Say what you will about Northwestern basketball, and odds are you've probably said something mean, but they earned a bye in this year's Big Ten Tournament and I doubt many people predicted that at the beginning of the season. The Wildcats had their best recruiting class, maybe ever, join the team this year and while top prospect Vic Law didn't have the impact of a D'Angelo Russell, point guard Bryant McIntosh looked wise beyond his years for NU.
Northwestern played a tough non-conference schedule, losing to the likes of Butler, Northern Iowa, and a surprisingly decent Central Michigan team, but still entered the conference season with a 9-4 record. Once Big Ten play opened, NU was the first team to play Rutgers as a member of the Big Ten and welcomed them warmly by handing the Scarlet Knights a four-point loss. It was a simpler time, a better time, Northwestern was tied for first place in the Big Ten and anything seemed possible.
After that game, uhh, things did not go as well. The Wildcats lost 10 games in a row to put to bed any thoughts of making a surprise run to an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. To their credit, NU didn't fold and won five of their last seven games to finish at 15-16 overall and 6-12 in conference which, due to tiebreakers, was good enough for the No. 10 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and a first round bye. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but... <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-partner="tweetdeck"><p>NORTHWESTERN GOT A BYE IN THE BIG TEN TOURNAMENT FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER AND WE GET TO PLAY *INDIANA* WHICH IS COACHED BY ****TOM CREAN****</p>— Sippin' on Purple (@sippinonpurple) <a href="https://twitter.com/sippinonpurple/status/574748416649084928">March 9, 2015</a></blockquote>
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Rodger Sherman is correct, the Cats do get to play No. 7 seed Indiana in the second round of the tournament at 6:30 pm ET/5:30 pm CT Thursday night and luckily for NU, the Hoosiers ARE still coached by Tom Crean. Northwestern has already played IU once this season and the Wildcats won 72-65 at Welsh-Ryan Arena in a game that wasn't even that close.
Led by junior guard Tre Demps and his 23 points and three assists, NU was able to pull away from the Hoosiers after halftime. Center Alex Olah had 17 points, 11 rebounds, and two blocks against the undersized Indiana front court and will be a definite point of focus for NU in the rematch on Thursday. Precocious point guard McIntosh didn't have his best shooting night (2-of-7, four points), but had six rebounds and nine assists to keep the offense humming. The Cats held All-Big Ten first teamer Yogi Ferrell to only 11 points and stud freshman James Blackmon only had six.
The Wildcats don't do a lot well, but one area that they definitely have an advantage over Indiana is in front court size. Olah is seven feet tall and is built like a rhino. He is, needless to say, imposing. If he can control the paint on both ends and Demps and McIntosh can keep Ferrell bottled up again, the Wildcats have a definite chance of pulling the upset. NU doesn't force a lot of turnovers, so they have to take care of the ball too and hope for some mistakes from the Hoosiers.
If Northwestern wins they move on to the quarterfinals where they would do battle with No. 2 seed Maryland at 6:30 pm ET/5:30 pm CT. Despite the jokes about NU being "Chicago's B1G Team" when they have less alumni in the city than every other school but Penn State, Rutgers, and Maryland, if the Wildcats beat Indiana the crowd will be behind them for the game Friday night against the Terps.