By Noah Phillips
Since the debut of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 1939, every school in a Power 5 conference (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12) has landed at least one berth in the tournament, except Northwestern. Given that this year’s team appears destined for another middle-of-the-pack finish in conference play, the Wildcats appear to be on the edge of making the tournament, or “on the bubble”. To help predict Northwestern’s likelihood of making the tournament, let’s compare the team to a bubble squad from last year that snuck into the tournament with a similar regular-season schedule: the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
68 teams play in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament in March. Each school that wins their conference’s postseason tournament receives an automatic bid to play, regardless of their record during the regular season. After those spots are claimed, there are 36 openings left, called “at-large bids,” where a selection committee picks the 36 best remaining teams in the country. When judging teams, the selection committee considers three main factors – strength of schedule, impressive wins, and bad losses.
Nebraska, along with Northwestern, plays in the Big Ten, which is arguably the best conference in basketball, giving both teams a strong strength of schedule. Last year, Nebraska received an at-large bid while going 19-13 overall and 11-7 in Big Ten play. Nebraska had three “impressive wins” against #17 Ohio State, at #9 Michigan State, and at #9 Wisconsin, while they only suffered one “bad loss” at Purdue, who finished last in the Big Ten. So Nebraska overwhelmingly won the games they were supposed to win, but also lost the games they were predicted to lose. This presents two problems for Northwestern: Nebraska was “supposed to win” more games last year than Northwestern is “supposed to win” this year, and the Big Ten isn’t as strong this year, so impressive wins are less impactful and bad losses are more damaging.
Northwestern entered Big Ten play with a record of 10-4, losing to Northern Iowa, Georgia Tech, Butler, and Central Michigan, with the loss at home to Central Michigan being the only “bad loss.” The Wildcats opened Big Ten play with a 51-47 road win at Rutgers before dropping five straight, including heartbreaks at Michigan State (77-84 in OT), at home against Illinois (67-72), at Michigan (54-56), and at home against Ohio State (67-69). Although the team is now 10-9, there are two silver linings: Northwestern is playing each opponent competitively, and Nebraska started off 1-5 in the Big Ten last year as well, but still wound up making the tournament. In order to make the tournament, Northwestern is going to need to come up with some big wins.
The Wildcats’ next game is on January 25th at Maryland, a team that is currently 17-2 and ranked 8th in the country by the USA Today Coaches Poll. A win at Maryland would be huge, not only for the team’s confidence, but it would give Northwestern a signature win. Northwestern still has to play Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, and Iowa (twice), all of which would be outstanding wins for the team.
Given Northwestern’s remaining schedule, the task of equaling the conference record of Nebraska’s 2013 team seems daunting – Northwestern would need to win nine of its next eleven games. However, Nebraska had a disappointing Big Ten tournament in 2013, losing to Ohio State in the first round. Although it seems like a long shot, if Northwestern were able to pull off a couple of big upsets, and win two or three games in the Big Ten tournament, they could very well receive a tournament bid. Their best and most realistic chance at making the tournament would be winning the Big Ten tournament, which isn’t as far-fetched as one might think – Northwestern is much better than the team’s 1-5 record in conference play shows.
So keep heart, basketball fans; with much of the season left to be played, Northwestern’s hopes of making the NCAA men’s basketball tournament are still very much alive.