The last time I wrote one of these, the buzz was much less palpable in Evanston.
Just over a fortnight ago the ‘Cats dropped their second in a row — losing at Iowa and against Michigan by 16 and 17, respectively — with Northwestern’s tournament chances looking close to a coin flip. Five games later and the Wildcats are the No. 21 team in the country, currently alone in second place in the conference (1.5 games back of the Purdue Boilermakers).
In my last Bracketology update, I stated, “If Collins & Co. can merely split these games, the ‘Cats will find themselves in prime position to go dancing,” referring to the team's recent stretch made up of two road games and two top-15 matchups. The ‘Cats won all four. Then Northwestern went out and beat the same Hawkeyes team that blew the ‘Cats off the floor 80-60.
Northwestern showed early on this season an ability to win on the road in the Big Ten, and more recently proved the advantage NU's home court can bring it. There isn’t a hotter team in the Big Ten than the ‘Cats, and it shows in ESPN’s latest Bracketology update. Northwestern is currently sitting as a No. 6 seed (higher than its No. 8 seed of 2016-17).
With only four games to go (excluding the Big Ten Tournament), the question now shifts from “if” to “Where will the ‘Cats be picked come Selection Sunday?”
On Feb. 17, the NCAA men’s basketball committee released its top 16, allowing fans more insight than the AP Poll rankings on how Selection Sunday may look on March 12. Sitting as the second seed in the conference, after just completing the season sweep of the Indiana Hoosiers (the ranking was released prior to Northwestern’s win against Iowa) and given NU's better Quad 1 record (7-4 compared to 6-7) than Indiana, this ranking shows the value the committee finds on factors beyond the win and loss column.
In contrast to the past two seasons, Northwestern is considered one of the luckier teams in the country, as the ‘Cats are ranked 32 in “Luck” on KenPom, a rating that’s calculated based on Northwestern’s actual record compared to where its analytics expect it to be. For context, the ‘Cats have won 11 Big Ten games despite having an offense that’s ranked 100 on KenPom (10th in the conference), largely due to Northwestern’s ability to continually win close games down the stretch, which causes KenPom to consider NU a team that’s worse than its record reflects. Of course, one’s opinion on the committee’s valuing of these analytics in the seeding of teams seems irrelevant, with it being clear historically and from this year’s rankings that they do. This will likely cause the ‘Cats to be a seed or two lower than their resume would suggest.
Regardless of where Northwestern’s seeding is projected today, its current seeding is far from set in stone. With four regular season games to go, three of which are on the road against tournament teams, Northwestern could drop just as easily as it could move up the ranks. Outside of the Wildcats' home game against Penn State on senior night, Northwestern will be underdogs in all three of its remaining road games: at Illinois, Maryland and Rutgers. Assuming Northwestern takes care of business against a mediocre Penn State team and can steal one away from home, it all but guarantees the ‘Cats a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament and at least a seven or eight seed in the dance (even if they get knocked out in its first game of the conference tournament).
That said, if Northwestern is able to make some noise in Chicago or steal more than one on the road, the ‘Cats might move up to the aforementioned top 16. Or, the opposite could occur, where Northwestern could fall to as low as a double-digit seed if it loses out. Likely, though, the Wildcats will find themselves somewhere in between, giving the team a realistic but still outside shot to reach the Sweet 16 — something the program has never done before.
The argument can definitely be made that a team’s region is more indicative to its tournament success than its seeding, but in terms of a number, it is likely NU will find itself somewhere in the six-through-eight seed range, given its difficult stretch to finish the season. That mark that should make Northwestern the favorite in its opening tournament game.
Regardless of where the ‘Cats fall, the resume Northwestern has already put together is one the committee won’t be able to look past. Selection Sunday will be anxiety-free and excitement-filled in Evanston, an accomplishment that should not be overlooked given expectations.