Joe’s Corner

In this week’s edition of Joe’s Corner, Joe Misulonas looks at how Northwestern can play its way into the NCAA tournament following an upset victory over #12 Minnesota.

A Preposterous Conclusion from Northwestern’s Upset over Minnesota

With their upset win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Wednesday night, the Northwestern Men’s Basketball team put themselves on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.

No, I’m not joking. Perhaps exaggerating, but not joking.

Imagine that this basketball season is a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. Northwestern was dealt a an 8-7 off-suit to begin the season. After the flop, a ten came up and for some reason we decided to stay in the hand. Then a Jack came up on the turn. So now Northwestern needs a 9, and we’ll get a straight and win the hand!

Northwestern is an inside straight draw away from making the NCAA tournament. There’s only four cards in the entire deck that can help us get there, so the odds are not in our favor. But, there’s still a chance.

Northwestern is coming off three straight strong performances. First, they beat a then-ranked Illinois team on the road (by double digits). They followed it up with a game in which Northwestern was within four points of my pick to win the National Championship, Indiana. Then the now infamous upset victory over the Minnesota Golden Gophers, whose only three loses prior to Northwestern were Indiana, Michigan, and Duke.

Northwestern’s current RPI is 80. Northwestern’s strength of schedule will only increase the rest of the year, with two games remaining against Ohio State, one against Michigan, and one against Michigan State, which will help lower its RPI. Northwestern will probably have to lower their RPI another thirty to forty points in order to be considered truly “on the bubble,” when Selection Sunday comes around.

Obviously, there are two factors that everyone looks at: quality wins and notable losses.
Last season Northwestern came the closest to making the NCAA Tournament than any other season in program history. Last year, they had only one quality win against Michigan State (you could also argue Seton Hall, but you would be wrong). This year, they have three quality wins against Baylor, Minnesota, and Illinois (although that Illinois win seems less and less great as the days go by).
However, notable losses is a different story. Last year they had none. This year, they have the inexplicable UIC loss.

The question is what record will Northwestern have to finish with in order to make the tournament. Last season, Northwestern’s 8-10 conference record was seen as adequate enough to make the tournament if it hadn’t been for their Big Ten Tournament first round bounce at the hands of the Golden Gophers. I believe that with three quality wins versus only one notable loss, 8-10 will be good enough to get Northwestern on the bubble again this season, assuming Baylor continues to play well and Illinois finds a way to somewhat salvage their season.

Northwestern is currently 3-4 in Big Ten play. I will now sketch out the route to 8-10 and a possible NCAA berth:

Northwestern beats the teams they’re supposed to beat the rest of the year. This means beating Nebraska and Penn State, as well as Purdue twice. Nebraska and Penn State are probably a lock, while Purdue may be a little more difficult. Purdue has also begun turning their season around, now on a three game winning streak. Northwestern has proven recently that it can play with, and even beat, the Big Ten’s best. But they are still an inconsistent squad, and expecting them to sweep a modestly good Purdue may be a bit too much to ask. Northwestern takes 3 out of those four games. This gives my hypothetical Wildcats 6 conference wins.

Now we turn to what I call the moderate difficulty opponents. This includes Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Northwestern just lost by 20 points to Iowa at home, so they probably won’t win on the road. Then there’s Wisconsin, who has the distinction of being only one of two teams to beat Indiana. We’re not Indiana, they’ll find a way to beat us. This leaves Illinois, whom we just beat by fourteen points in Champaign. We get them at home on February 17th. I’ll take Northwestern winning again, embarrassing the Illini, and giving us our seventh conference win (and a fourth quality win).
That leaves the elites. Northwestern faces Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State twice. I only see one out of these four games being winnable for Northwestern, that being the Ohio State game at home. Ohio State lost to Illinois by nineteen points in Champaign. Considering how poorly Ohio State has played in Welsh-Ryan the last two years (and without Wildcat killer Jared Sullinger on the lineup anymore), Northwestern puts out an effort similar to their Indiana and Minnesota performances, and finally beats the Buckeyes, giving us our eighth conference win and a fifth quality victory.
And there’s always the wildcard of the Big Ten Tournament. This could bolster the team’s NCAA resumé (or sink it, but that’s a story for a different time).

Northwestern is the unluckiest program in college sports. A 64-year bowl drought and zero NCAA tournament appearances. Perhaps the unlucky 13th year of this century will prove to be the lucky year for Northwestern sports. The bowl drought has already been vanquished, why not the Tournament drought as well?

Every once in a while, the cards fall in the right place.

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