enlightened, lets turn to those weekly updates, starting with Steinberg.
The ‘Cats move up a spot in Steinberg’s bracket from 4 to 3 and would play the Metro Atlantic Conference’s Marist in a potential first round matchup. Kentucky or Iowa State would await the ‘Cats at Welsh-Ryan before a clash in Greenville, North Carolina, against 2-seeded Louisville.
The Big Ten also leads all conferences in spots in this bracket (see below), and Steinberg specifically singles out Maryland and its ten wins over top-50 RPI teams in the article accompanying the newly released bracket.
Other Big Ten teams: Maryland (1), Iowa (3), Indiana (5), Rutgers (8), Purdue (8), Ohio State (10), Michigan (10)
ESPN’s Charlie Creme: 4 seed
Creme puts Northwestern the lowest out of any of the three brackets examined in this article. He has had the ‘Cats at a number four seed on a pretty consistent basis since their entrance into the top 25, and his latest bracket is no exception. Creme has the ‘Cats hosting no. 13 seed Stony Brook, projected to win the automatic bid in the American East, in Evanston. Assuming seeding holds, the ‘Cats would then host no. 5 Florida State in Evanston before a potential date against Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen.
Other Big Ten teams int the field: Maryland (1), Iowa (4), Indiana (5), Ohio State (7), Michigan (10), Rutgers (10), Purdue (10),
RealTimeRPI.com: 3 seed
RPI also has the ‘Cats as a no. 3 seed taking on Marist in the first round of the tournament with the potential to play TCU and Louisville in the coming rounds.
Much like the other 2 brackets, RealTimeRPI is also high on the Big Ten, with 8 teams potentially getting the call on Selection Sunday.
Other Big Ten teams: Maryland (1), Iowa (3), Indiana (4), Ohio State (5), Purdue (8), Michigan (9), Rutgers (10)