Win or else — Cats have 2 more chances (Sarah Rothschild Column)

There was no dodging it: Win or watch the postseason from the couch.

For the second straight year, the final regular season meeting between Northwestern and Michigan held enormous postseason implications.

For once NU delivered the final blow to another team’s season — this time to the reigning National Invitation Tournament champs. The Wildcats kept their postseason chances afloat in a 69-53 victory against a reeling Wolverines squad that has lost 11 of 12.

But NU’s romp against cupcake Michigan in a must-win situation won’t save the season. NU must beat a top-10 team or win in an arena where every Big Ten team that visited this year has left a loser.

A handful of dazzling offensive plays would almost blind you from reality. Michael Jenkins’ halfcourt alley-oop found its way through the net without any help, and Mohamed Hachad faked a behind the back pass and drove straight to the hoop a la Magic Johnson. These plays helped wash away the bitter taste of last season’s seven-point loss to Michigan in the regular-season finale. That loss virtually eliminated NU from postseason eligibility.

Now, NU’s magic number for postseason eligibility stands at one. But it will be anything but an easy feat. The Cats must upset No. 10 Michigan State on Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena or defeat the surging Hoosiers in Bloomington on Saturday.

NU’s last win in Bloomington? Back in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson occupied the Oval Office. The Cats have never won at the Hoosiers’ Assembly Hall.

An upset over Michigan State on Wednesday would be the Cats’ first win against the Spartans since defeating them at home in 2002. That was also the last time the Cats were eligible for the NIT. Despite a 16-13 record, the Cats couldn’t overcome a season-ending four-game skid and weren’t selected for the NIT.

Last season the Cats fell one game short of qualifying for the postseason, heightening expectations for this year’s squad. Apparently, everyone had a false sense of hope.

“Sometimes people expect too much,” said forward Vedran Vukusic, after turning in a 26-point performance against Michigan. “Before the season we didn’t know what we were going to do this year. We had high hopes, high expectations, all our fans did. We’ve come up short so far. All we can hope now is the NIT.”

Even if the Cats win at least one of two remaining regular season games, it doesn’t make them a lock for the postseason.

The outcome of the next two games won’t make fans forget the late-game meltdown at home against Ohio State or handing last-place Penn State its only conference win this season. But for one night, in an exhilarating victory against Michigan, you’d almost believe that WIN spells NIT.

Assistant sports editor Sarah Rothschild is a Medill senior. She can be reached at [email protected].