It’s finally March, and with the month’s arrival comes plenty of exciting things: the first flower of spring, warm sunshine and – perhaps most importantly – the college basketball postseason. March Madness brings crazy shots, back-and-forth games and Cinderella stories with teams doing the impossible and making runs of a lifetime.
That is, unless you’re Northwestern men’s basketball (14-15, 7-13 B1G). With only one NCAA Tournament berth in their history, the ’Cats are not exactly known for their postseason success, and with a lackluster regular season this year, it looks like it may be another long offseason for all Wildcat fans.
There is one more option, however: if the ’Cats can pull off the impossible and make a run in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament, they’ll be able to dance once again. Can this team of misfits and ragtags find a way to pull off the impossible and win five straight games to make their second-ever tournament?
Short answer: No, they can’t. But why don’t we try and see anyway?
Ragtags and Misfits
It’s been an incredibly rough season for Wildcat fans everywhere. While their record isn’t ideal with just seven conference wins, Northwestern has shown the potential to do a lot more than just lie down and die. Ten of the Wildcats’ 13 conference losses have come within 10 points or less, including tough losses against Big Ten champions Wisconsin and Illinois.
The key for Northwestern, as already suggested this season, lies in two things: the ability to convert on offense and a failure to lockdown from downtown defensively. While the team hosts both the second-highest assist-to-turnover ratio (1.61) and turnover margin (3.86) in the Big Ten, the ’Cats have had incredible difficulty finishing the job offensively, posting the worst field goal shooting percentage (.427) in the Big Ten. It’s hard to win games when you can’t make shots.
Perhaps more important, however, is Northwestern’s inability to lock down on defense. The ’Cats posted the worst three-point defense in the conference this season – allowing 36% of downtown shots to fall – and have allowed an average of 68.5 points to be scored per game this season. It’s a rough formula for any team: if you allow open shots and can’t answer on the other end, teams are eventually going to run away from you.
If Northwestern is going to pull off a miracle in Indianapolis, it’ll come from a few likely suspects. The star of the show will be senior forward and All-Big Ten Honorable Mention Pete Nance, who leads the team in both points per game (14.7) and rebounds (6.6). Nance is becoming a cult hero for the ’Cats. Despite the rough season, he’s become a bright spot in his final showings, even crossing the 1000-point barrier in the final home game of the season.
The one often feeding Nance is junior guard Boo Buie, who leads the team in assists (4.4) and follows Nance in the scoring threat with 14.1 points per game. Buie is the team’s best downtown threat. He’ll likely be fed the ball often and early, considering his best performance of the year came against the team’s first round opponent: Nebraska (10-21, 4-16 B1G).
Speaking of which…
Here’s the good news for the Wildcats: they’ve already beaten the Huskers twice this season, including a 24-point win in Lincoln – Northwestern’s biggest conference victory this season – and a 12-point victory at home. In both wins, the ’Cats showed just how deadly their offense can be, pulling off incredible three-point shooting and ball movement.
Here’s the bad news: Nebraska was a different team then. The Cornhuskers have been on a slight tear as of late, winning their past three games against teams the ’Cats couldn’t beat: Penn State, Ohio State and conference co-champion Wisconsin. Their growth into a high-scoring team has impressed many and led some to question what kind of damage they can do in this tournament.
The game will likely come down to a battle of the two stars: Nance and Buie versus the Huskers’ dynamic duo of their own, first-year guard Bryce McGowens, who’s scored 17.2 points per game this season, and senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr., who’s pulled 14.2 points per game and dished out 5.3 assists per game. McGowens is currently a “50-50 shot” to play against the ’Cats on Wednesday as he deals with a wrist injury, so Northwestern may get lucky.
So you’ve got a team with insane momentum and young talent taking on a talented but fundamentally flawed Northwestern. While the ’Cats have the experience, it’s hard to take down a team playing with fire. Even if the Wildcats can pull this off, they’ll have quite a hard road ahead.
Here’s the thing about the Big Ten tournament: it’s thirteen games in five days. If the ’Cats do manage to pull off the win against the Huskers, they’ll play the Iowa Hawkeyes (22-9, 12-8 B1G), who have already shown no mercy against the Wildcats this season.
It’s a hard sell for sure, but stranger things have happened. The Big Ten is a conference filled with crazy games and hard wins. This season, Northwestern has beaten a top-10 opponent in Michigan State, brought games down to the wire against teams for sure to make postseason play, and found themselves in one of the craziest student environments in the country. If the ’Cats can pull off two wins, they’ll take on Rutgers (18-12, 12-8 B1G), a team Northwestern beat in a crazy home win this season. The Wildcats have the potential to go far and figure it out… but will they rise to the occasion?
It’s called March Madness for a reason. Let’s watch the impossible happen.