One fact every college basketball fan has heard at one time or another concerns Northwestern’s history with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Namely, that Northwestern has no history.
The Wildcats have never earned a March Madness bid. Not once. It has not happened since the NCAA created its championship basketball tournament in 1939, though Northwestern is accepted as the national champion of the 1930-1931 season. For almost all of those years with an NCAA tournament, Northwestern hasn’t been anywhere close to a bid.
It has been better recently, though, with Northwestern receiving bids to the NIT in four consecutive years, from 2009-2012. Of course, getting an NIT bid nowadays doesn’t mean you were anywhere near the NCAA tournament. Northwestern was never better than a 4-seed in the NIT those years. And while NIT seeding does not directly correlate to how close a team was to getting into the bracket, a 4-seed tells us that the Wildcats probably weren’t even on the bubble.
Northwestern’s history is why the Wildcats’ 12-1 nonconference record started to raise eyebrows, especially considering that the lone loss came to North Carolina. So, with over half the season under our belts, what exactly are Northwestern’s prospects at making the NCAA tournament this year?
It’s impossible to truly give them benchmarks to aim for before we see the bubble really take shape. The middle of January is just too early to make a comprehensive projection as to how the bubble will end up. Still, based on previous years and common sense, we can at least take a look at Northwestern’s remaining schedule and see which games the Wildcats should win to get themselves in the mix.
Unfortunately for Northwestern, that 12-1 nonconference record came on the back of a nonconference SOS currently ranked at 334. That is not good, to say the least. Now, that number will fluctuate as nonconference opponents will continue to improve (or decline) as the season progresses, but it will take something dramatic to see a major shift. Northwestern will need a near-miracle for that nonconference SOS to move into the top 300, even.
Also unfortunately for Northwestern, the selection committee has shown a consistent tendency to punish a bubble team with a nonconference SOS that low. We have seen it happen numerous times in the last decade. Just ask Virginia Tech. The committee has had less room to do it since the field expanded to 68 a few years ago, but this is a nonconference SOS that will be punished by the committee. Northwestern needs to be towards the top end of the bubble to feel at all safe. If the Wildcats are in a debatable spot with just about any other team, it is more likely than not that Northwestern will be the one that is left out. So what can Northwestern do with the remainder of their season to leave no doubt?
It is too early in the season to really use RPI numbers, but we can have a decent guess as to where teams will end up in the RPI When the end of the year rolls around. If we look at Northwestern’s schedule, we will see a definite lack of top 100 RPI teams. The only nonconference opponents with any real chance of ending in the top 100 are North Carolina and Virginia Tech. And Virginia Tech is iffy at best to end up being a quality win. At least Northwestern’s win over Virginia Tech was on the road. That should give the Wildcats a top 150 at worst nonconference win away from home.
Northwestern has a ton of work to do in-conference to get themselves into tournament position. The low number of losses is good. The 3-3 record in the Big Ten, on the other hand, is not as good. The loss to Maryland was expected. The loss to Ohio State was understandable. That loss to Penn State on Saturday, though, could really come back to hurt the Wildcats, especially if Penn State can’t stay in the RPI top 100 by season’s end. Even if the Nittany Lions can, though, it was a huge missed opportunity for Northwestern. The Wildcats will need a serious number of top 100 wins by the end of the season to offset that atrocious nonconference SOS number.
Northwestern has 12 games left. There is a lot of opportunity in those 12 games, but the margin for error is getting thin. Three of those 12 games are against objectively bad teams. The remaining games against Minnesota (February 4th), Rutgers (February 27th), and Nebraska (March 6th) are probably must-wins. Unless the Wildcats win a bunch of big games the rest of the way, they cannot afford a bad loss on this resume. Assuming nothing crazy happens between now and March, though, they need to win these three.
Now it’s time for the good news, though. There is a ton of opportunity in the remaining games. There are five games remaining against near-locks for the top 50, three of which will almost definitely be in the top 25. A win over one out of the Maryland/Iowa/Michigan State trio plus one win over either Michigan or Purdue will give this resume a little meat. On top of that, Northwestern will need to add wins over Illinois and Penn State, and one out of Ohio State and Indiana.
That is how it is shaping up for Northwestern to need to feel safe. Going 8-4 from here on out, with wins over their five worst remaining opponents included in that record, would likely give the Wildcats 5-6 top 100 wins to end the year, including 2-3 top 50 wins. That should be enough to bring Northwestern’s RPI numbers into a bid-worthy range and should be enough to counteract the atrocious nonconference schedule. Add a second win over the Iowa/Maryland/Michigan State trio and we will probably be able to make Northwestern a lock.
Anything short of 8-4 is trouble, though. Maybe Northwestern can take a bad loss if they make up for it by adding a good win. Without that it will be tough. The Wildcats’ RPI will probably be around 60 at best, and lower if they can’t win eight games from here. That RPI, combined with a middling SOS, will need good wins to put Northwestern in consideration. The Wildcats won’t get it at all without either that one top-end win or without a significant number of top 50 wins. There just aren’t many opportunities for those on this schedule. 7-5 with wins over Indiana, Ohio State, and either Purdue or Michigan would put Northwestern on the bubble, but no team on the bubble can expect a bid with a sub-300 nonconference SOS.
There is still a lot of basketball to be played and a lot can happen over the next two months, but for Northwestern fans, the dreams of getting into the Dance are pretty simple. They’re looking for 8-4, starting with Tuesday night’s game against Maryland. Otherwise, they need to see a deep run in the Big Ten tournament or they’ll be watching another season of the NIT.