Staff Predictions: March Madness

Northwestern men’s basketball is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017. The ‘Cats battle Boise State on Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. CST. WNUR Sports will have the call from Sacramento, but ahead of the first round matchup, our staff predicts how far Northwestern can go in the Big Dance.

Kendall Wright (@k_wright4): Second Round

I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I believe the Wildcats will fall in the second round. The team has lost 4 of its last 5 games, including two heart-breakers to Penn State. Their shot selection and defense haven’t been their best the past couple of weeks. And committing late-game turnovers won’t get the job done. I’m confident that the Wildcats can take care of Boise State in the first round. The Wildcats have the advantage in terms of strength of schedule as the Big Ten has been super competitive this season as this year’s March Madness features eight schools from the conference. I believe that UCLA will be too much for Northwestern. Though UCLA is down one of their best players in Jaylen Clark, the Bruins only lost by two points to Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship, an Arizona team that could win it all. Additionally, the game is played at a neutral site, which favors the California crowd. No matter how far Northwestern goes, the team should feel so proud of what they’ve accomplished this season, having taken down Big Ten powerhouses Purdue, Indiana, and Michigan State. Chase Audige and Boo Buie have earned their Big Ten honors and I hope they take that to Sacramento this week. 

Max Rogal (@mjrog3): First Round

Wow, I hope I’m wrong here but I’ve lost a lot of confidence I had in this team just a few weeks ago. Northwestern’s inability to create consistent offense outside of Boo Buie has been their achilles heel down the stretch and the Boise State defense will be well prepared to take advantage. On offense the Broncos have all five starters averaging double figure scoring, making them balanced enough to counter Northwestern’s aggressive defense. It won’t be pretty, but I see Boise State moving on in Sacramento with their first ever NCAA tournament win.

Ryan Choe (@RyanChoe_2602): Sweet Sixteen

The ‘Cats are back dancing for the second time in school history during what has been one of the most memorable sports runs in Evanston. With signature wins over Purdue and Indiana (twice), the ‘Cats have shown they can tango with any of the top teams in the country. However, five losses in their last six contests (including two OT deja vu heartbreakers against Penn State) gives the ‘Cats and their supporters little momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament. A first round matchup against the 10-seeded Boise State Broncos is sure to be a slug fest as both teams boast stout scoring defenses (NU 18th at 62.3 surrendered points per game and Boise State 28th at 63.7). However, I have a feeling NU emerges victorious from an overtime thriller to #LighttheBeam on Thursday night in a game where breakout star Brooks Barnhizer steps up with the Broncos defense shutting down Boo Buie and Chase Audige. If the ‘Cats do move on to the second round, they are likely to garner the 2-seeded UCLA Bruins. Although it would be a tall task and long shot for Chris Collins and co. to execute a winning formula for this contest, crazier things have happened in March. A potential ‘Cats vs Bruins matchup in the second round has all the makings of a signature Boo Buie breakout and second-greatest upset win for NU this season (beating then-No. 1 Purdue is simply too memorable). Unfortunately, I think the Sweet 16 is where Northwestern will likely see their season end at the latest. At this point in the tournament, the level of competition will simply be too great and whoever their battle-tested opponent is will emerge victorious over Northwestern (an overall lack of consistency this season will end up hurting the ‘Cats even if they are coming off a victory against UCLA). However, a scenario unfolding like this will surpass any dreams NU fans could have ever hoped for if you asked back in November. 

