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Chicago’s Big Ten Team Heads to... Chicago

Previewing Northwestern’s Road in the Big Ten Tournament

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Northwestern Nuccio DiNuzzo-USA TODAY Sports

Vic Law is going to play.

After suffering a nasty—gash, I guess, is the right word—to his leg Saturday against Purdue, Northwestern’s senior leader is listed as probable for Wednesday’s game against Illinois.

What a game that’s going to be.

Opening Round

On January 6, the Fighting Illini took a trip to Evanston, and walked away with the L, 68-66. On March 3, the Wildcats made the return trip to Champaign, and they too were unable to win on their archival’s homecourt, falling 81-76. Both games were close throughout.

Wednesday is the rubber match.

Michigan and Michigan State just got done playing each other for a share of the Big Ten title. Indiana and Purdue have the first and second most conference titles in league history. Illinois and Northwestern... at this point there’s nothing at stake but spite, but as the old saying goes—Spite’s a hell of a drug.

Illinois fans have nothing but disdain for what they view as an inferior Northwestern program. But the dirty little secret is that Northwestern has made the NCAA Tournament more recently than Illinois, that Northwestern has a higher KenPom ranking than Illinois, and that it’s no longer 2005, and that Northwestern just might be the best Big Ten program in the State of Illinois.

Sure, they haven’t become Duke on Lake Michigan, which is what some people predicted they'd become when they hired Chris Collins. Sure, they finished last in the league this year. But they have a better overall record than Illinois this season, and if they win Wednesday’s game, they’ll have bragging rights over the Orange and Blue for the entirety of the offseason.

It will come down to playing style. It’s no coincidence that Northwestern won the game that was played in the 60s and that Illinois won the game that got into the 80s. Northwestern is actually a top defensive team. If they limit their turnovers and keep the game in the half court, they have a decent chance at winning an ugly one against Illinois. If it’s a free-wheeling game with lots of turnovers and breakaways, I don’t like their chances.

If They Advance

Here’s the thing... sneaky-good defensive team but can’t shoot the ball worth a crap? Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like last year’s Rutgers squad. I know the comparison isn’t the most flattering, but come on Northwestern fans, you were 4-16 in the league this season. I’m not comparing you to the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers anytime soon. But that Rutgers team won two games in last year’s tournament, and they were the closest Big Ten team to the site of those games.

If that pattern holds, Northwestern could make it to Friday night. They are one-point favorites against Illinois on KenPom. Then they’d get Iowa, and if there’s a team in this league that’s looked as bad down the stretch as Illinois and Northwestern, it’s the Hawkeyes. Hawkeye fans are fed up with Fran, and despite that fact that more Iowa grads move to Chicago than to any other city (many of them growing up in the Windy City), I don’t know if you can expect Hawkeye fans to turn up in droves to watch their latest late-season swoon continue. Northwestern might outnumber Iowa on Friday night. And Lord knows the Minnesota fans that stick around after their game won’t be pulling for the Hawkeyes.

In other words, there’s a plausible path for the Cats to win two games. And then they’d meet Michigan. And then they’d go home.

Overall

It’s been a bad year for Northwestern. Last year you could excuse on having to play home games away from home. This year, I don’t know what the excuse is. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wildcat fans just want to go home and be done with basketball.

If the first game was against anyone other than Illinois, that’s just what I’d predict. But we should get one last entertaining basketball game out of the 2018-’19 Northwestern Wildcats before seniors Vic Law and Dererk Pardon ride off into the sunset. I’ll be at that game, and I’ll be savoring all forty minutes.