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How has Northwestern men’s basketball fared in comparison to expectations?

Can the ‘Cats make it back to the NCAA Tournament?

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations for Northwestern men’s basketball have changed a lot over the last couple of seasons.

Two years ago, the ‘Cats were coming off a 15-16 overall record and had lost two of their top players to the transfer portal in Pete Nance and Ryan Young. The vibes were low in Evanston with nobody expecting much. Flash forward to this season, as the Wildcats come off their second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. The expectations for this team are simple: Get back to the Big Dance. It is right on track for it.

While reaching the tournament in back-to-back seasons may seem like high expectations, Northwestern has the talent on its roster to make that happen. Losing Chase Audige and Robbie Beran hurt, but bringing back Boo Buie for his fifth year changed everything. Without Buie, the expectations for this team could have been radically different and much lower. Bringing in Ryan Langborg, who helped lead Princeton to the Sweet 16, as well as the improvement from players such as Brooks Barnhizer and Ty Berry prove that there is tournament-caliber talent on this roster.

The Wildcats’ resume this year is funky. Their record currently sits tied for third in the Big Ten at 4-2 in conference play with a 13-4 overall record. They also have arguably one of the best wins in all of college basketball this year: a 92-88 overtime win over then No. 1 Purdue.

However, they also have one of the worse losses in college basketball this year, a 75-73 home loss against Chicago State. When you add on a 30-point loss to their rival, Illinois, you begin to wonder if these losses outweigh the good.

The only other two losses that the ‘Cats have are a neutral site loss to Mississippi State and a road loss to Wisconsin that came down to the final few minutes. Both of these games are considered Quad 1 losses based on the NET rankings, and shouldn’t hurt Northwestern too much.

Now taking a look at more of the positives, the Wildcats have clearly shown that they can compete against top teams in the nation. With three Quad 1 wins against Purdue, Michigan State and Dayton, the team has done a good job winning big games. The loss at Wisconsin also proved that the ‘Cats can play strong on the road in a tough environment, and it shouldn’t shock anyone if they come away with some quality Big Ten road wins in the future.

Northwestern has also found the ability to win close games, something that is sure to help them with a very competitive Big Ten schedule. Three of NU’s four Big Ten wins have been by four points or less. Close games played a big factor for last year’s team that made it to the tournament, as the ‘Cats went 6-4 in Big Ten games decided by six points or fewer.

Different projections currently showcase the Wildcats right along the bubble. CBS Sports has Northwestern listed as a 10-seed while ESPN lists the ‘Cats as an 11-seed. While Northwestern is on track to get to the NCAA Tournament, it will need to continue picking up big wins and avoiding bad losses in order to move away from the bubble. The ‘Cats will have chances to solidify their resume in the upcoming weeks. Road matchups at Nebraska and Purdue as well as a home game against Illinois all provide opportunities to pick up some more Quad 1 wins before January ends. After that, the Big Ten schedule gets a little easier as the season moves on.

Even though Northwestern is on track to meet expectations this year, some bad losses early on make it difficult to say that it is exceeding expectations. If you take away the Chicago State loss, it would have been a different story, but that’s not how it went. In order to outdo expectations, the ‘Cats are going to have to go above and beyond. That could be winning the Big Ten regular season or tournament or making a run in the NCAA Tournament. While this may seem harsh based off of Northwestern basketball history, it’s about where the team stands right now. This team is talented enough to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, it’s just a matter of if it can string together some wins and get hot at the right time.