While expectations weren’t high for the Northwestern Wildcats entering this season, there’s little debating the regular season was a major disappointment for fans. The team jumped out to a 6-1 start, but a disastrous 13-game skid in Big Ten play doomed any of the team’s NCAA at-large hopes. Northwestern will now bring an underwhelming 9-14 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.
As the 12 seed, Northwestern has the undesirable task of opening up Big Ten Tournament play in the slate of games on Wednesday afternoon 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.
_________ will be cutting down the nets Sunday? pic.twitter.com/umsMb9qEoV— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 8, 2021
Still, the opening round matchup looks manageable. Minnesota will be favored, but only narrowly, as KenPom gives the Gophers a 53 percent chance of winning. Northwestern also just beat Minnesota on February 25th in the only meeting between the teams this season. The game wasn’t even that close, being decided by a 67-59 final score.
It’s also important to note the stark difference in momentum between the teams entering Wednesday’s matchup. While the Wildcats enter this game having won three in a row, Minnesota is amid one of the worst tailspins I can recall seeing in my nine years of covering Big Ten basketball. The Gophers have lost seven straight and 10 of the team’s last 12 games. Minnesota is also winless away from home. Outside of a win over Purdue in mid-February, Minnesota has basically done nothing since mid-January. This isn’t the same Minnesota team that jumped out to a 9-1 start to the season, that’s for sure.
The matchup itself will almost certainly be decided in the backcourt. Marcus Carr has been the key to Minnesota’s team all season and slowing him down has to be the top priority for Northwestern on Wednesday afternoon. Getting a big game from Boo Buie will also be key, as the Wildcat guard has been a big part of the team’s recent win streak. If those two things happen, Northwestern’s likely moving on to Thursday.
-If They Advance
Should Northwestern beat Minnesota on Wednesday, the Wildcats would then move on to face five seed Ohio State on Thursday afternoon. Given Ohio State’s overall record (18-8 overall) and its advanced metrics (seventh on KenPom), there’s little debating a win here would be significantly more challenging for the Wildcats than Wednesday’s matchup. Ohio State is almost certainly going to be favored by double-digits before tip.
From an on-court perspective, there’s no arguing Ohio State is a better team than Northwestern. The Buckeyes have a high-powered offense and two of the best players in the league in EJ Liddell and Duane Washington. Add in a handful of upperclassmen around them and it’s easy to see why Ohio State is sitting in the top 10 in the weekly polls. The truth is there’s no clear reason to pick Northwestern in this game.
With all of that said, it isn’t a hopeless task. Northwestern beat Ohio State in the first meeting between the teams in December and would have the advantage of already being warmed up before Thursday’s game. The Wildcats would be confident and comfortable, having played (and won) the day before. Meanwhile, Ohio State will be ice cold, having been off since Saturday afternoon. 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 running and get Ohio State down early, perhaps they can sneak out the upset.
If Northwestern makes it past Ohio State, it would then face four seed Purdue. This is where the Wildcats would really start needing some magic. Not because the Boilermakers are substantially better than the Buckeyes, but because you’re now asking the team to pull off two substantial upsets in a row. That’s just not something you can reasonably expect from a team. Purdue also beat Northwestern in the only regular season meeting between the two.
After that, Northwestern would likely have to get through Michigan on Saturday and either Illinois or Iowa for the Big Ten Tournament title on Sunday. Those potential matchups might be even tougher than the ones we’ve already described.
For better or worse, Northwestern enters Indy in a pretty clear position. The team is either going to win the Big Ten Tournament or go home. 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 four top 10 opponents in a five-day span. That’s an incredibly difficult task. For perspective, just consider the national title winning Virginia team in 2019 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.