So the women's team played some games while I was out of the country last week. Let's get to the highlights. There was the, uh, 59-58 squeaker the Wildcats pulled out over a 6-12 Illinois team on MLK Day. Then there was....well, that's about it as far as highlights go. NU came close but lost on Wednesday to a very good Michigan team, 58-48, and then yesterday, the Wildcats got completely blown out by a very bad Wisconsin team, 75-55.
The results bring NU's record to 12-8 overall, 2-5 in the Big Ten. As with the men's team, things aren't looking so good. The loss to Wisconsin, in particular, really hurts. A once promising season teeters on the brink. With nine games left in the regular season, this is a good time to take stock of where the Wildcats are and what they'll need to do to make the tournament.
The Wildcats' RPI as of today is 77th, according to this site, putting them on the extremely flimsy part of the tournament bubble, which is still very fluid at this point. By my calculations, NU has gone 1-4 against top-30 RPI teams, the lone win coming on the road against LSU (29). That's not a great record, but it's not what's going to hurt the team the most. That would be the three losses against teams with RPIs 100 and above: Toledo (116), Minnesota (100), and Wisconsin (129).
NU hasn't played anybody with an RPI between 30 and 50. So add all this up, and that means that the Wildcats have just the one resume building win against LSU and a handful of bubble-busting unimpressive losses.
The Big Ten as a whole is ranked 4th among conferences in RPI. My magic 8-ball tells me the Big Ten is likely to qualify five teams for the NCAA touranment, with a chance at six, which would be the most since 2004, though we now have 12 members.
Ohio State, Michigan, Purdue, Penn State and Nebraska all look to be in good shape, barring some late collapse, with RPIs in the top 33. Not coincidentally, they are the top five teams in the Big Ten standings. On the bubble for that potential last slot are Iowa (67), NU (77), and Michigan State (83). Minnesota (100) still has a mathematical chance.
As I said above, NU has nine games left in the regular season. I'll go out on a limb and say if the Wildcats are to make the NCAA tournament, they probably need to go at least 8-8 in the conference, and win at least one in the Big Ten tournament. That means NU has to go at least 6-3 in the remaining regular season games. Possibly even 7-2. Where will those wins come from? Let's take a look at the schedule, which looks pretty tough.
vs. Purdue (16-3, 6-0)
vs. Indiana (5-15, 0-7)
@ Michigan (16-4, 5-2)
@ Michigan State (12-7, 4-2)
vs. Penn State (15-4, 5-2)
@ Nebraska (16-3, 5-2)
@ Illinois (6-14, 0-7)
vs. Iowa (11-9, 3-4)
vs. Michigan State (12-7, 4-2)
Let's begin with the obvious. The games against conference bottom feeders Illinois and Indiana are must-wins. Take care of those two games, and now the Wildcats will need at least four more wins. NU will probably have to hold serve at home against Iowa and at least split the two games against Michigan State, the teams they'll probably be battling on the bubble. The Wildcats already lost badly at Iowa earlier this season.
If the Wildcats can beat one of Purdue or Penn State at home, which will be tall orders, and steal a win on the road against Michigan or Nebraska, then that brings them to the 8 or 9 conference wins they'll need at a minimum, entering the Big Ten tournament.
It's not looking great, but where there's a chance, there's always hope, right? Really, when the final analysis of the season is done, the Wildcats will probably be kicking themselves for underperforming during the early winnable part of the Big Ten schedule, when they dropped games against Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Reverse two of those losses, and the Wildcats would likely be sitting in decent shape right now.
But the season's not dead yet. March to the tournament starts Thursday against Purdue.