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Bracketology: Amid struggles, where does Northwestern stand?

Follow a three-game skid, how has the ‘Cats’ NCAA Tournament outlook shifted?

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

It’s March, and Northwestern has been safely in the NCAA Tournament for nearly two weeks. But with the ‘Cats in a three-game losing streak, it hardly feels like it.

After a five-game stretch that put the Wildcats at No. 21 in the AP Poll, Northwestern has yet to win a game — losing on the road against Illinois and Maryland, and in Evanston against Penn State. Two weeks out from a tournament that has historically benefitted teams getting hot just beforehand, Northwestern is in the midst of stumbling its way there. But luckily for the ‘Cats, the committee’s placements are based on the team’s entire resume and statistics. For NU, that’s a resume that still looks quite good.

Of course, these analytics are subject to change (depending on shifts in RPI rankings), but as of March 3, Northwestern has as many Quad 1 wins (7-5 Quad 1 record) as anyone in the conference not named Purdue. Additionally, the Wildcats have yet to lose a bad game this season (having a perfect 9-0 record against Quad 3 and 4 teams) and likely will not get the chance to lose one, barring a matchup against Minnesota or Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament. Finally, in terms of signature wins, the ‘Cats are sitting pretty, with a season sweep of Indiana (currently No. 15 in the AP Poll) and a win against Purdue (currently No. 5 in AP Poll).

At the moment, CBS Sports has the Wildcats a No. 6 seed (ESPN’s Bracketology has yet to account for Northwestern’s most recent loss), sitting only a spot above Michigan State, which is the top ranked No. 7 seed. As the last ranked No. 6 seed, NU’s seeding is anything but secure, which raises the question: How low or high could Northwestern move?

In terms of the worst-case scenario for the ‘Cats, they could lose their final game at Rutgers and their opening-round matchup of the Big Ten tournament. Although Northwestern has shown an ability to win tough games away from home, a loss in Piscataway could drop the ‘Cats to as low as ninth in the Big Ten. Thankfully for NU fans, this would still award Northwestern a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament and lead to a second-round matchup, likely against a tournament-caliber team — a game in which Northwestern could definitely lose. Still, due largely to their positioning in the Big Ten standings, possible losses in Northwestern’s next two should still leave a resume worthy of a No. 8 or No. 9 seed.

However, a win at Rutgers would make Northwestern’s tournament outlook quite different, as it could result in a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. Not only would this tremendously raise Northwestern’s chances to bring home the tournament championship, but it greatly reduces the chance of a loss to a mediocre team. In terms of seeding, a win at Rutgers should all but guarantee Northwestern is the better seed in its opening matchup of the Big Dance, regardless of the team’s performance in Chicago. However, if the purple and white can add two (or more) wins to its resume before Selection Sunday, either both in the BTT or one in the conference tournament and one in Piscataway, NU should enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 or No. 6 seed.

Notably, these hypotheticals leave off the scenario where Northwestern hoists the Big Ten Tournament trophy — an achievement that would be the program’s first. This is likely the school’s only shot at moving into the top 16 and is unquestionably at slim odds. However, it’s probably the ‘Cats’ only shot at being seeded better than No. 5.

It’s difficult to come away from Northwestern’s last three performances with optimism about the NCAA Tournament to come, but with a Quad 1 game and the conference tournament yet to go, the potential is still there for the Wildcats to bring some momentum into the Big Dance — momentum that would not only instill confidence, but also bring an easier first- (and possibly second-) round opponent.

The NCAA Tournament is about far more than just seeding, but in terms of placement, the ‘Cats seeding could move substantially from No. 6 in either direction despite the short timeframe. Northwestern’s miraculous season still has a range of possibilities before the Wildcats go dancing, including finishing among the top of the Big Ten and coming off the rails both being realistic possibilities. Then again, it’s college basketball in March — it’s a good sign if you have a lot to play for.