By Adam Hoge-
EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS) – Before tipoff at Welsh-Ryan Arena, some of the most loyal fans sitting courtside called Tuesday night’s game against Michigan “the biggest game in Northwestern’s history.”
Whether or not it really was doesn’t matter because the Wildcats lost 67-55 in overtime, which means every game from here on out is even bigger if Northwestern wants to receive its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.
There’s little doubt the ‘Cats missed out on a giant opportunity Tuesday night in Evanston. Squarely on the proverbial “bubble”, a win over the Wolverines would have given Northwestern a third win over an RPI Top 50 team, propelling its resume well past some of the other teams fighting for a tournament berth.
“This is a tough loss, but I think we are just going to look at it as we fought hard and we lost to a good team,” junior guard Reggie Hearn said after the game. “We had a chance to get a resume-building win, we didn’t get it, but there’s still a lot left to play for.”
Hearn’s attitude is exactly how the NU players should look at Tuesday’s loss. It was a big opportunity, but the idea that it was “must-win” is simply a misconception. A loss to Michigan is not a bad loss in any way and it’s possible the Wildcats would still be in the NCAA Tournament if the selections were made today.
NU has now taken Michigan to overtime twice this season and Bill Carmody wasn’t the only Big Ten coach in the building Tuesday who still thinks Northwestern is an NCAA Tournament team.
“Absolutely,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said when asked if NU was good enough to make the tournament. “Let’s really look at this. We’ve beat them twice in overtime. This league is so good, both of those times, I mean, Marcotullio missed the foul shot (in the first game), and here, the last shot could have gone in on their end. We’re 0-2 and they’re in the tournament.”
He’s right. But unfortunately, it’s the Wildcats who are 0-2 in those two games and because they lost Tuesday night, they have some major work left to do. The two remaining road games at Penn State (Saturday) and at Iowa (Mar. 3) are indeed “must wins” and next week’s home clash against Ohio State will probably actually be “the biggest game in Northwestern history”.
The problem is the Wildcats only have one road win in Big Ten play (at reeling Illinois) and if they couldn’t hold onto a seven-point halftime lead against Michigan in a game with enormous hype, one can only wonder how they will be able to put it all together against an even better Ohio State team next week.
And that’s why Tuesday’s game against Michigan was indeed a huge missed opportunity. The Cats needed another big win to put on their resume. Now they’ll have to beat Ohio State next week or pull off a significant upset in the Big Ten Tournament, meaning they’ll have to win at least two games in Indianapolis. And that’s assuming they win their last two road games, which is anything but a guarantee.
After the game, head coach Bill Carmody said it was possible his players were “jittery” and that was evident as Northwestern failed to score before the first media timeouts in the both the first and second halves. They also failed to score in the last 1:58 of regulation after John Shurna gave the ‘Cats a 49-46 lead. The drought carried over to overtime as Northwestern didn’t score until Dave Sobolewski hit a layup with 1:42 left. By then it was too late as the Wolverines had already hit three 3-pointers in a row to take a 9-point lead.
But despite the failures down the stretch, the Northwestern players insist they don’t feel the pressure of the program never having made an NCAA Tournament.
“We embrace the fact we are fighting that and it gives us energy, if anything,” Hearn said.
Considering he hit all four shots he took and finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds, Hearn’s play backs up his words. And if the rest of the team is on the same page as him, the Wildcats still have a great shot at reaching the tournament.
But unfortunately at this stage, all that matters are the results and Northwestern didn’t get the win Tuesday.
“It would have been a really good win,” Carmody said. “But it wouldn’t have assured us of anything and it doesn’t knock us out of the box either.”
A loss at Penn State, however, might knock Northwestern out of the box. And oh by the way, the Wildcats haven’t won a game in Happy Valley in 10 years.
Hey, no one’s saying it’s going to be easy.
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the White Sox, Blackhawks 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.