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January 27, 2012

NU can still make the Big Dance

The last few Northwestern basketball seasons began with the same, cautiously optimistic question. Will this finally be the year the Wildcats reach the NCAA Tournament?

Nineteen games into the season, the answer to that question is still up in the air. But despite a recent tailspin, the Wildcats still have time to scalp a ticket to the Big Dance, provided they win the games they're supposed to and then beat a couple of the RPI Top 50 teams remaining on their schedule.

Northwestern (12-7, 2-5) sits at 10th in the 12-team Big Ten heading into its showdown with Purdue in Evanston on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPN2). The Wildcats are coming off of back-to-back losses for the third time this season and looked listless in their last two showings, a pair of blowouts at Wisconsin and Minnesota by a combined 43 points.

Despite that, there is still hope for making that long-awaited March Madness appearance, and it starts with two consecutive must-wins against Purdue and Nebraska over the next six days.

Injuries have decimated the depth of Bill Carmody's squad at the guard position. JerShon Cobb, Alex Marcotullio and Tre Demps, each of whom figured to play major roles, have missed significant time this season. It was so bad last Wednesday that NU only dressed nine players against Wisconsin, only seven of whom were scholarship players. The thin bench has played a major factor in the team's struggles over the past few weeks.

Marcotullio returned over the weekend against Minnesota and his performance (11 points, four rebounds, and four assists off the bench) was the one positive takeaway from that game. Cobb has already missed eight games but has not been ruled out for the season, so there is a decent chance he will be back at some point if the team does not crater in the near future. He started 25 games last season but has yet to start one this year.

Additionally, the Big Ten may be the toughest top-to-bottom conference in the nation. While this makes the road all the more difficult, it also means that a 2-5 start in conference does not doom Northwestern because there are several chances to make up ground.

The Wildcats have the sixth-toughest schedule in the nation and play five more games against teams with top 50 RPIs. Three of those games are at home, against Minnesota (Feb. 18), No. 20 Michigan (Feb. 21), and No. 3 Ohio State (Feb. 29), all teams that have defeated the Cats already this season.

Northwestern could get away with a loss to the Buckeyes, but those other two have to be Ws. Minnesota showed this past weekend that it will be a force to contend with this season, even after losing preseason All-Big Ten forward Trevor Mbakwe. The Wildcats were a Marcotullio free throw away from going to double-overtime against Michigan, and that was without Cobb. If Cobb returns within the next month, that game against the Wolverines could be their best chance to score another upset over a team ranked in the Top 25. They may need that based on their back-to-back beat downs last week at Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Northwestern's other bit of good news is that all of their seven losses were to teams with a top 50 RPI. A difficult schedule can excuse some losses, but unless the Wildcats start stockpiling some wins against those difficult opponents, they are going to have a tough time making their case to the tournament selection committee.

The treacherous schedule makes winning their remaining contests against six weaker teams essential. The Wildcats will play Purdue and Iowa twice each, and Nebraska and Penn State once. With the depth of the Big Ten this season, it is feasible Northwestern could be dancing with an 8-10 record and a strong showing in the conference tournament. That also means they could potentially afford one slip up against these opponents (probably at Purdue) as long as they got at least one upset win.

But even that is not a guarantee. To be safe, they need to win all of those contests. Road wins against Illinois (February 5) and No. 17 Indiana (February 15) would be gravy, assuming those other six games are the turkey.

Northwestern has put itself in a deep ditch, but, at this point anyway, they can still climb out of it. If the team gets healthy, avoids getting upset by teams with lower RPIs, and scores at least one upset, they still could be tournament bound.

Of course, a little rebounding wouldn't kill them either.

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