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How Did Northwestern Make The Big Dance and What Can They Do Now?

Northwestern was one of the most surprising teams in the Big Ten this year. They put themselves in position to punch their first ticket to the Dance in Program history.

NCAA Basketball: Selection Sunday-Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern had the most exciting season it has had in school history. The Wildcats made history, and are dancing for the first time.

-Preseason Expectations

Not many people anticipated Northwestern doing well this season. Losing Tre Demps and Alex Olah looked as though it would really hurt Northwestern. Specifically, because no other players on the roster had shown they could fill that void. Scottie Lindsey was inconsistent and Dererk Pardon had only played half of a season.

Northwestern was expected to take a small step forward, with many anticipating an NIT bid this year. They were projected anywhere from 7th to 12th in the Big Ten. The Wildcats had not made a post-season tournament under Chris Collins thus far, and the Wildcats knew they would need to put in work to get there.

-Non-Conference Play

Northwestern had a much-improved conference schedule this season. They faced Butler, Wake Forest, Dayton, Notre Dame and Texas in their marquee games. Although they came up short in the final minutes against Notre Dame and Butler, the Wildcats picked up three resume-boosting wins against Wake Forest, Dayton and Texas. Northwestern only lost two games in non-conference play, the close games against Butler and Notre Dame.

During non-conference play, Northwestern also lost Dererk Pardon for eight games when he broke his hand against Wake Forest. He missed the final five games of non-conference play, including the Dayton game, and the first two conference games.

Northwestern did what they needed to do in the non-conference to boost their resume and put themselves in position for their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. But the Wildcats were only 13 of the way through their three-part journey.

-Conference Play

The conference season was a whirlwind for Northwestern. They won their first game against Penn State, but lost Michigan State on the road a few days later. Dererk Pardon was absent for both of those games. Following the Michigan State loss, the Wildcats returned home for their first conference game of the year on January 5th, and lost a heartbreaking game to a dominant Minnesota team by a score of 70-66 in their only meeting of the season.

Then the tide started to turn.

Northwestern went on the road to Nebraska, the hottest team in the conference at the time, and won behind Dererk Pardon and his dominant double-double performance. They followed that with a road victory at Rutgers, and a dominant home victory against Iowa, where they won 89-54 and held Peter Jok to just four points. The Wildcats had won three in a row, but they weren’t done quite yet.

The Wildcats went on the road on January 22nd and beat Ohio State at home for the first time since 1977. They won 74-72. Now the magic was starting to be seen, but Northwestern wasn’t done yet.

They followed the Ohio State win with two home wins against Nebraska and Indiana. Northwestern was off to a 7-2 start in conference play, their best in school history. They were ranked in the AP Top 25 poll.

But then news hit.

Scottie Lindsey had mono and would be out for an indefinite amount of time. The tide started to turn back. Without their leading scorer, Northwestern was going to have a difficult time. Games at Purdue, Wisconsin and vs. Maryland loomed on their schedule. It was thought the Wildcats needed 10 wins in conference play to earn their first bid to the Big Dance.

Northwestern lost to Purdue, and then they came home and lost to Illinois. The Tournament was looking out of reach, that was, until they visited the Kohl Center on February 12th.

Bryant McIntosh scored 25 points and played 40 minutes as Northwestern upset the No. 7 Badgers at the Kohl Center. They got the victory they needed and their 8th conference win. Then came home, lost to Maryland and then beat Rutgers for conference win number nine. They needed one more to make history. At Indiana, they dropped the game in the final minutes.

They came home on March 1st to play arguably the hottest team in the conference in Michigan.

The game was tied at 65 with 1.7 seconds left on the clock. Nate Taphorn stood underneath the Michigan basket, launched a full-court pass to Dererk Pardon and he put it in the basket. There was their 10th conference win, the best moment in Welsh-Ryan Arena history, and the win that would send them to the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

They finished their conference season with a loss to Purdue at home, but Northwestern had done what it needed to do. They were 10-8 in conference play, and on the verge of history.

Northwestern entered as a 6-seed in the Big Ten Tournament. They dominated Rutgers with a record 31-0 run and beat the Scarlet Knights 83-61. The following night, Chris Collins earned his first career win over Maryland, when the ‘Cats downed the Terps 72-64. Northwestern lost against Wisconsin the next day, but the Maryland win was the exclamation point on the historic season.

-Tournament Outlook

Northwestern is headed to The Big Dance for the first time in program history. They will enter as an 8-seed and face the 9-seed, Vanderbilt, on Thursday afternoon.

If they win, they will most-likely face the one seed, Gonzaga, in the next round. While its tough to predict what the Wildcats will do, this is new ground, after all, they have shown that they can compete at this level and they have played well against NCAA Tournament teams in non-conference and conference play, so only time will tell for the Wildcats.