Northwestern received a hard dose of reality last Saturday against Nebraska. The 'Cats were coming off two big road upsets at Wisconsin and Minnesota. Welsh-Ryan Arena was packed, the student section spilling onto the concourse. A basketball game was finally getting some buzz on campus.
The team just couldn't live up to the expectations. After an outstanding first half, in which NU only gave up 16 points, the 'Cats laid an egg in the last 20 minutes. Nebraska shot 54 percent in the second half and handed NU a loss that was extremely hard to take.
What sliver of hope Northwestern had of making the NCAA tournament disappeared after the loss to Nebraska. Getting into the big dance was already a long shot, but losing at home to Nebraska proved NU isn't ready to make the step to the next level this season.
There is always a consolation though, the NIT. Historically teams need a record that is .500 or above to get an invite to the NIT, although there is no current rule enforcing that policy. Still, a .500 record doesn't necessarily demand a bid to the NIT. The 'Cats may have even more work to do to get a bid.
Here's a comparison of Northwestern's current resume with the resumes of the three Big Ten teams (Northwestern, Minnesota, and Iowa) that went to the NIT in 2012:
|Northwestern||NU '12||MINN '12||Iowa '12|
|Wins v. RPI Top 50||2||2||3||4|
|Losses v. RPI 100+||2||2||2||0|
Iowa got into the NIT just a game above .500, but they had four RPI top 50 wins and no bad losses. Northwestern fell to DePaul and Illinois State in the early going, both brutal losses, and it's unlikely the 'Cats get anymore top 50 wins. Their only chance remaining on the schedule would be at Ohio State.
It's also unlikely that NU snags a 7 seed, like Iowa did. In general, 7 and 8 seeds in the NIT are reserved for mid-major teams so the field is diverse. Any team that won their regular season conference championship and lost in their conference tourney is guaranteed a spot in the NIT, which usually results in a handful of automatic bids for more mid-majors.
Northwestern will also be competing with a handful of other Big Ten teams for an NIT bid. Every B1G team has a better overall record than NU at this point. Indiana, Nebraska, and Purdue all have a good chance at finishing above .500. The 'Cats will need to finish strong to get an NIT bid.
First things first, Northwestern needs at least four more wins in the regular season. They have six conference games left, home games against Minnesota, Indiana, and Penn State, and road games at Ohio State, Nebraska, and Penn State. The 'Cats should beat Penn State and split with Minnesota and Indiana, so they need victories at Nebraska and Penn State. That's a tall order to fill, but it's nothing Northwestern isn't capable of.
With four more wins under their belt, the 'Cats would also need at least one victory in the B1G tournament, which would certainly be manageable considering they would likely be facing Penn State or Illinois.
At 17-16, Northwestern should get an NIT bid. The potential 9-9 conference record would carry some weight in the selection process and give NU the edge over other Big Ten teams, but there's no guarantee. Six more wins would definitely secure them a spot.
Making the NIT doesn't seem like a big deal, but for a team that wasn't supposed to win a Big Ten game, it would be a huge accomplishment and a sign of progress in Chris Collins' first year as head coach. The odds are stacked against Northwestern, but they have a small chance of getting into the NIT.