With a third of the conference schedule already in the books, let's take another look at Northwestern's NCAA at-large chances. We'll start with their NCAA resume.
Record: 13-5 (2-4 Big Ten)
Quality wins: Purdue
Bad losses: None
Record vs RPI Top 25: 1-3
Record vs RPI 26-50: 0-1
Record vs RPI 51-100: 2-1
Record vs RPI 101-200: 4-0
Record vs RPI 201+: 6-0
Record away from home: 4-2
None of the bracketology experts had the 'Cats in the NCAA's when they released their Monday pairings (before the loss to Ohio State), and it's easy to see why. Looking just at this resume, it appears Northwestern hasn't done too much other than beat up on bad teams, as NU is 3-5 against the top 100 and 1-4 against the top 50. The win over Purdue certainly looks nice, as does the strong record away from home, but judging just from this it doesn't seem that Northwestern can compete with NCAA tournament teams.
Readers may be wondering why I didn't include any of NU's non-conference wins over BCS teams in the quality win category. Here's why: none of the 4 are currently NCAA tournament teams, and thus the committee will not view those as quality wins. Notre Dame definitely has the best chance to change that, but right now the Irish are not an NCAA tournament team as they have a weak RPI of 72. Neither Lunardi at ESPN nor Glockner at SI even mentioned them in their latest projections, and that was before they lost at home to Syracuse Monday night. Jerry Palm at CBS did have them in as an 11 seed as of Monday, but again that was before the loss to Syracuse. The biggest thing working against the Irish is their embarrassingly terrible non-conference schedule. When your most impressive non-conference win is a tie between Long Beach State and IUPUI, you've got serious problems.
NC State did Northwestern a favor by beating Duke last night, unfortunately they are still unlikely to make the tournament as their RPI currently sits at 82. They have proven me wrong so far in ACC play as I thought they'd be fortunate to win 4 league games all season, but I remain doubtful about their NCAA chances. I think their season will finish up much like Northwestern last season, in that they exceed expectations and become a tough out in conference play, but are too inconsistent to take the next step to the dance. Hopefully they continue to play well.
I thought Iowa State would be an NCAA tournament team, but if you've been following the excellent Iowa State blog Clone Chronicles, you'd know that Iowa State has been decimated by injuries, suspensions, guys quitting the team, and poor coaching. Despite a lot of talent, it appears it will be a long season for the Cyclones and they are unlikely to improve too much on their current RPI of 107. And as for Stanford, they are 8-9 right now and play in the terrible Pac-10; they have no chance at an at-large bid and their RPI of 142 is unlikely to change much.
So in order for this resume to improve, Northwestern is going to need to get some more RPI top 100 wins. Unfortunately, of the 'Cats 13 remaining regular season games, only 5 are against the RPI top 100 (and they are home games vs Illinois and Minnesota and road games at Minnesota, Michigan State and Wisconsin). Winning at the Breslin Center or at the Kohl Center is going to be very difficult, so the Illinois and Minnesota games take on gigantic importance as the 'Cats badly need RPI top 100 wins, and additionally they can hurt the resumes of the two other Big Ten bubble teams. I think NU needs at least 2 wins in those 5 games to be in good position come Selection Sunday, combined with taking care of business in the games they should win (home vs Michigan and Chicago State, 2 games each vs Penn State, Indiana and Iowa). 9-9 in Big Ten play is just not going to get it done, no matter how many times people say it. Even 10-8 will be dicey, as that will still leave the 'Cats either lacking in the quality win department or finally saddled with a bad loss.
To further illustrate why 21-10 (9-9) won't be enough, let's say NU wins the 8 games they should on paper and loses the other 5. That leaves them 18-0 against RPI 101+, 3-10 against the RPI top 100 and 1-6 against the RPI top 50. The committee will (accurately) conclude that NU can't hang against other NCAA teams, and it will mean another trip to the NIT. Even 22-9 (10-8) leaves them at 4-9 vs the top 100 and probably still 1-6 against the top 50, so they'd probably need another good win in the Big Ten tournament.
In conclusion, I am not at all optimistic about Northwestern's tournament chances. The disappointing Big Ten, combined with a soft non-conference schedule, has left NU with very little margin for error. They are going to have to get more big wins and completely avoid bad losses. So far they have taken care of business against weaker teams, but it is very tough to win on the road in the Big Ten even against the bottom of the conference. I'm not totally abandoning hope, but after breaking down their resume I have definitely become more pessimistic.