It’s easy to make the argument that Bryant McIntosh is the most important player in the history of Northwestern’s basketball program. He has been the Wildcats’ floor general and undisputed leader for the last four years, and he more than anyone else was responsible for Northwestern making its first NCAA Tournament last season and notching their first win in the Big Dance.
He deserved better than this season.
He’s battled injuries, he’s battled chemistry issues, and he’s battled having to play on a home court that isn’t really a home court. A top-15 team at the start of the season, the Wildcats are in need of multiple Big Ten Tournament wins to make it to the NIT, much less back to the NCAA tournament.
But still, it’s March. (Or, well, February, but just like summer unofficially starts Memorial Day weekend, March unofficially starts when postseason college basketball begins.) In March, hope springs eternal. Anybody can make the Dance if they win their conference tournament.
So let’s take a look at Northwestern’s road ahead.
The Wildcats locked up the No. 10 seed, which means they avoid having to play on Wednesday and also avoid having to play the winner of a Wednesday game. Northwestern gets No. 7 seed Penn State on Thursday in Madison Square Garden, which isn’t an insurmountable challenge. The Nittany Lions and Wildcats split their season series, with each team winning on their home court. (Or DePaul’s home court, in Northwestern’s case.) Yes, Penn State is 50+ places higher than Northwestern on KenPom, but it’s unknown whether Mike Watkins will be back from a lower leg injury in time for the Big Ten Tournament. If Watkins is out, all bets are off. (And if you’re a Northwestern fan, you have to hope McIntosh manages more than the seven minutes he got against Iowa.)
If They Advance
If the Cats make it past the Nittany Lions, the No. 2 seed Ohio State Buckeyes await them on Friday. Northwestern lost their only meeting against Ohio State by 6 points in January. The Buckeyes possess Keita Bates-Diop, who is a shoo-in for Big Ten Player of the Year. That said, Northwestern handled Bates-Diop better than most teams, holding him to 10 points during their regular-season meeting, his second-worst performance of the conference season.
There’s also something to be said for momentum. Madison Square Garden is an unfamiliar arena, and if you’re going to play there on Friday, having played there on Thursday is a good way to keep from coming out cold.
All that said, the likeliest outcome for Bryant McIntosh and the Wildcats is that their season—and McIntosh’s excellent career—come to an end in Madison Square Garden. Ten years from now, people will still remember last year’s First Dance Wildcats, and this season’s underachieving squad will be forgotten, but that doesn’t do much to take the bitter taste out of the mouths of Wildcat fans. Anything can happen in March. Keep believing until it’s over.