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Can Northwestern Make Some Magic Happen In The Big Ten Tournament?

What will the Wildcats do in Indy?

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

While expectations weren’t high for the Northwestern Wildcats entering this season, there’s little debating the regular season was still a major disappointment for fans. The team got off track after some early season upsets and never recovered against a brutal Big Ten slate. As a result, Northwestern will bring an underwhelming 8-22 overall record into this week’s Big Ten Tournament, hoping to create some magic.

But can the Wildcats get it done and extend the team’s season? Let’s take a look.

-Opening Round

As the 13 seed, Northwestern has the undesirable task of opening up Big Ten Tournament play in the slate of games on Wednesday night against Minnesota. It goes without saying, but nobody wants to play on the opening day of the Big Ten Tournament, as it requires five wins in five days to hoist the tournament title. Not exactly an easy task.

Still, the opening round matchup looks manageable. Minnesota is certainly favored, but I don’t think this is the one-sided affair the advanced stats suggest. KenPom gives the Gophers 79 percent odds of winning. However, it’s important to remember Northwestern enters this game with some momentum, having won two of its final three games, including an upset win over Penn State. And while Minnesota swept the regular season series, the first game between the two was relatively competitive.

The matchup itself is largely going to come down to two things. First, how Northwestern holds up against Daniel Oturu down low. The Gopher big man has largely defined Minnesota’s season. If Jared Jones and Ryan Young hold up against him, Northwestern will have a legitimate shot to walk out with a victory.

And secondly, who comes into this game with more fire and motivation. I know that sounds generic and “hot takey,” but hear me out. Barring something miraculous, both of these teams’ seasons are going to wrap up in Indy this week. Minnesota has a potential NIT bid hanging out there if it can make it to the weekend’s games, but we’re not exactly talking about teams like Duke or Kansas here. It wouldn’t exactly be unheard of for one of these teams to arrive a bit “checked out” at tip-off. It’s something you always have to keep in mind for Wednesday matchups. And it’s another reason Wildcat fans should have some hope for the team’s matchup against the Gophers.

-If They Advance

Should Northwestern upset Minnesota on Wednesday, the Wildcats would then move on to face five seed Iowa on Thursday afternoon. Given Iowa is generally perceived as a better team than Minnesota, one would expect this to be an even more challenging matchup for the Wildcats. Iowa would likely be favored by double-digits prior to tip and easily won the only regular season meeting between the two teams earlier this season.

From an on-court perspective, there’s no debating Iowa is a better team than Northwestern. The Hawkeyes have more star power, a deeper bench, and have a far better resume. There’s nothing out there suggesting Northwestern will upset Iowa on Thursday. We’re talking about two to three percent odds of the Wildcats beating both Minnesota and Iowa in successive games, let alone successive days.

With all of that said, conference tournaments are odd events and Northwestern would have at least one clear advantage if it made it to Thursday. The Wildcats would be confident and comfortable, having played (and won) the day before. Iowa will be coming into its Thursday game ice cold after being off since Sunday. Playing back-to-back games will eventually wear you out, but it takes more than two games to do it. If Northwestern can hit the ground rolling and get Iowa down, perhaps they can sneak out the upset.

If Northwestern made it past Iowa, it would then face four seed Illinois. This is where the Wildcats would likely need to find some magic. Like Iowa and Minnesota above, Illinois is just better than Northwestern this year. That’s just a fact. The Illini have a significantly better resume and swept the regular season series. As such, we would be talking about another upset, and a day where the fatigue would be starting to set in for Northwestern.

After that, Northwestern would likely have to get through Wisconsin on Saturday and either Michigan State or Maryland for the Big Ten Tournament title on Sunday. Obviously, those potential matchups would be even tougher than the ones we’ve already described.

Overall

For better or worse, Northwestern enters Indy in a pretty clear position. The team’s season will end this week unless it wins the Big Ten Tournament. Unlike previous seasons, the Wildcats don’t have an NIT or NCAA Tournament appearance hanging in the balance. It’s all or nothing. Northwestern will either get a trophy, or move into the offseason.

Unfortunately for Wildcat fans, it’s hard to look at this bracket and see a reasonable path for Northwestern to achieve that goal. To win, Northwestern would almost certainly need to beat five top 30 opponents in a five-day span. That’s an incredibly difficult task. For perspective, just consider last year’s Virginia team only beat four top 30 KenPom teams in its path to the national title. That’s the type of challenge Northwestern is facing.

The good news is Northwestern has shown some momentum as of late and has two games that might be a bit more winnable than they look on paper to open things up. Perhaps Chris Collins and his staff can find some magic and get things rolling in Indy.