By Paul M. Banks
January is the most murderous month on the schedule for the Northwestern Wildcats. February/March should be much easier for the Cats, and when it’s all said and done- they could quite possibly have that elusive first NCAA tournament bid in program history.
So who would have thought? The program that hosted the first NCAA tournament game back in the 1940s is also the only school from a power conference never to have been invited to the Big Dance. But entering this season many prognosticators (including Michigan State coaching legend Tom Izzo- see video below) thought that this would BE THE YEAR. And they had good reason to believe, as the Cats returned the nucleus from a team that finished one win shy of the school record for wins. But then star player and leading scorer/rebounder Kevin Coble went down with a season ending injury. Key reserve Jeff Ryan went down, and everyone ripped up their boarding passes for the purple bandwagon.
However, this Cats team did not fold. They came together and surpassed everyone’s expectations by playing so well that they found themselves 11-1 and nationally ranked for the first time in 41 years. Yes, four decades!
It didn’t last very long however, as the Cats got off to a rough start during the first half of conference play. Even though they played Minnesota tough down to the wire at The Barn last night, it was yet another Big Ten loss dropping them to 3-5 in conference, 14-6 overall.
The current record certainly doesn’t sound like that of a tourney team, but bare with me. After Saturday’s trip to the Breslin Center, which will no doubt be the toughest game of the year for them, it only gets easier. I don’t think the Cats will beat #5 Michigan State in East Lansing. I know they did it last year, when the Spartans finished as National Runner-Up, but I just don’t see them pulling the upset again. I also don’t see the Cats winning at the Kohl Center on February 21st. We all know that Bo Ryan and his boys could probably beat John Wooden’s UCLA teams…if they played in Madison.
Should the Cats actually triumph in one of these two rough road tests, it would give them another signature win to bolster their resume. But in all likelihood, they won’t. So let’s start the scenario generator with two more Ls, and a 14-8, 3-7 Cats team:
Let’s take a look at the schedule: Feb 2nd home to Michigan, Feb 7th Indiana, Feb 10th at Iowa. I will go out on a limb and say they win all three of these games, and unless something crazy happens, they should also be favored in all three. 17-8, 6-7.
Three more home games: Minnesota on the 14th, Penn St on the 17th, Iowa on the 25th. I think they can take all three of these as well. 20-8, 9-7.
Now we have reached the magical 20 win plateau, up until a few years ago, this was the benchmark for a power conference team to secure a tourney berth. Today, it takes a little more than that. The season concludes with: a trip to Nittany Nation versus the Penn St. Talor Battles on the 28th, a late out of conference cupcake in Chicago St. on Senior Day March 3rd, and the regular season finale March 6th at Indiana. This looks like 3-0 on paper, but for the sake of argument (and to offset any instance in which I was a bit too generous above) I’m going to say 2-1. That leaves us with a 22-9, 10-8 final regular season record.
Yes indeed, their schedule was REALLY front-loaded. And how many teams with 21+ wins, and a winning record in a power conference get snubbed by the selection committee? Seriously, name one. NU also has the “sentimental favorite” angle going for them. Ending their Cublike tourney drought would be a huge national media sensation, and would in turn bring in additional ratings for March Madness. And you know the selection committee is like Snoop Dogg “got my mind on my money, and my money on my mind” when it comes to filling out the bracket.
NU already has a signature win over a top ten team in Purdue, a decent win that might end up meaning more in Notre Dame, and they finally beat Illinois, a team which had beaten them 11 straight. So the Cats already do have a resume to speak of. But of course, getting a win or two in the conference tournament wouldn’t hurt either. Keeping them out with 23 or 24 wins would be impossible.
So when history is made, you can cue up another rendition of “Go U Northwestern”