Barring a miraculous run during Big Ten Conference Tournament weekend, Wildcat fans will have to wait another year for it to be "the year". But just because Northwestern likely won't be breaking through with their first NCAA Tournament berth, the postseason is still within reach. Making it to the NIT wouldn't be a first for the program. They've been seven times, including four straight appearances towards the end of the Bill Carmody era.
But it would be the first postseason experience for the Cats under Chris Collins and the first for any of the members on the roster. It would give seniors Tre Demps, Alex Olah, and Joey Van Zegeren a way to feel like they were going out on a high note. More importantly, it would be great experience for younger players like Bryant McIntosh, Dererk Pardon, Aaron Falzon, and Scottie Lindsey - four guys who will likely play big roles in the program's near future.
The Wildcats' program has had the feeling of being stuck in neutral under Collins and playing deeper into March - no matter the name of the tournament they're playing - would be a step in the right direction. It's a season that started with so much promise.
Entering the new year they were 14-1, 43rd in the KenPom.com rankings, and early NCAA Tourney talk had Northwestern right in the mix. Then the injuries to Vic Law before the season and Olah during the season finally caught up with them. That and maybe the fact that actually playing quality opponents in Big Ten play revealed that this group wasn't much better than the two previous offered up during the Collins regime. With all the hope that existed in early January, not even making the NIT would seemingly take the collective wind out of the sails for the Wildcat fan base.
The good news is that, as it sits right now, the Wildcats would be in the NIT field, according to BracketMatrix.com. They're currently slated as a 7 seed (the NIT goes up to 8). The bad news: there will undoubtedly be teams that unexpectedly enter the bracket, simultaneously pushing Northwestern down the seed line and towards the bottom of - or out of - the field. Any regular season conference winner that doesn't win their conference tournament or make the NCAA field with an at-large bid gets an automatic bid to the NIT. Last year, 12 teams that fit that mold were entered in to the NIT field. If that were to happen again, Northwestern would be kicked out as it stands right now.
But opportunity still awaits for the Wildcats. They still have road games at Michigan and Penn State and home bouts with Rutgers and Nebraska before the conference tournament. Beating Rutgers won't do anything for them because everyone beats Rutgers, but the other three would be big and they're all winnable games. Sure, it doesn't seem likely that the Wildcats will win in Ann Arbor, but Northwestern split the series with the Wolverines last season and were a three-pointer away from sweeping it.
In the end, being on the bubble really just comes down to being better than those around you. It's all relative. Last year, the final at-large bid in to the NIT - Vanderbilt - had an RPI of 104. The Wildcats currently sit at 103. Win and they're likely in (the NIT).