Becht: The math to March Madness

Colin Becht and Colin Becht

The Big Dance. March Madness. The Tournament.

The NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship has many names, each as mythical as the next to Northwestern.

For the third straight season, the Wildcats find themselves in the hunt for a bid to the Big Dance, capable of playing themselves into the tournament if they can string together a strong February and March.

I gave up on a NCAA Tournament just more than a week ago when the Cats dropped their third straight game, a 58-56 loss to Purdue that sunk NU’s Big Ten record to 2-6. But lo and behold, back-to-back wins including a road win against Illinois, and suddenly a tournament bid doesn’t seem completely impossible anymore.

Here’s what it’ll take to march the Cats into the madness.

Popular wisdom holds that NU will need to finish 9-9 in the Big Ten to earn a bid, and I believe that’s true. At 9-9, the Cats would conclude the regular season with 19 wins and around a sixth- or seventh-place finish in the conference. In the best conference in the country – note that this isn’t a debate when the Big Ten’s RPI is 12 points and non-conference winning percentage is 2 percent higher than the next-best conference – a .500 conference record and a 10-2 non-conference record should be enough to earn the approval of the selection committee.

So if nine is the magic number, how does NU get there?

With eight games remaining, the Cats will need to win five of them. Thursday’s game against Iowa at home and Feb. 25’s contest at Penn State are must-wins. From there NU will need to garner three wins among battles at home against Minnesota and Michigan and on the road against Purdue and Iowa. Indiana and Ohio State possess too much size and athleticism for NU to compete.

All four of the toss-up games are theoretically winnable. NU plays much better at home, so I don’t place much stock in the Golden Gophers’ 23-point victory at the Williams Arena. The Cats hung with the Wolverines in Ann Arbor and would have earned the road win had they not derailed themselves with turnovers. NU similarly played Purdue tough despite a home loss, and Iowa has faded from its hot start to conference play despite wins over Minnesota on Wednesday and Penn State on Saturday.

Essentially, if you resigned yourself to another tourney-less season, take another look. The wins are still there if NU can play more like the clutch team that showed up in Champaign, Ill., and less like the high school JV squad that arrived in Madison, Wisc.

I’d rank from most winnable to least: Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, Purdue.

Of course, the margin for error is small, and a home loss to the Hawkeyes this Thursday would put dancing dreams back on life support. But in a conference season marked by tremendous highs and crushing lows, the Cats find themselves on a high.

They’ll need to capitalize on this one to finally reach the promised land.

Sports editor Colin Becht is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]