This probably won’t be the year. Sure it could, but folks have been asking if this will finally be the year that the Northwestern Wildcats make the NCAA tournament and the answer year after year, forever, has been a resounding no. The Wildcats are no pushovers, and haven’t been the last few seasons. They are deceptively tough to defeat at home, and have a nasty habit of picking off one of the better teams in the conference on the road. However, so far that has not been enough, and any strides they take by beating one of the better teams are often eclipsed by a season destroying loss. Last season they were swept by Penn State and thumped by the depleted Gophers. The season before they were swept in double-digit fashion by a Penn State team that won three conference games. The key for a bubble team is to win the games they are supposed to win and win a game or two that they are not supposed to win. Part one has been the problem for the Wildcats.
How they’ve done so far:
Northwestern will enter the Big Ten season with a moderately impressive 10-2 record. The wins are good, but only one is worth anything. Way back before Thanksgiving the Wildcats beat Seton Hall, and Seton Hall hasn’t lost since. Right now that falls into the “good win” category. Seton Hall faces a tough slog in the Big East, so that could still become a “meh win” if the Pirates don’t do the Wildcats any favors. They also beat LSU, which at the time looked like a “meh” win until the Tigers beat Marquette. It may end up being their best win of the season even though no one knew it at the time. The Wildcats did have a chance for a program changing win against Baylor, and were actually favored to beat the top 10 ranked Bears. Instead they lost by 28. They also lost this week to Creighton, and otherwise beat, but not necessarily beat up on, the dregs of college basketball. Single digit wins over Stony Brook and Central Connecticut State raised a few eyebrows.
Who to watch:
Don’t watch Luka Mircovic. The most obnoxious player in the country (taunting fist pumps after first half free-throws anyone?) ditched the plastic mask for a shaved head, and he is absolutely frightening. John Shurna is too obvious. He’ll score buckets of points with a jump shot that looks a lot like mine in fifth grade. Drew Crawford is Northwestern’s version of athletic. Who you won’t often read about is Dave Sobelewski, the most efficient Wildcat. In 32 minutes per game he is putting up fantastic numbers. He is scoring 8 points, collecting 3 rebounds, with 4 assists and 1 turnover per game. He shoots a lot of three-pointers, and doesn’t make as many as the should (only 36%) but he is one of the rare “three-point specialists” that impacts play all over the court. Now as long he doesn’t give himself an awful nickname (ahem, juice) he might help Northwestern be less annoying.
What to watch:
The Gophers face a lot of derision for their apparent failure to recognize that the three-point line exists, and it is deserved. Northwestern’s problem is that they don’t realize that two-pointers still exists. They shoot 45% of their field-goal attempts from behind the three-point line, the sixth most in the country. They are an above average three-point shooting team, making 37%, but that doesn’t seem to justify the sheer volume of outside shots. If they are hot from the outside they will be tough to beat, though it does not seem like a sustainable solution. On defense, they can’t stop teams from scoring inside, ranking 207th in two point defense. This is a huge improvement since last season when they ranked 324th. For Northwestern to ever have consistent success, they need find a way to score and defend on the inside.
How they’ll do:
The schedule makers did the Wildcats a few favors. They play Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Purdue only once and they play what should be the bottom of the Big Ten (Penn State, Iowa, and Nebraska) five times. If they can finally find a way to win all the games they should, they are half way to ten Big Ten wins right there. After that, it gets difficult to find fives more wins, and they’ll likely need ten Big Ten wins to make the tournament. Off they go to the NIT, again.