Less than two weeks out from Selection Sunday and just days ahead of the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern finds itself in a tough spot with marginal room for error.
With a chance to build momentum towards the tournament and make the case for an NCAA tournament bid on the heels of a three-game winning streak, the Wildcats instead ended up on the wrong side of a 73-59 season finale versus Nebraska. The loss was certainly not promising for any postseason prospects for the ‘Cats, as the offense shot just over 27 percent from the field while the defense allowed nine threes.
The defeat instilled anything but confidence that this team could make a postseason run to get them into the NCAA Tournament. However, some experts — like ESPN’s Charlie Creme, who released his updated women’s bracketology predictions Monday — still have Northwestern slotting in as one of the last four teams in. In fact, Creme has Northwestern as the last team in, ahead of the likes of Florida State, Villanova, Mississippi State and DePaul, the last of which the ‘Cats fell to in November.
Creme’s bracket has Northwestern matched up against Boston College in the First Four, with the winner moving on to play BYU in the No. 5/No. 12 game. Similarly, College Sports Madness has the Wildcats in the No. 5/No. 12 matchup against BYU, except with the Tulane Green Wave standing in their way in the First Four.
While Northwestern is currently still listed in many of these brackets, it’s safe to say that another performance like Sunday’s in the Big Ten Tournament would firmly knock the ‘Cats out of tournament contention. Minnesota hasn’t been particularly impressive this season, but the Golden Gophers absolutely dominated the Wildcats from behind the arc the last time they played and handed Northwestern a loss at a crucial point in its season.
It took a herculean effort from Veronica Burton (27 points, seven assists, four rebounds, four blocks, four steals) to even make the Minnesota loss close towards the end, and although the ‘Cats are the higher seed, Thursday’s match is far from a pushover. A loss in the first round this weekend spells the end of the season for the Wildcats, and there’s not really any other way to look at it.
If Northwestern can conquer its North Star State demons, it’ll face off against Iowa, a team it matches up well with, but also one that’s firing on all cylinders at just the right time. The Hawkeyes are on a four-game winning streak and are fresh off of an absolute demolition of the Michigan Wolverines that clinched them a share of the Big Ten title and saw newly-named Big Ten Player of the Year Caitlin Clark go off for 38 points, 11 assists and several ridiculously deep threes.
In its two games against the Hawkeyes this season, Northwestern has played U of I incredibly close. The Wildcats took home the away victory in their first matchup in a game that saw both Burton and Melannie Daley gp off, while the second outing saw an overtime loss in which a strange refereeing call may have significantly altered the outcome of the game. Nonetheless, both times Northwestern played to the level of its opponent and could see similar success if it is able to fix its offensive struggles this weekend.
The Wildcats’ record thus far has plenty of cases for and against its chances of making the tourney. The positives include three “quadrant one” wins over No. 10 Michigan, No. 12 Iowa, and a solid South Dakota team. The negatives include a slew of losses to squads that are currently not considered tournament teams, such as Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, Michigan State, Penn State, and Minnesota.
While playing Iowa close in the quarterfinals could still offer Northwestern a possible pathway into sneaking in as a “last four in” team, the Wildcats will need to defeat both Minnesota and Iowa to put themselves in the best position to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. In a season that has had a lot of ups, but also several downs, Joe McKeown’s squad will need to fix its offensive woes fast in order to go dancing for Burton’s last hurrah.