Reporting Adam Hoge
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By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) It was just last week when Northwestern’s hopes to earn its first ever NCAA Tournament bid appeared to be left for dead.
How quickly things can change in the wild and wacky Big Ten.
After grabbing their first win at Illinois since 1999 and protecting their home floor against Nebraska and Iowa, the Wildcats have won three in a row and are back on the proverbial “bubble”.
At 15-8 overall and just 5-6 in the Big Ten, Northwestern’s record isn’t necessarily impressive, but that didn’t stop CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm from putting the ‘Cats in his latest projected tournament field Friday. Palm has Northwestern as a No. 11 seed facing No. 3-seeded UNLV.
I can’t really blame Palm for putting the Wildcats in the field, but it is somewhat surprising they aren’t one of the last four teams in, which would put them in one of the four “play-in” games.
But it’s those play-in games — technically the first round — that are one of a few factors in Northwestern’s favor. This is the second year of the 68-team NCAA Tournament field, meaning there are three extra spots available.
Also in Northwestern’s favor is the strength of the Big Ten. If the Wildcats can finish with a 9-9 record in the nation’s deepest conference, it could be enough to get in.
Finally, there’s also the sentiment that the NCAA Selection Committee will give Northwestern an edge over other bubble teams because the ‘Cats have never made the tournament. Having sat in on an educational session on how the NCAA Selection Committee works, I can tell you that the committee would likely deny that sentiment, but keep in mind that these are humans putting together the bracket and not BCS computers. Emotions are a part of the process, whether intentional or not.
According to CBSSports.com’s RPI, Northwestern ranks No. 37, which is likely why Palm has the ‘Cats safely in the field as a No. 11 seed instead of as a No. 12 or No. 13 seed in a play-in game. NU’s strength of schedule is No. 12, which ranks third behind Michigan State (No. 4) and Michigan (No. 11) in the Big Ten.
The problem is that while their tough schedule will help their case, the Wildcats only have one big resume win — at home against Michigan State. The road win at Illinois is certainly a resume builder as well, but the Illini aren’t ranked and have a sub-.500 Big Ten record. Losses against Baylor, at Creighton, at Ohio State, at Michigan and at Wisconsin can all be listed as “good losses” on the resume, but the committee might also view home losses against Illinois and Purdue as games an NCAA Tournament-worthy team should have won.
At this point, however, there really isn’t any reason to look back. We can all agree that Northwestern is on the bubble and has a chance to earn its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth. That means what happens from this point on is what’s important.
The Wildcats have seven regular season games remaining and a 9-9 Big Ten record should be the goal. That means they have to go 4-3 the rest of the way and even then, at least one Big Ten Tournament win might be necessary to guarantee a berth.
But with four road games and a home date against Ohio State remaining, the path is not easy. Back-t0-back trips to Purdue and Indiana are on deck in the next week and splitting those games would be considered a victory. After that are two must-win home games against Minnesota and Michigan. Those are followed by a road game at Penn State, the huge home game against Ohio State and the regular season finale at Iowa.
Northwestern nearly took out Ohio State at home last season and a win over the Buckeyes would obviously help a lot. However, if they lose that one, it could all come down to road games at Penn State and Iowa — the kind of games the Wildcats have lost in the past. Is this team different? They have the opportunity to prove they are — the opportunity to prove they belong in the NCAA Tournament.
Of course if all else fails, don’t forget about the Big Ten Tournament, which I believe nine teams have a legitimate shot of winning — including Northwestern.
One thing is for sure, though. Selection Sunday is just over four weeks away and the next month is the most important month in the history of Northwestern basketball.
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.