Taking a Look At Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament CasePosted by jnowak on February 7th, 2012
Ah, life on the bubble. One day things look good, and the next they look bleak. Today, things are looking up for Northwestern as Bill Carmody tries to lead the Wildcats to their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth. But how long can things look rosy, and how much wiggle room to they have? Potentially not long. And not much.
To start with, the Wildcats already have the 10th-best strength of schedule in the country, and it should stay in that range through the end of the season. They also have a strong RPI of #37, and are certainly the beneficiaries of a first-rate Big Ten this year (six of the top 10 schools for strength of schedule are from the conference). Also, the Wildcats really don’t have a terrible loss. Every team they’ve lost to — Baylor, Creighton, Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue — has a legitimate shot at the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern’s worst defeat is probably a 75-52 loss at Minnesota, one of their three road losses by 20 or more points.
As for their road ahead in order to secure an NCAA Tournament bid, the Wildcats must win three of their last four at home, beating Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan, and losing just to Ohio State. As for road games, they need to beat Penn State and Iowa but can afford losses at Purdue and Indiana. If things go that way, the Wildcats will be 19-11 overall and 9-9 in the conference with wins over Michigan State, Michigan and at Illinois. Best-case scenario, Northwestern could end up 20-12 overall (9-9 Big Ten) with a Big Ten Tournament win to help pad the resume, without a single disastrous loss to an RPI Top 100 team.
At this point, the Big Ten has nine teams that have a case for the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan are most assuredly in. Between Illinois (they’re probably in), Purdue, Northwestern and Minnesota, at least one of those clubs probably will not dance. Eight teams in the Tournament is generous, but nine is probably unlikely. Northwestern’s remaining games against Purdue and Minnesota are critical for that very reason.
So can they do it?
Northwestern is a team that rarely plays well below its potential, and often exceeds it. It’s a team with multiple scoring threats, led by John Shurna (leading the Big Ten with 19.6 PPG) and Drew Crawford (fourth with 17.2 PPG). The Wildcats are not a top-tier defensive team (11th in the conference in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense) and don’t rebound the ball well. But when they have it in their possession, nobody takes better care of the basketball than the Wildcats and they’re one of the most lethal three-point shooting clubs in the conference. But what could be most detrimental to Northwestern down the stretch is the toll a long, grueling Big Ten season can take on the team’s top players. Three of the top six players in the conference in terms of minutes played are from the Wildcats roster — Shurna second with 36.7 MPG, Dave Sobolewski with 35.1 and Crawford sixth with 34.7.
The Wildcats have as good a chance as ever to dance this spring, and should be thanking their lucky stars the Tournament field has been expanded to 68. They need a little help on the bubble, must take care of their business at home, potentially steal a game in the Big Ten Tournament and find a way to have other players on their roster contribute down the stretch. But with their fate in their own hands, now may be a good time to buy stock in Northwestern.