As the great Tom Petty once said, “the waiting is the hardest part.”
With a chance to pencil-in its place in the NCAA Tournament against an Iowa team it had beaten on the road and taken to overtime at home this season, Northwestern couldn’t keep up with the Hawkeyes’ high-flying offense in the second half and fell, 72-59.
And so the waiting game begins.
This could be the end of the road for the ‘Cats. Or not. Now, it’s out of their hands and in those of the committee members that will determine who gets an at-large bid and who gets cut. NU won’t get clarity on its situation for some time, as, despite the Big Ten Tournament wrapping up on Sunday, a whole week will pass between the time a conference tournament champion is crowned in Indianapolis and the national field of 68 is revealed by the NCAA.
The Wildcats certainly have a case for tournament eligibility. Their road win at Iowa — an eventual co-champion of the Big Ten — and home upset of then-No. 4 Michigan, along with their seventh place finish in a conference that features five teams ranked in the Associated Press Poll’s top 15 highlight their resume.
“Our league was so hard this year,” Northwestern Head Coach Joe McKeown said in advocating for his team postgame. “So deep, and you hear people talk about leagues sending nine and 10 teams. I feel like we’re just as deep as the SEC or the ACC or any other leagues that would be in that position.”
Then there’s the fact that their 17-12 record could be stronger if not for a bevy of unfortunate COVID-induced cancelations. The ‘Cats were forced into a half-month-long pause due to positive cases within their program at the end of December, and of the three games that were called off in that time, only one — an eventual road loss at Minnesota — was rescheduled. Their home bout with in-state rival Illinois, which finished last in the conference, was also postponed due to COVID issues in Champaign and was ultimately not made up.
“We didn’t get to play enough games,” said McKeown. “We never got to play Illinois at home. We never got to play Michigan State at home... I feel like our record could be a little bit better had we played those games.”
For what it’s worth, the Hawkeyes, who were up just one on NU after an enthralling first half, seem united in their opinion of the Wildcats’ worthiness of a spot in tourney.
“I do believe Northwestern should be an at-large team in the Tournament,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder told reporters just four sentences into her opening statement at Friday’s post-game presser. “They’re an excellent team. They’re well-coached.”
The conference’s Player of the Year, Caitlin Clark — who finished on Friday with 19 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and three blocks — agreed with her coach when prompted with a question about Northwestern’s Tournament credentials.
“Certainly I do [think NU deserves an NCAA Tournament selection],” she said. “I think they do deserve an at-large bid. I think Coach McKeown is one of the best coaches in the country. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a very nice guy, and I think Veronica Burton is one of the best players in the country, so why wouldn’t you want to put her on the best stage of women’s college basketball.”
For all the praise they received from their foes, the weaknesses in the ‘Cats’ resume are abundantly clear. Their 12 loss total is significantly higher than those of several of their peers on the bubble, and the fact that Pittsburgh, Penn State, Minnesota and Texas A&M — none of which were nearly good enough this season to warrant any kind of Tournament consideration — all beat them doesn’t help.
Their second half showing against the Hawkeyes on Friday didn’t exactly leave a strong final impression for the committee, too. NU missed a stretch of 15 consecutive tries from the field en route to 8-for-35 shooting on the half. When all was said and done, the Hawks outscored the ‘Cats by 12 in the final 20 minutes of play.
If this is the end of the road for NU this season, it could mark the conclusion of several key contributors’ college careers. None of the would-be departing Wildcats have made more of an impact than Burton, whose potential final college stat line of 25 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and three steals was emblematic of the multi-faceted play-style that defined her time in Evanston. A projected first-round pick in the upcoming WNBA Draft, she reflected on the whole of her experience at Northwestern after the crushing defeat.
“Hard to put into words the opportunities that this place has given both of us, honestly,” she said next to graduate student Lauryn Satterwhite, who has exhausted all of her years of eligibility. “Super thankful for all the things on the court, but more importantly all the things off of the court. The relationships, the memories, the opportunities, really.”
But McKeown doesn’t think their NU stories are over just yet. After saying he “feels good” about his program’s chances of receiving a Tournament bid in his opening statement, he replied confidently when asked about his message to his team in the locker room after the final buzzer sounded.
“Get ready to play,” he said he told them. “That’s all. That’s it. Get ready to play. That’s why you came here.”