It certainly wasn't the Big Ten regular season that Northwestern or its fans were hoping for, but the beauty of conference tournament weekend is that every team controls its own destiny. The Wildcats finished the B1G season at 8-10 after a 12-1 start in non-conference play. They did win their last three games of the season to secure the 9 seed and a first-round bye.
Let's take a look at what Northwestern fans can expect in the Big Ten Tournament.
They'll open up against the eighth-seeded Michigan Wolverines. John Beilein's group finished their season much differently, losing four of their last five. Of course their only win during that stretch was over this Northwestern team at home. But while the Wildcats lost that game, they certainly have to be encouraged with the way that they played. They were in control much of the game before finally ceding their lead with five minutes to go and never capturing it back. Northwestern had a better day that Michigan shooting from the floor, but were outrebounded and the Wolverines went 9-10 from the free throw line down the stretch to seal it.
It's a key game for both teams as far as postseason tournament ramifications are concerned. It would be a big win for the Wildcats in terms of securing an NIT bid. Michigan comes in fighting for its tournament life and a loss in their first BTT game would seem like the final nail in the coffin for that bid.
If They Advance
KenPom gives Northwestern a 43% chance of taking down the Wolverines on Thursday afternoon, which is virtually a toss-up game. If the Wildcats defy the slight odds against them, they'll be rewarded by playing top-seeded Indiana. In their only meeting with the Hoosiers this year, they suffered an 89-57 loss in Bloomington. That's certainly not encouraging, but no one that wasn't donning the crimson and cream won in Assembly Hall this year and most didn't even come close.
That's not to say the game will be any easier for Chris Collins' group. Indiana is playing just as well as anyone in the country right now and they've been just as impressive on the road lately. While Bankers Life Fieldhouse won't match the environment of Assembly Hall, it's still just an hour up the road from Bloomington and Hoosier fans always make their presence known in Indianapolis.
If the Wildcats are going to make any type of run this week, they'll need senior leader Tre Demps to continue his hot shooting. Demps has gone 11-21 (52.4%) from outside the arc during this three-game winning streak. Bryant McIntosh will need to be more of a scoring threat than he has been lately as well. While McIntosh has averaged 7.5 assists over the last four games, he's only scored in double figures once. Alex Olah has looked more like himself recently and Michigan and Indiana present two opponents that he loves playing against. Over the last two years, he's averaged 22.0 points per game against the Wolverines in three meetings and 16.0 points against the Hoosiers in their three meetings. They'll need role players like Dererk Pardon, Aaron Falzon, Scottie Lindsey, and Sanjay Lumpkin to step up in some form as well.
Perhaps most importantly, the Wildcats as a team will have to lock down on their opponents' perimeter shooting. Michigan and Indiana are the top two teams in the league when it comes to their three-point attempt rate and their reliance on the three-point shot for scoring distribution. Northwestern did a good job holding the Wolverines to 4-15 (26.7%) shooting from distance the first time around, but Indiana went 13-28 (46.4%) in their meeting on January 23.
Rebounding will be a key as well. Michigan outrebounded the Wildcats 33-24 and Indiana won the battle of the boards by 17. Northwestern isn't a poor rebounding team - they just beat Nebraska on the glass by 16 over the weekend - but rest assured that will be emphasized by the coaching staff this week.
The Big Ten Tournament hasn't been kind to Northwestern in recent years - they've lost their opening game in three of the last four years - but they have what it takes to make a run to the semifinals if they play the way they're capable of playing for two straight days. From there, who knows what could happen?