Gruen: Is This Finally Northwestern’s Year To Make The NCAA Tournament? It’s Looking Like It

By Seth Gruen–

(CBS) I have fraternal twin friends from high school who pledge their undying support to both Northwestern football and basketball. When Northwestern played Duke this past season in football, one of the twins sent his girlfriend to a wedding rehearsal dinner by herself so he could attend a game between the two teams.

Don’t worry, everything was fine: The Wildcats won 24-13.

For a bunch of guys in our early 30s, my group of remaining high school friends is unusually large, the lot of which find the twins’ fandom partly bizarre as a strangely high priority in their lives (especially given that one is a cardiologist). The twins attend every home game, scrimmage and team event for both programs.

Many of you are probably aware that Northwestern basketball has never made the NCAA Tournament, a factoid these twins are constantly reminded of by both my friends and broadcasters calling Wildcats’ basketball games.

The latter seem to mention it more often these days, because the Wildcats are poised to, potentially, break that streak of futility.

This is blasphemy for my group of friends that wants to believe it will never happen and have collected seemingly every other negative statistic associated with the program: Northwestern hasn’t had a winning conference record since the 1967-’68 season, has never made the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament (which means winning two games if you finish with a regular-season record in the top-10 in conference), has had only one All-American — Evan Eschmeyer — according to SportsReference.com and precisely zero players currently playing in the NBA.

It should be noted that Northwestern’s media guide claims nine All-Americans, seven of whom are pictured wearing shorts shorter than daisy dukes and another, John Shurna, who was an Associated Press honorable mention All-American in 2012.

None of my friends, except those two twins, want to believe Northwestern is on its way to dancing in March. Many of them would sooner check the temperature in hell.

And while I’m guessing it still reads “hot,” I think there’s a cold front blowing in.

A general barometer for tournament selection among Big Ten teams is 20 or more wins and a conference record above .500. Teams have made it falling short of that mark, but I can’t remember a team that has met that standard and hasn’t been selected.

Win five of its final 11 games, and Northwestern would have those credentials. The Wildcats are currently 16-4 and 5-2 in the Big Ten.

Courtesy of the Big Ten’s screwy scheduling system, though — yes, scheduling is hard, but the conference slate nonetheless always comes out unbalanced — there’s still reason to question the absolute certainty of the Wildcats being selected into the field of 68.

If the season ended today, they would be in.

But the tougher part of Northwestern’s schedule starts with a game against No. 20 Purdue on Wednesday. Including that game, four of the Wildcats’ final nine games come against ranked opponents. Throw in games against Indiana and Michigan, and five wins is far from a guarantee. Having had a relatively easy schedule thus far, Northwestern is still looking for a signature win on its resume.

But making a value judgment on this team by looking at its win-loss record is like walking into a restaurant and saying “this looks good” without tasting anything on the menu.

One really needs to watch Northwestern games — both past and present — to understand why this team is so different from those in its abhorrent history.

Regardless of which short list of All-Americans you choose to interpret, each indicates that Northwestern has never enjoyed a wealth of talent. Skilled players have come through the program — Eschmeyer, Shurna and Drew Crawford (I may be leaving some out, but eh, probably not) — but they haven’t been paired with another.

The Wildcats have always been easy to guard with, at best, one player capable of scoring at a high level. But this year’s team boasts at least three: Bryant McIntosh (12.6 points per game), Scottie Lindsey (16.1) and Vic Law (14.0), the latter of whom was coach Chris Collins’ first signee and the first top-100 prospect in school history.

Center Dererk Pardon (7.8 points, 7.5 rebounds) adds a nastiness that previous Northwestern teams, afraid to get their fingers dirty, lacked. Pardon can make the toughest of Big Ten players look timid and ensures that Northwestern won’t be punished in the paint.

So we can finally say that Northwestern is talented.

Collins has more talent coming too. There’s a lot of lesser-used players on this team being developed who have the promise to continue to help the program remain competitive in the Big Ten.

All which makes me confident that Collins will get this program to its first tournament. I can’t definitively say it will happen this year. I can say, however, that the twins should make sure they don’t have any weddings or rehearsal dinners in March.

They might have to miss them. Only then, I guess, it might be slightly understandable.

Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.

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