Women’s Basketball: With season end looming, Northwestern sits on tournament bubble


Daily file photo by Courtney Morrison

Nia Coffey handles the ball. The junior forward has had a big season for the Wildcats, but struggles at the start of the conference season have dealt a blow to NU’s NCAA Tournament hopes.

Cole Paxton, Reporter

Women’s Basketball

In its quest for a second consecutive NCAA tournament berth, Northwestern missed an opportunity last week.

Had the Wildcats (13-7, 2-6 Big Ten) defeated Minnesota and Indiana, they would have picked up two wins against teams ranked in the RPI top 100 and evened its Big Ten record at 4-4. Instead, NU lost both games.

After starting the year 10-0, the Cats are scuffling, having gone just 3-7 in their last 10 games and losing to four unranked opponents already in Big Ten play. With just a single top-25 win over then-No. 5 Ohio State and losses mounting, NU may need a late-season charge to return to the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season.

With a No. 70 ranking as of Tuesday afternoon in RPI, a composite ranking the tournament committee relies upon heavily, and a 64-team tournament field, the Cats would seem to be in decent shape on first glance. However, automatic bids are awarded to the champions of all 32 conference tournaments, significantly trimming the number of berths available to at-large teams, squads that do not earn the automatic bids.

As of Tuesday, 15 conferences had no teams within the top 64 in RPI, meaning that, more or less, the top 50 teams according to RPI will earn tournament berths.

Based on that metric, the Cats’ current resume would most likely not earn them an at-large berth in the tournament if the season ended today.

Bracket analysts agree. NU was among the first eight teams left out of College Sports Madness’ projected bracket released Sunday, the first time all season the Cats were not listed in the website’s projections. Charlie Creme of ESPN listed NU as among the “First Four Out” of his projection Monday.

As the Cats are on a three-game losing streak and have lost several games to currently unranked opponents, bad losses might seem a primary culprit for their drop in bracket predictions. NU, however, has just one loss against a team outside the RPI top 100: its Big Ten opener against Penn State, presently No. 130.

Instead, the team that opened the season No. 19 in the AP poll and rose as high as No. 12 is suffering from a lack of RPI top-100 wins. The win over Ohio State and an early January victory against Nebraska, No. 59 in RPI, mark the Cats’ only wins against top 100 teams.

The Cats also played three non-conference games against teams with RPI rankings below 275. An alarming number of games against teams ranked that low since there are 349 Division I women’s basketball teams.

Last season, NU won nine games against top-100 RPI teams and six against top-50 opponents en route to a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This year, the team is rapidly running out of chances to match those totals.  

Snagging a victory or two over teams at the top of the Big Ten would strengthen the Cats’ resume. But although NU travels to No. 7 Ohio State on Thursday and hosts No. 5 Maryland in a few weeks, it has no games remaining against No. 18 Michigan State and Purdue, the teams currently third and fourth in the Big Ten standings. Both the Spartans and Boilermakers defeated the Cats.

NU will have a handful of opportunities to defeat teams projected to be on the tournament bubble. The Cats host Iowa on Sunday and will travel to both Rutgers and Nebraska in February. All three of those teams have top-60 RPIs and are among the last teams currently projected to make the tournament, according to the most recent projections from both College Sports Madness and ESPN.

NU will also play Illinois, Penn State and Wisconsin, teams with losing overall records sitting outside of the RPI top 100. The Cats will host Michigan and Minnesota, a pair of teams with top-100 RPI marks, but still behind NU’s ranking.

The Cats’ remaining 10 regular season games break down essentially into three categories, by RPI: games against elite teams, games against teams of NU’s caliber and games against teams ranked well below the Cats. Even if NU finishes the season 8-2 to enter the Big Ten Tournament 21-9, the Cats, barring another signature win over Ohio State or Maryland, may not have a strong enough portfolio to earn an NCAA tournament berth.

Although the regular season offers only limited opportunities for NU to enhance its resume, the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis may offer the team one last opportunity. If the Cats play well in Indianapolis, they could knock off a quality team or two and make a positive last impression in the minds of selection committee members. Should NU run the table and win the event, it would earn the Big Ten’s automatic berth to the NCAAs.

But with seven losses already and few strong victories, a Cats loss to a team like Minnesota or Penn State — teams that have already beaten NU this season — could doom the Cats’ tournament hopes.

Ultimately, the Cats need to win. At this point in the season, every win will help NU’s tournament chances, and every loss will hurt them. The Cats will need to stem the tide of their three-game losing streak and return to the form they showed early in the non-conference season.

Now, however, the schedule is less friendly than it was in November. NU must rise to the challenge, or it could be staying home come March.

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