Hours away from starting what it hopes to be a deep run in the NCAA tournament, Northwestern will need all the madness it can get to make it to NRG Stadium in Houston — home of this year’s Final Four and championship game.
The ‘Cats have proven they can hang with the best of them this season, defeating No. 1 Purdue, a ranked Indiana team (twice) and No. 20 Michigan State. But what would an NU season be without its lapses in consistency? Two overtime losses against Penn State, a 16-point defeat at the hands of Ohio State and letting an NIT-bound Michigan team sweep the season series has marred the ‘Cats’ resumé.
Northwestern has both nothing left to show — having made March Madness for the second time in school history, earning its first win against an AP No. 1 team and setting a school record for most Big Ten wins — and still plenty to prove.
Regardless of whether or not the team is satisfied with its performance this season, it can leave all potential angst in the rearview mirror with one thing: a national championship victory.
Crazy? Definitely. Ambitious? Entirely. But with just a few hours left until the ‘Cats take the court in Sacramento, let’s daydream. Here’s what a route to the title could look like.
Round of 64: Win against No. 10 Boise State
By far the most winnable game of the fantastical run Northwestern will have to go on, the square-off against Boise State will come down to defense. The ‘Cats and Broncos rank 13th and 14th, respectively, in KenPom’s adjusted defense metric — a tell-tale sign of a team’s ability to defend against quality opponents for an entire game.
In a defensive slugfest, points come largely through just a few avenues: layups and free throws. NU converts at the charity stripe 75% of the time, the 54th best rate in the country. Boise State hovers around 73%, ranking 102nd in the nation. Northwestern is also a top-40 team in the country when it comes to defending opponents’ two-point attempts. If both teams stick to their statistical averages, the Wildcats can take down the blue and orange.
Round of 32: Win against No. 2-seed UCLA
Here’s where it gets sticky. But, hey, crazier things have happened than a No. 7 seed taking out a No. 2 seed. UCLA would likely be without its best defender, Jaylen Clark, whose court presence has propelled the Bruins to the No. 1 spot in KenPom’s adjusted defense rankings.
UCLA will have the home court advantage, playing six hours away from campus and in its native state. Luckily for the ‘Cats, they posted the second best away record (7-4) in the Big Ten this season and seem to have no issue dealing with hostile crowds.
From a game planning perspective, Northwestern will have to slow the pace on offense and take care of the ball. Neither team is particularly prolific with the rock, but limiting possessions for the Bruins will be key. NU turns it over less frequently than the Los Angeles unit, so nabbing steals and churning the game clock should keep the game close. Given that UCLA also isn’t a stellar three-point shooting team, Northwestern will have the potential to defend the paint, which it’s good at. Look for Matthew Nicholson to add to his block tally on the year.
Sweet 16: Win against No. 3-seed Gonzaga
Perhaps one of the “easier” games on Northwestern’s title run would be a faceoff against the ‘Zags. Revenge sounds sweet, doesn’t it? Motivated by a loss to the Bulldogs in 2017 in the Round of 32, Chris Collins should be in the zone to take care of business come his rematch — this time with the stakes even higher as the squads would match up in the Sweet 16.
Gonzaga scores the most points per game in college basketball, but in March Madness, good defense usually beats good offense. And don’t forget that the 86.5 points per game the ‘Zags score come in a conference far less competitive than the Big Ten. Against a team that’s battle-tested, like Northwestern, the Bulldogs might get off to a slow start.
Don’t get me wrong: This game will be far from a stroll in the park. But Gonzaga has also flailed on defense at times this season, meaning that Northwestern could get its foot in the door if its offense decides to shift into a higher gear. I never said this Cinderella run wouldn’t require a bit of luck.
Elite Eight: Win against No. 4-seed UConn
Assuming UConn takes care of business and pulls off an upset against No. 1-seed Kansas, this would likely be the lowest seed Northwestern draws after the Round of 64. Neither team will be playing close to home, and neither team was able to win its conference tournament.
Despite this, UConn is a popular sleeper pick to win the whole thing. The Huskies are the best offensive rebounding team in the nation, which doesn’t bode well for NU, who has struggled to limit opponents’ second chance points this season.
So how do the Wildcats pull off the upset here? Simple. A lot of hustle and a lot of luck. UConn struggles coming off defensive screens. The Huskies aren’t a fast team given their length. They’re more like thick trees in a forest rather than the weeds that scatter the ground below. If Boo Buie and Nicholson run their signature screen play, the ‘Cats might garner enough separation to get good looks on offense. From there, it’ll be in the hands of NU’s top-ranked defense to seal the deal.
Final Four: Win against No. 2-seed Texas
I think it’s most likely that Texas or Houston comes out of the Midwest Region, but let’s assume the Longhorns emerge. Entrenched in early season controversy about its former head coach, Chris Beard, Texas has had to battle adversity all year.
Texas is about as bad a three-point shooting team as Northwestern, hitting under 34% from beyond the arc. The burnt orange squad struggles to rebound the ball, ranking 152nd and 186th in offensive and defensive rebounding, respectively.
The key to victory against the Longhorns is taking care of the rock. Obviously, limiting turnovers is a pivotal aspect of winning any game, but Texas forces the 14th-most takeaways per game in college basketball. The team’s aggressive defense takes a risk by hawking the dribbler, so Northwestern will need to make good passes, break the press and expose the double teams that Texas so often employs.
Championship: Win against No. 1-seed Purdue
This might be the most generous prediction I make — not because it’s implausible that Northwestern beats Purdue (obviously), but because I would be shocked if the Boilermakers are the team to come out of the left side of the bracket. More likely, we’ll see Alabama, Arizona or even a team like Marquette in the championship. All of those squads would be harder draws for NU. But for the sake of optimism, which we’ve leaned into for this whole article, let’s keep the trend going.
As evidenced by the two teams’ Feb. 12 court-storming competition, NU can exploit Purdue in a few departments: steals, three-pointers and clutch time play. Garnering 11 swipes, forcing Purdue into taking 22 threes (of which, they only made five) and overcoming a near ten-point deficit at the end of the game, Northwestern knows what worked once. They just need to do it again.
Purdue’s team lives by Zach Edey, but it dies through inactivity across the rest of the roster. Northwestern committed to playing sound defense against the rest of the Boilermakers and didn’t overextend against the opposing center. They let Edey score 24, but only one other Purdue player was able to hit double digits (10, Braden Smith). If the ‘Cats take that risk again in the Finals, a championship could be on its way back to Evanston.