Gelman: Northwestern will win its most games ever and still not make the NCAA Tournament


Max Gelman, Sports Editor

Ever since coach Chris Collins was hired, the 2015-16 season has seemed to be the target for Northwestern’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth. Although Collins never explicitly said it, this seemed the most opportune time under his tenure, as Alex Olah and Tre Demps would be seniors and sophomores Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law — two of the Wildcats’ best recruits ever — would have some experience under their belts.

However, Law’s shoulder injury, which ended his season before it began, threw a wrench into Collins’ plan. The South Holland, Illinois, native struggled at the start of last year but improved as his freshman season progressed. He became one of NU’s best rebounders, finishing second on the team behind Olah in rebounds per game.

Nevertheless, the Cats are off to a 12-1 start thanks to one of the weakest schedules in the nation, defeating every opponent except then-No. 9 North Carolina. The Cats were well on their way to shattering their school-record 20 wins, reached in both 2010 and 2011, but Olah’s foot injury will likely cost the team a win or two depending on when he returns.,

NU’s schedule is both the team’s biggest blessing and biggest curse – the Cats don’t have a bad loss (losing to any of their non-conference opponents would all but eliminate them from tournament consideration) and can now easily reach 20 wins, which is normally the plateau for Power-5 NCAA Tournament berths. Four Power-5 teams – Indiana, Texas, North Carolina State and UCLA – made the tournament last year with just 20 wins, and Oklahoma State was selected with only 18 victories.

The lack of quality opponents on NU’s schedule, coupled with the Big Ten’s collective struggles thus far, requires at least 22 or 23 wins from Collins’ team, and even that might not be enough. In 2010, Virginia Tech missed the tournament despite going 23-7 in the regular season, largely due to a weak non-conference schedule, a situation Collins finds himself in this season.

Now to break down the conference opponents themselves to see how Collins can break the school’s ignominious streak.

The games that, in all likelihood, the Cats will WIN:

Nebraska – Dec. 30 (Away), March 6 (Home): Nebraska handed the Cats one of their worst losses last year despite not being very good. This year, the Cornhuskers’ best wins so far are Rhode Island and Tennessee, two above-average teams, but the combined win-loss records of the other six teams Nebraska beat is 8-65. Much like NU, Nebraska has one of the easiest non-conference schedules in the country even though the Cornhuskers played more ranked opponents. However, their loss to mediocre Samford shows they are flawed, and the Cats should have little problem taking care of the Cornhuskers this year.

Minnesota – Jan. 9 (Away), Feb. 4 (Home): Everyone loves a Joey King highlight reel, but one man does not a team make. The Golden Gophers’ leading scorer is the only thing exciting about Minnesota this year, as coach Richard Pitino moves to make his team younger – nine of Pitino’s 13 players are underclassmen. This is a program in the rebuild phase and should be two easy wins for the Cats.

Penn State – Jan. 16 (Home), March 3 (Away): Last year, D.J. Newbill carried the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten Tournament run, nearly reaching the semifinals. But with Newbill now graduated, there is nothing keeping Penn State from finishing last in the conference standings. Well, except maybe one thing. But we’ll get to that later.

Illinois – Feb. 13 (Home): The intrigue of NU’s in-state rivalry with the Fighting Illini brings up the possibility of a trap game, but Illinois is simply not very good this year. The Illini beat the Cats twice last year and made the NIT but struggled in their non-conference schedule. Chicago State and University of Illinois-Chicago proved tougher tests than expected (remember, NU crushed Chicago State) and Illinois’ best win is Yale, a preseason NCAA tournament favorite, which has disappointed thus far. Especially with center Mike Thorne Jr. sidelined, the Cats should have no problem beating the Illini.

Rutgers – Feb. 27 (Home): The only Big Ten team to finish its non-conference schedule below .500, Rutgers’ second year in the conference is heading in the same direction as its first — to the bottom of the Big Ten standings. The most interesting part about this game will be the margin of defeat. Can the Scarlet Knights of New Brunswick, N.J., surprise everyone and lose by only 15?

The games that, in all likelihood, the Cats will LOSE:

Maryland – Jan. 2 (Home), Jan. 19 (Away): College Park was the site of NU’s most disappointing loss last season. This year, the Terrapins are primed for a deep NCAA tournament run. Though the Cats will likely lose both matchups, Maryland presents their best chance for an elite win. The key will be to stay out of foul trouble like last time — the Terrapins entered the first bonus with 9:59 remaining in the second half. Don’t count on a win, though.

