It’s crazy how fast things can flip in college basketball.
On Jan. 28,, Northwestern had won its third consecutive game in conference play, beating Minnesota 81-61 and moving to second in the Big Ten standings. A week later, the Wildcats sit at the middle of the pack in the conference, with a 6-5 B1G record, and are right back on the bubble after losing to Michigan and Iowa by double-digits. ‘Twas a rough week for the ‘Cats.
In its last two blowout losses to the Hawkeyes and the Wolverines, NU held second half leads before collapsing down the stretch, being outscored by 16 points in the final 20 in both respective games. With their rescheduled games caused by COVID-19, Northwestern looked like a team that had played five games in 11 days, as the Wildcats’ three-point shooting was dreadful, even to their standards. Although NU played far from a flawless performance in either game, it is difficult to imagine the team continuing to shoot a combined sub-20% from behind the arc as it did this week. Regardless of whether these games were anomalies, such losses undoubtedly hurt the tournament chances for the purple and white.
ESPN’s Bracketology currently has Northwestern as a “Last Four Byes” team, meaning another loss would likely push Chris Collins’s quad to the wrong side of the bubble. However, for a team largely predicted to finish in the bottom three of the conference, the Wildcats find themselves with all their goals in front of them and a real shot at going dancing with nine games to go.
So how does Northwestern need to finish the season to hear its name called on Selection Sunday?
The Big Ten has had nine teams in each of the last two tournaments, with every team that had an overall record above .500 being selected, a mark that — barring a collapse — the ‘Cats will achieve. That being said, the Big Ten’s underperforming in March in recent years, combined with the conference having a relative down year (Purdue being the only team inside the AP Top 25), it’ll take more than just a winning record overall to reach the dance. As a result, it’s safe to assume that Northwestern needs four wins in its final nine games to give the team a chance to get in. More than four victories would likely ensure that NU doesn’t have to play in the First Four and would make Selection Sunday a bit less anxiety-inducing for ‘Cats fans.
However, this feat will be a tall order for Northwestern, with eight of its nine remaining games being against teams in the tournament or on the bubble, according to ESPN’s Bracketology. As if things needed to be made even more difficult for the Wildcats, the majority of these games are on the road. These abundance of difficult games away from Welsh-Ryan Arena are definitely a double-edged sword, with Northwestern having the ability to add to their four Quad 1 wins, and the ‘Cats playing better on the road than at home in conference play thus far (3-2 on the road, 2-2 at home).
The ‘Cats do not have a bad loss this season, with their worst being their home defeats to Michigan and Ohio State (both inside the top 60 on KenPom), and still have a chance at a true signature win when No. 1 Purdue comes to Evanston. Already having gained a home victory versus Illinois and two road wins against the Spartans and Hoosiers, the ‘Cats have one of the better resumes in the conference and will look to add to it in the second half of their conference slate.
With their next four being either against ranked opponents or on the road, this is the toughest stretch Northwestern has left on its schedule. If Collins & Co. can merely split these games, the ‘Cats will find themselves in prime position to go dancing for only the second time in program history. If not, the Wildcats will need a remarkable finish to their season, likely consisting of stealing a game on the road against Rutgers or Illinois to keep them in the tournament discussion.
There are undoubtedly reasons to be concerned after Northwestern’s recent two performances, but given preseason expectations, ‘Cats fans should try to keep a bit of perspective and remain hopeful as they watch Northwestern play meaningful basketball throughout February for the first time since 2017.