The Daily Northwestern

Paxton: Northwestern controls its NCAA Tournament fate, but it isn’t making its road easy

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Northwestern fans cheer on Christen Inman as she attempts a foul shot. The Wildcats need to finish the season strong to secure a tournament bid.

Northwestern fans cheer on Christen Inman as she attempts a foul shot. The Wildcats need to finish the season strong to secure a tournament bid.

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Northwestern fans cheer on Christen Inman as she attempts a foul shot. The Wildcats need to finish the season strong to secure a tournament bid.

Cole Paxton, Assistant Sports Editor

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Women’s Basketball


On the surface, Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament resume is strong: 17 wins and six losses with February just underway and a fourth place spot in the Big Ten.

Dig deeper, and it doesn’t look so rosy.

An extremely weak Big Ten, unspectacular non-conference schedule and Sunday’s bad loss against Penn State mean the Wildcats sit firmly on the bubble with Selection Monday just a month away, facing an uphill battle to sneak into the field of 64 with a daunting road trip looming.

It is undoubtedly cruel that an NU team that has fallen on its face just once and will easily surpass 20 regular season wins probably needs three road victories in the next week to get itself back on the right side of the bubble. But that’s the reality for a team with no signature win, playing in a down conference.

Examine, for example, the Cats’ results against the best teams in the country. There is no shame in NU’s losses to ranked teams like No. 3 Maryland and No. 13 Ohio State, but an 0-4 mark against the RPI top 40 leaves the Cats without a resume-solidifying victory and docks their overall strength of schedule.

Instead, NU’s resume is based on top-100 wins. Home victories against Indiana and Purdue help, but will not singlehandedly get a team in the tournament. The Cats’ November win against then-No. 16 Florida was supposed to offer that marquee moment, but the Gators have plummeted since.

That’s why Sunday’s putrid performance against Penn State is so damaging. NU’s only other defeat against an unranked foe was at Gonzaga, a tournament-bound team. Before Sunday, the Cats could hang their hat on carrying no bad losses. That dynamic is now gone: the Nittany Lions are mired in mediocrity and at risk of dropping out of the RPI top 100.

It’s also why the next week is particularly critical. A win Saturday at Indiana gives NU a season sweep against the Hoosiers, pushing the Cats up the bubble and knocking Indiana — a fellow bubble dweller — down. The same goes for Thursday’s game at Iowa, among the first teams out in ESPN’s latest projection. A loss to either and the Cats all of a sudden look less attractive to the selection committee than their vanquisher.

Ranked No. 51 in RPI, NU can’t afford to drop much further. Time is ticking to return to the high-30s or low-40s, likely the tournament cutoff. Losses to teams like the Hoosiers and Hawkeyes wouldn’t knock the Cats down much, but wins would go a long way toward solidifying their resume. The same goes for Monday’s matchup at Minnesota, a team stuck near the bottom of the Big Ten but high in the RPI thanks to a challenging non-conference schedule.

The final three games of NU’s slate are decidedly less challenging, though a trip to Purdue will be tricky. The Big Ten Tournament will probably offer the Cats another chance to snag a victory against a team like Iowa or Michigan State and a potential statement win against Maryland or Ohio State.

Still, NU likely needs to make its push now. Coach Joe McKeown said after Sunday’s loss that his team is in position to make a February run. If that run is going to secure an NCAA Tournament berth, it needs to start now and continue until the calendar flips to March.

Email: colepaxton2019@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @ckpaxton

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