By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) Northwestern’s basketball history — or the lack there of for the cynical among us — has been widely publicized in these parts. But this season has a slightly different feel to it.
It’s at least one in which the Wildcats are believed to have a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. Believe it or not, even that mere hope hasn’t existed much in Evanston.
More than a quarter of the way through the Big Ten season, Northwestern coach Chris Collins has put together a squad representative of, well, one that can actually be competitive in the conference.
Will this team finally end the school’s history of futility? Maybe. At this point, would the Wildcats (15-3) make the tournament? That’s a little more in doubt. Northwestern did what it needed to during its non-conference slate, losing only to now No. 5-ranked North Carolina on Nov. 23, but its pre-Big Ten schedule was extremely weak.
There’s no blaming the Wildcats, a young, less experienced team, for scheduling such easy non-conference, but that also doesn’t eliminate the fact that the tournament committee will take that into account when assessing the Wildcats.
It puts more pressure on Northwestern to win in the Big Ten season. At 3-2 in Big Ten play, the Wildcats are in good position, but predicting is unscientific — especially considering the number of other power conference teams still in the hunt for one of the tournament’s 68 slots.
Still, there’s a a roadmap for exactly what the Wildcats need to do in their remaining 13 games this season. It can change, sure, but follow this roadmap, one that is completely realistic, and Northwestern will find itself dancing in March. Let’s take a look.
Win against Penn State at home on Saturday
The Nittany Lions are one of the Big Ten’s worst teams. With a tough conference stretch to come, Northwestern can hardly afford losing to Penn State. A loss would be a black eye on their tournament resume.
Go .500 at Maryland (1/19), at Indiana (1/23), vs. Michigan State (1/28) and at Iowa (1/31)
This is by far Northwestern’s toughest stretch of the season and also one with opportunity. While it will be tough to win two of these games, the Wildcats have played well at Indiana under Collins and also against Michigan State. Beat one of the three ranked teams on this list — Maryland, Iowa or Michigan State — and it will serve as the anchor of Northwestern’s tournament resume.
Win vs. Minnesota on 2/4
The Wildcats torched the Gophers in Minneapolis and should have an easier time at home.
Split games at Ohio State (2/9) and vs. Illinois (2/13)
The Wildcats lost a game against the Buckeyes at home on Jan. 6 that got away from them in the final minutes. It’s a game that easily could have gone Northwestern’s way. While Illinois has struggled this season, its RPI (74) is actually higher than Northwestern’s (95) as of this writing. The Illini have a relatively easy schedule leading up to that game against the Wildcats and could climb back into tournament conversation, making the Feb. 13 game a potential bubble burster.
Split road games vs. Purdue (2/16) and Michigan (2/24)
Both teams are tournament-bound. This may be obvious but is worth noting nonetheless: A team that wants to make the tournament has to beat teams that will be there.
Win two of the final three games — vs. Rutgers (2/27), at Penn State (3/3) and vs. Nebraska (3/6)
By this point in the season, Rutgers and Penn State will assuredly be out of tournament conversation, while Nebraska is a team that Northwestern handled at home. The Wildcats will need all three games to pad their resume.
Big Ten power rankings
1. Maryland (15-2, 4-1) — The Terrapins have the country’s best starting five.
2. Iowa (13-3, 4-0) — The Hawkeyes have beaten Michigan State twice.
3. Michigan State (16-2, 3-2) — Does it matter? The Spartans will be Final Four contenders no matter what.
4. Indiana (14-3, 3-0) — Tom Crean might be saving his job.
5. Michigan (13-4, 3-1) — A big game at Iowa is on tap Sunday.
6. Purdue (15-3, 3-2) — Leading scorer A.J. Hammons is loaded with talent.
7. Ohio State (12-6, 4-1) — It’s a big game at Maryland on Saturday.
8. Northwestern (15-3, 3-2) — Their real season begins now.
9. Illinois (9-8, 1-3) — The Illini have a chance to climb back into the tournament conversation with an easy stretch upcoming.
10. Nebraska (10-8, 2-3) — This is preemptive but a tough stretch should knock them out of things.
11. Penn State (10-8, 1-4) — After playing Maryland close in the conference opener, the Nittany Lions haven’t looked good.
12. Wisconsin (9-9, 1-4) — I’m rooting for interim coach Greg Gard.
13. Minnesota (6-11, 0-5) — The Gophers are still searching for a Big Ten win.
14. Rutgers (6-12, 0-5) — The Scarlet Knights never really stood a chance.
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.