Sophia Vlahakis (@sophia_vlahakis): Second Round

First things first: I don’t see how anyone can justify Northwestern beating UCLA, which objectively speaking is a team that can make a deep tournament run. But this isn’t about how far the ‘Cats can dance, it’s a matter of leaving this tournament with something more than a bid. The program’s second-ever March Madness win will speak to Chris Collins and his team overcoming expectations and the ‘Cats clawing their way through the Big Ten. Boise State’s defense is a tough opponent: they can drastically reduce shooting opportunities and are especially efficient at defending the three. In combination with Northwestern’s recent shooting struggles, Boise State, the 10-seed against a 7-seed, actually seems to be the favorite. But, that’s just another opportunity for the Wildcats to defy expectations a little bit more. As a team, as a program, as a school, Northwestern always finds itself as the little engine that could, and because the statistics never actually predict the future in  March Madness, Northwestern can. It’ll be a low-scoring defensive fight, but I don’t think Boise State immediately gains the advantage in this category, as NU is top-20 in defensive efficiency. Scratch recent downward trends and the last five games because this is a new start and Northwestern’s offense can make the difference. Boo Buie can lead as he knows how, Chase Audige can be both the offensive and defensive cheat code he was earlier in the season and Brooks Barnhizer and Ty Berry may just get their own spotlight in Sacramento.

Brea Lassek (@BreaLassek): Second Round

From the hot seat to the Big Dance, Chris Collins and his squad shocked everyone this season. Realistically, I’d like to see a first-round win, which definitely isn’t guaranteed against a defensively sound Boise St team. Who knows what will happen though– this team has proven the basketball world wrong this whole year. This is March. Chris Collins, the Pioneer. That’s all.

Ally Navarrete (@ally_nav12): Sweet Sixteen

I’ll take the ‘Cats to the Sweet 16, giving them one more win than in 2017. Unfortunately, if their region plays out how I think it will, taking down the Zags will prove to be too tough, and they’ll fall in the Sweet 16. Still a pretty good fate for a team that had everyone doubting its future a year ago!

Andrew Neville (@AndrewNeville20): Second Round

The Round of 64 game against Boise State is going to be the definition of a rock fight. The Broncos, like the ‘Cats, are known for their defense and slowing the game down. Northwestern has played in a few of these games this year (see Auburn, Rutgers) so I think the added experience with a physical brand of basketball will give the ‘Cats just enough of a boost to buck the Broncos in Round One. UCLA in the second round is an entirely different animal, however. The No. 5 overall seed, the Bruins are talented at every position, and have the defensive ability to shut down Boo Buie. The ‘Cats will need a herculean effort to knock off UCLA, and I do not see it happen.

Maria Heim (@MariaHeim4): Second Round

5… 6… 7… 8… Dancing with the Wildcats and the Broncos! Northwestern has something that Boise State does not: an NCAA Tournament win. Considering the way that both teams defend, this seems like a low-scoring game. Northwestern will continue to dance beating Boise State 67 to 65. Consider Northwestern’s seven wins over Quad 1 teams in comparison to the Broncos three. For this to come alive, Northwestern will need to keep the ball moving throughout this game and hammer in on Boise State’s weaknesses. Yet who’s next… no other than the Bruins of UCLA predicting that they defeat the No. 15 seed UNC Asheville. Whether or not Northwestern will defeat UCLA? I’ll dance around the question for now.

Andrew Kupfer (@AndrewKupfer): First Round

What a ride it’s been for the Wildcats this season. The team was projected to finish in second to last place in the Big Ten and made it to the Big Dance in improbable fashion. Now, a tough test lies ahead of them. If they can manage to outdo Boise State, they’d be slated to most likely play UCLA, then Gonzaga and then Kansas. These teams are playing some of their best basketball right now, something the Wildcats are not doing. Boise State has five players that score 10+ a night. Even though they aren’t deep, the Broncos will make it difficult for the Wildcats to take away their main guy because anyone on the team can put up points. As much as I want to be proven wrong, I sadly don’t see the Wildcats advancing past Boise State in the first round.

Brendan Preisman (@BrendanPreisman): Second Round

I believe that the Wildcats are going to make it to the round of 32 for the second time in school history.  Their defense is one of the best in the nation and they should be able to take advantage of a Boise State team that has very little depth.  However, UCLA is one of the 10 best teams in the nation, and behind Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell, they should have enough offensive firepower to defeat the ‘Cats.