Michigan State – Jan. 28 (Home): Despite recently losing senior guard and College Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine to injury, the Spartans are off to their best start in school history. Valentine’s injury has clearly weakened Tom Izzo’s squad, evidenced by the Spartans’ unexpected nail-biter win against Oakland. But by NU’s matchup with Michigan State, Valentine should be back in the starting lineup. Last year the Cats took the Spartans to overtime in East Lansing, indicating Collins can prepare his team well enough for the challenges Michigan State brings. But it’s unlikely the Spartans can be taken down.

Purdue – Feb. 16 (Away): If there’s a small chance NU can topple the Spartans, there’s an even smaller chance the Cats will beat the Boilermakers. Olah struggled opposite seven-foot centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas last year, managing only 4 points and one rebound. If he returns from injury by then, he will have an even harder time on his tender foot. This year, both Hammons and Haas have returned to create perhaps the best front-court duo in the nation. Collins called them “battering rams” after last year’s 68-60 loss. With top-10 recruit Caleb Swanigan now in the mix and performing at a high level, expect this game to be the Cats’ worst defeat of the 2015-16 season.

Iowa – Jan. 31 (Away): NU split with the Hawkeyes last year, but the Cats won at Welsh-Ryan Arena in overtime and lost spectacularly in Iowa City. The departure of Aaron White should have hurt the Hawkeyes, but Iowa has played three ranked opponents well: The Hawkeyes easily handled No. 20 Wichita State, dropped a close game to No. 17 Notre Dame and came seconds from toppling in-state rival No. 4 Iowa State. Iowa ranks 17th according to college basketball sabermetrics creator Ken Pomeroy, good for fourth in the Big Ten. Look for Jarrod Uthoff, who has averaged over 19 points per game in three games against the Cats, to score at least twice as much as any of his teammates.

Indiana – Jan. 23 (Away): A preseason darling, Indiana went from No. 13 in the AP poll to not receiving any votes in just three weeks. Losses to Wake Forest and UNLV and a 20-point loss to No. 7 Duke will do that to an expected championship contender. However, the Hoosiers are not as bad as their three losses suggest. Indiana made the NCAA Tournament last year on the back of Yogi Ferrell, who returns this year as one of the nation’s top point guards. Tom Crean has always coached a championship-caliber offense, but so far his defense has not caught up. The Cats managed to beat the Hoosiers last year during their first four-game Big Ten win streak since 1967, but unless NU puts up one of its best offensive performances, which could be difficult without Olah, this game will swing in Indiana’s favor.

The “swing games” that could go either way:

Ohio State – Jan. 6 (Home), Feb. 9 (Away): No one seems to know what to make of the Buckeyes’ season so far. The Buckeyes have lost close games to above-average teams, none of which have more than three losses, and they aren’t as good as last year without current Los Angeles Lakers rookie D’Angelo Russell. But last week Ohio State defeated then-No. 4 Kentucky, so it’s clear the Buckeyes can still win against elite teams. Probably the most inconsistent team in the Big Ten, Ohio State could come out firing on all cylinders or fall flat.

Result: NU will likely split this season series, winning the game at Welsh-Ryan Arena while losing in Columbus. SPLIT

Wisconsin – Jan. 12 (Home): Much like Ohio State, Wisconsin is not as good as last year, with a National Championship berth being tough to follow. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, each now in the NBA, are two huge losses, but forward Nigel Hayes is still playing very well for the Badgers and has taken the spotlight. The surprise midseason retirement of Bo Ryan has sent this program into limbo especially after Ryan seemed to walk back his intention to retire after the 2015-16 season ended. With the Badgers on their heels, they will be vulnerable when they come to Evanston in January.

Result: Even though the Cats beat Wisconsin only once in their past 10 matchups, this year will feature the rare instance that they take down the Badgers. WIN

Michigan – Feb. 24 (Away): A team that has seemingly flown under the radar this year, Michigan is off to a fantastic start. The Wolverines have double-digit wins and no bad losses so far, dropping contests to three teams that were ranked at least once in the AP Poll. With the underwhelming play of many Big Ten teams, Michigan will find itself on the tournament bubble just one year after winning only 16 games. The Wolverines face a challenging conference schedule – they play the four teams listed as definite losses for NU a combined seven times. If the Wolverines manage one or two wins against those schools and everything else goes right, they will likely earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

Result: This will be one of the Cats’ tightest games and their last difficult matchup as the season winds down. Michigan will have the home-court advantage though and come out on top. LOSS

This leaves NU with a final record of 21-10, the most wins in school history and one game beyond the usual plateau for bubble teams. However, the Cats’ schedule still limits them enough to thwart a tournament berth, and there is ample precedent for Power-5 teams with at least 20 wins missing the NCAA Tournament.

To make the March Madness bracket, the Cats will need to defy the odds and win at least one game against an elite Big Ten team to pad their resume. Compensating for the loss of Olah may also prove difficult, but the team can handle it for the most part. Otherwise NU will look on from the outside for the 78th-straight year.

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