Is Northwestern Finally Breaking Through?

Posted by Jim Root on November 30th, 2016

It’s nearly impossible to talk about Northwestern basketball without mentioning its ignominious streak of missing the NCAA Tournament in every year since the event’s inception. While that dishonor receives nowhere near the public interest that north side of Chicago neighbor Cubs’ 107-year World Series drought gets, it’s a similar marker of futility. Wait — what’s that? The Cubs did what this year? Well, I’ll be darned… so can another long Windy City sports dry spell be snapped this year? Early indicators look good.

Bryant McIntosh looks like an all-conference lead guard, both scoring and distributing the basketball. (AP)

Bryant McIntosh looks like an all-conference lead guard, both scoring and distributing the basketball. (AP)

The outlook at this point is relatively positive, as head coach Chris Collins did an excellent job of fixing last year’s primary problem — an incredibly weak non-conference schedule (334th nationally, per both KenPom’s ranking system and ESPN’s RPI formula). The Wildcats have already played a road game at Butler (L), neutral site games against Texas (W) and Notre Dame (L), and beat Wake Forest at home in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge earlier this week. A win at Butler or against the Irish would have been massively helpful for Northwestern’s at-large cause, but a vastly improved non-conference strength of schedule already puts Collins’ team ahead of last year’s resume. As it’s not even December yet, there’s still work to do. Northwestern cannot afford a loss in its five remaining non-conference home games against shaky-to-very-bad foes, and a December 17 date with Dayton at the United Center in Chicago looms as the team’s last chance to provide substance to its ledger. That game against the Flyers will present the Wildcats with the odd situation of having an interior advantage, something that they are unlikely to experience during the Big Ten grinder.

The other obvious aspect of this potentially historic season for Northwestern (yes, possibly making the NCAA Tournament counts as “potentially historic”) is the conference portion of the schedule. The nature of a 14-team conference means that schedules within the same season can be terribly imbalanced; luckily for the Wildcats, their draw this year is relatively normal. Each Big Ten team plays home-and-home with five opponents: Northwestern gets two conference title contenders (Indiana and Purdue), an NCAA bubble candidate (Illinois), and two likely bottom feeders (Rutgers and Nebraska). This slate provides a nice mixture of big win opportunities along with chances to pad their conference record — something that definitely seems to matter come Selection Sunday, despite the committee’s claims to the contrary. The biggest bummer from a scheduling perspective is that the Wildcats will not get home dates with Wisconsin, Michigan State or Ohio State — opportunities for the kind of marquee upsets that tend to catch the committee’s eye.

Northwestern is by no means a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but the Wildcats have given themselves a very real chance through seven games of action. Bryant McIntosh looks like an all-conference lead guard in both scoring and distributing the ball; Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey give Collins some much needed athleticism and shooting on the wing; and Sanjay Lumpkin and Gavin Skelly look excellent in their complementary roles thus far. All of this means that Chicago sports fans waiting for that blessed day to come may need to restock the fireworks and clear the parade routes again this March. And while Northwestern clearly doesn’t hold that kind of sway in Chicago, it would be a colossal boost to the long-moribund basketball program.

Jim Root (8 Posts)

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