Northwestern men's basketball (9-14, 6-13 B1G) is not currently a top dog for the NCAA tournament, but a few clutch wins in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament could put them over the top. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

This 2020-21 Men’s Basketball Season has been a streaky one to say the least. At last, we have arrived at postseason play. After finishing the season with a 9-14 record and 6-13 conference performance, the Northwestern Wildcats will travel to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium. They will kick off the tournament Wednesday night at 5:30 p.m. when they take on Minnesota. As the tournament’s twelfth seed, the ’Cats will need to rack off five straight wins in five consecutive days in order to hoist the tournament crown.

While winning five games in five days in Indianapolis to win the Big Ten Tournament and earn the conference’s automatic bid is the only way to guarantee a spot in the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats have rallied enough to the point where they could also earn a bid to March Madness. But what’s next?

Wait … the ’Cats could make the tournament?

Northwestern men's basketball defends the perimeter during their game against Indiana on Feb. 21. While Northwestern ended the regular season a game behind the Hoosiers, the two team's resumes for a postseason are incredibly similar. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

While the Big Ten Tournament crown is at stake, the Wildcats will also be fighting for their postseason lives starting Wednesday. After riding a 13-game losing streak through the heart of conference play, many basketball analysts have written the Wildcats off, saying they have no chance of playing any other games in March. But it’s time to write off that thought as well – the Wildcats have now won three straight games, and have the opportunity to earn serious bubble consideration with success this week.

As it stands right now, the Wildcats are only one game behind the Indiana Hoosiers (12-14, 7-12 B1G) in conference play. In many mock bracket publications, the Hoosiers have been sitting right around the projected NCAA Tournament bubble for the last few weeks. While the Hoosiers have won more games, the ‘Cats may have more of an argument for their success: they have faced the most difficult schedule in the history of KenPom (a well-renowned statistical archive for measuring basketball success) and also own two “Quadrant One” victories, the exact same total as the Hoosiers. While both teams still have work to do in Indianapolis, it is fair to say that an at-large bid to the Big Dance is attainable for the ‘Cats as well.

What Would Have to Happen:

Junior forward Miller Kopp (left) drives a possession during Northwestern's win over Nebraska. The 'Cats will need at least two big wins in the Big Ten Tournament to pull off a tournament bid. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

For Northwestern to have any shot at all, beating Minnesota (13-14, 6-14 B1G) is a must. The Golden Gophers have lost six straight games coming into the contest, but did put up a strong fight in their overtime loss against Rutgers on Saturday to conclude their regular season. A loss against Minnesota would almost guarantee the end of the season for the ’Cats.

“We’re taking it one game at a time,” said Northwestern head coach Chris Collins on the team’s preparation for the tournament. “We’re approaching the Minnesota game as if it is likely our last … if we don’t win.”

Should the ’Cats stay focused and continue their winning ways, the ’Cats will then face fifth-ranked Ohio State (18-8, 12-8 B1G) on Thursday at 1:00 p.m. The challenge of playing a day game after a night game, let alone games on back-to-back days against a fresh team, is nothing to overlook, but critics should not count out Northwestern. The Buckeyes have lost five straight games coming into Thursday, and are obviously not playing their best basketball of the season. Northwestern also already defeated the Buckeyes in December (a 71-70 victory), and their rematch in January was closer than the final score (81-71) might suggest. If the ’Cats play up to their potential, they could be looking at a quarterfinal bid.

Should they advance to the conference quarterfinals, the ’Cats would likely earn the respect of Bracketologists. By beating the Buckeyes, they would have earned a third “Quadrant One” victory, and would be afforded an opportunity for another against fourth-ranked Purdue (18-8, 13-6 B1G) in the quarterfinals. While it is plausible that reaching the quarterfinals could get the ’Cats into the field of 68, beating Purdue at 1 p.m. CST on Friday would bolster their tournament chances significantly; it would be hard for the committee to exclude a Big Ten team with 9 conference wins and at least four “Quadrant One” victories. It is fair to say that a trip to the tournament semifinals resembles the team’s most likely path to the Big Dance.

Anything beyond that?

March is a time for crazy underdogs, or possibly under-Cats. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

At this point, should the ’Cats advance to the semifinals to face the top conference dogs, the stakes would change as Northwestern’s season likely would not be on the line. Winning five games in five days is hard, so their chances of winning this game regardless of the opponent would likely be reduced. But in addition to the conference's automatic bid, the ’Cats would presumably be playing for NCAA Tournament seeding to ensure a bye and avoid playing in the “First Four” Round, an extra playoff to make the final field.

Should the ‘Cats fall short of the NCAA Tournament, they could possibly earn a bid to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and could even be an alternate team for the Big Dance should a team need to drop out due to COVID-19 issues. In this situation, it is unclear if the ‘Cats would accept a bid to the NIT or potentially become an NCAA Tournament alternate – the program might not want to encourage athletes to return home over the school’s upcoming vacation.

Although the situation for the ’Cats could get complicated, Coach Collins only wants to focus on the basketball game. When asked about the team's potential tournament implications and how this affects their preparation, Collins smiled and said “I’m not a Bracketologist [...] I’m not smart enough for that stuff.”

Now that we know all the potential implications for the ‘Cats, it might be best we focus on the game too. We’ll see you Wednesday.