The vibes are immaculate right now around the Northwestern Wildcats.
Following NU’s fifth straight victory, and third straight over an opponent deemed “superior,” Northwestern appears to be on a date with destiny. For only the second time in school history, NU will be headed to the NCAA Tournament, and the buzz around the team could not be better.
Between a student section that fills up within minutes of the gates opening, a sold out crowd over the last three games (albeit mostly away fans), weekly media availabilities that actually have Chicago news stations and an AP Top 25 ranking, there may not be a better time to be a Wildcat fan than right now.
The people are starting to notice. Even if the AP Poll’s ranking of No. 21 is disrespectfully low (and didn’t even include the Northwestern logo), it’s a start. Even if every bracketologist lists the Wildcats as a No. 6 or No. 7 seed — far lower than the No. 4 Hoosiers who have been beaten by the ‘Cats twice and hold a worse overall, conference and Quad 1 record — they’re now paying attention.
The best thing about NU’s five-game win streak is that it proved the team is not a fluky group that got a few lucky wins. Northwestern is a legitimately good basketball team, and there was no game that showed that more than Sunday night’s against Iowa.
The 80-60 win wasn’t just tied for Northwestern’s largest margin of victory in conference play; it was the most complete start-to-finish game the Wildcats have played all year.
Right off the bat, NU fired away from three, making four of its first five attempts from deep. From there, the ‘Cats didn’t look back. The Wildcats didn’t let the Hawkeyes get the lead for a single second of game time, and kept making shot after shot to not allow the visitors within reach.
It was an all-around performance. Led by the team’s star in Boo Buie, who had 23 points and eight assists, the Wildcats found scoring from all parts of the offense. Even with Chase Audige scoring just seven and committing four fouls, Ty Berry added 16 points, while Brooks Barnhizer had 12 of his own. Even Tydus Verhoeven and Matthew Nicholson combined to chip in 17. The ‘Cats decimated a Hawkeye defense that did the same to Northwestern just three weeks prior, contributing on both the interior and outside shooting.
On the other end of the floor, the Wildcats absolutely shut down the league’s top scoring offense. Iowa shot an abysmal 12.5% from deep (3-of-24), and Northwestern held its adversaries to just 31% shooting in the first half, helping to build its lead. NU also forced more turnovers than it gave up, the 22nd time in 27 games this season that has been the case.
It was a dominant night that capped off an incredible week of Northwestern basketball. The Wildcats have had some games this year where the offense goes absolutely cold or where the defense gives up a string of uncontested threes, but when its all clicking together, man, it is a beautiful thing to watch.
Fortunately for the team and Wildcat faithful, Northwestern is getting hot at just the right time. The Wildcats have won their last five, each of which they were the underdog, with a combination of grit and chemistry that may not be matched by many other teams in the country, let alone the Big Ten.
In the matter of a week, we’ve gone from asking if Northwestern can merely make the tournament to how far the Wildcats can go once they get there. With four games left until postseason play, we’ve all become witnesses to the realization that anything is possible.