The Curious Case of Northwestern

Typically, debating a team’s NCAA Tournament merits in mid-January is absurd. However, after Northwestern’s impressive 81-74 win against No. 6 Michigan State on Saturday, many of those in the college basketball world are trying to one up each other with ways to describe the victory.

“The biggest win in Northwestern history!”

“This is Northwestern’s best team ever!”

“With this win, Northwestern is in the NCAA Tournament! Guaranteed!”

Talk about overreacting. It was a very good win for the Wildcats, who are attempting to claw their way into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

Stop me if you’ve heard that before. That’s right. You heard it last year.

And the year before.

And the year before that.

Ever since Jon Shurna, the 6-foot-9 lanky forward, stepped on Evanston’s campus the Wildcats have been on the cusp of the Big Dance. Shurna, now a senior, is averaging a team-high 19.1 points per game after averaging 16.6 and 18.2 the past two seasons. He’s a do-it-all forward for a team desperate to snap a painfully historical drought.

Nevertheless, Shurna’s play coupled with the recent field expansion from 65 to 68 teams still hasn’t enabled Northwestern to crack the bracket.

While this season could be different, overreacting to the win against Michigan State will only make things more painful for Wildcat faithful if the recent trend continues.

The fact is this Northwestern team isn’t much different than any of the previous three – all of which earned a spot in the NIT. While this team’s Pomeroy ranking is the highest (see chart below), it should be noted Northwestern jumped from 60th to 48th after Saturday’s victory.

Offensively, the team is very much in line with most of Bill Carmody’s teams, which is a good thing. The same can be said about the defense, though that’s nothing to boast about.

Like all teams, Northwestern holds its own destiny. The Wildcats remaining schedule features road games against Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana – all wins that would be significant road victories on an NCAA Tournament resume. Northwestern also has home games against Purdue, Michigan and Ohio State. There are plenty of opportunities for the Wildcats to make a statement to the NCAA Selection Committee.

The question is: Will that statement be a good one or bad one?

This indeed might be the year Northwestern finally sees its name in the NCAA Tournament bracket. But two victories to date – a neutral-site win against Seton Hall and Saturday’s home victory against Michigan State – won’t be enough to carry the Wildcats to the Big Dance on their own.