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Can Northwestern make a run to the NCAA Tournament?

Northwestern returned to the court Monday with a 66-63 win over Wisconsin at Welsh-Ryan Arena after the postponement of two games last week due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Boo Buie’s 20 points led the Wildcats, who improved to 4-3 in the Big Ten and 13-5 overall.

A pair of free throws by Matt Nicholson gave the Wildcats a 64-62 lead with 2 minutes, 18 seconds left, and the Badgers collapsed down the stretch. Northwestern converted 16 of 18 free throws while the Badgers hit 9 of 16.

NU coach Chris Collins said the game wasn’t “the prettiest at times … but we gutted it out.”

The hiatus wasn’t something the Wildcats welcomed, of course, but the pause in the schedule could inadvertently aid their quest to make the NCAA Tournament.

Northwestern went into the break with back-to-back losses, cooling off after a surprising 12-3 start that included wins over Michigan State, Illinois and Indiana. After having a chance to regroup, they’ll now play five times in 11 days, an NBA-type stretch that could determine whether they’re true tournament contenders or merely NIT material.

Because of the postponements that led to Monday’s game, the Wildcats’ game at Nebraska was switched from Tuesday to Wednesday. That will be followed by a Saturday home game against Minnesota, the only team in the conference that’s under .500 overall. Next comes the rescheduled game at Iowa on Jan. 31, and the Wildcats finish the stretch by hosting Michigan on Feb. 2.

Northwestern guard Boo Buie, center, drives against Wisconsin forwards Tyler Wahl, left, and Steven Crowl during the second half Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Evanston.

Collins said the busy stretch could work out in the end.

“You always have to look at things optimistically,” he said, adding that he asked the players “if they’d rather have practice on those days. It was a resounding no.”

Collins thanked the schools — Wisconsin. Iowa and Nebraska — for being amenable to rescheduling, saying no one wants to play in empty gyms, as they did during the pandemic.

“It wasn’t an easy puzzle to put together,” he said. “Everyone is on the same page. They want the players to play.”

Wisconsin coach Greg Gard wasn’t crazy about the rescheduling but said there was no good option: “This is the one that stunk the least.”

There’s a long way to go until March Madness, and many teams have wilted once the rigors of Big Ten play begin taking a toll in February. Northwestern can’t afford to take a game off and hope to compete.

But ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Wildcats as one of the last four teams in the field in his latest projection through Thursday’s games.

Being on the bubble in late January is about as much as you can ask for at Northwestern. The only NCAA Tournament appearance in school history came in 2017 under Collins. But instead of becoming a trend, that dream season now looks like an outlier.

This senior-led team has a chance to change that perception, and it looks like the only dominant team in the conference is Purdue. Parity has been the Big Ten buzzword this season.

Wisconsin forward Steven Crowl, left, looks to pass as Northwestern center Matthew Nicholson defends during the first half Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Evanston.

Outside of the Boilermakers, who returned to the No. 1 spot in the AP poll Monday, no other team was even ranked. It’s hard to believe College of Charleston and Florida Atlantic are better than every other Big Ten team, but it has been that kind of season in college basketball with no one taking control.

Rutgers and Michigan are tied for second in the conference at 5-3 with nine other teams within two games of second. If everyone keeps beating each other at the current pace, with a slew of .500-ish teams in Big Ten play, it could create a dilemma for the selection committee that typically rewards Big Ten teams based on the conference’s overall strength.

Despite the parity, the Big Ten was the third-strongest conference behind the Big 12 and SEC in the latest RPI. The Wildcats were No. 51 through Sunday in the NCAA’s NET rankings, 10th among Big Ten teams.

So how many will get selected?

Nine Big Ten teams were invited to the NCAA Tournament last season, and Lunardi currently has 10 going in this March.

Of the nine teams invited last year, only Michigan and Purdue advanced past the opening weekend, and both lost in the Sweet 16. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim used that fact to rip the Big Ten during his team’s media day in October.

“At the end of the day, you play for the tournament,” Boeheim said. “You can say what you want about the Big Ten. They sucked in the tournament. To me, that’s what they did. All of their wins were in their league. If you can’t play in the tournament, then you’re not good.”

It could be Boeheim being Boeheim, but he’s probably not the only coach to think that way. The Big Ten hasn’t had a national champion since Michigan State in 2000, and Purdue, which never has won, appears to be the only team with a realistic shot this year.

Northwestern’s goal right now is to get in. For a team that finished 10th in the conference last year at 7-13, competing for a top-half finish in the Big Ten would be a big step forward.

Yet there were plenty of empty seats at Monday’s game — and much of the crowd that showed up were Badgers fans — so it remains to be seen whether the students and alumni are all in on the Wildcats’ chances of making some noise in March.

The Big Ten Tournament moves back to United Center this year, and remember NU markets itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten team.” With the Bulls underachieving and the Blackhawks rebuilding, Chicago could use a winning team to call its own.

Can the Wildcats hang in?

We should have a pretty good idea when this 11-day stretch ends.


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