First of all, let's not overreact. Sure, Northwestern just took on its toughest three-game stretch of the year and did it to them: two wins, one over a Kenpom top 10 team, the other over a squad that was ranked at the time on the road. But reading too much into that is the same mistake that everybody made when the team lost a few blowout games and concluded that Bill Carmody needed to be immediately fired. These three nice performances are just as much a part of this team as those blowout losses.
However, it is safe to say that if the team is capable of occasionally playing as well as they did against Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota, this season isn't meaningless. There's postseason play in there, if the team plays well? But what does that mean? Should we start talking about, you know, those four letters? Or just the usual three?
Well let's take a look, and have some fun with an exercise. I plan on taking a look at Northwestern's out-of-conference opponents next week, but for now, let's just acknowledge that for NU that wasn't particularly special: I think the great road win against Baylor is counterbalanced by an ugly loss to UIC at home, and other than that, nothing impressive happened.
So let's look at the rest of the season. Fact-ish assumption No. 1: No 9-9 team in the most dominant conference in basketball is going to miss the NCAA Tournament. No matter how hard or how soft the bubble is, that's true. Fact-ish assumption No. 2: Although it's no longer a rule that you have to be .500 to make the NIT, they've never taken a team below .500, so it's safe to assume that no team below .500 will make it this year, meaning NU will have to win at least seven Big Ten games to make the NCAA. They'd probably need a BTT win, there, but whatever? So where's Northwestern going to end up this season?
Let's look at the rest of NU's season - win probabilities come from the inimitable Kenpom:
Must-wins (80 percent win probability or higher)
vs. Penn State (89 percent)
Obviously nothing's a must-win, but we at Northwestern know what happens when you lose a late season game to an awful Penn State team when you were oh so close to making a postseason tournament. We know.
Should wins: (60-80 percent win probability)
@ Nebraska (64 percent)
vs. Purdue (61 percent)
I'm surprised Nebraska is so low, and that Purdue is so high. Regardless, neither of these will be easy wins, but they're both essential for any postseason hopes. At three wins already in Big Ten play, if NU wins the three above here and just one more, they're probably doing something in the postseason.
Toss-ups (40-60 win probability)
vs. Illinois (54 percent)
This might be the game I want the most for the rest of the season. And considering the fact that Northwestern needs seven wins to go mini-dancing, it could be big in that department too. Circle February 17, I guess.
Likely losses (20-40 percent win probability)
@ Iowa (21 percent)
vs. Wisconsin (29 percent)
@ Purdue (33 percent)
vs. Ohio State (25 percent)
That's a lot of games Northwestern is expected to lose, though. The way probability works, though, they'll probably win at least one of those. If Northwestern does the work it should in games its likely to win, this is the section that becomes hyper-important. A win here would prob
Probable losses (20 percent win probability or lower)
@ Michigan (6 percent)
@ Ohio State (9 percent)
@ Michigan State (14 percent)
You don't expect much from here, but then again, Northwestern did just win it only had a 17 percent chance of winning, so you never know.
What does this mean? Well, right now, the likelihood is that Northwestern looks like a bubble NIT team. Kenpom gives Northwestern a 30 percent chance of finishing with seven wins, which would make them 16-15 (7-11), which would leave NU sitting on Selection Sunday wondering how many one seeds in conference tournaments lose. That's is a situation they've been in before, and I can confirm is the most depressing situation to be in.
That said, the way they've played these past three games? If the team can continue playing as a cohesive unit with strong defense and an occasional ability to hit shots? That's interesting. If Northwestern can outperform its expectation by one game - by winning games they're favored in, and grabbing one from the ones that they're likely to lose - they're an NIT lock with a chance to go to the NCAA's if they play well in the United Center. If they can do it by two games, they'll almost definitely be - Kenpom gives that about a ten percent chance. Either one will be hard, and more than likely won't happen. But a lot of things that aren't supposed to happen do happen, and that's why we watch.
My point is, things still don't look *great*. All honesty? Northwestern lost their best player, and I'd be very pleased with an NIT bid. And that won't be easy. There's reason to watch Northwestern basketball this season, because they've got work to do.
But my point is, Northwestern has been exciting these past few games, and there's reason to believe this season will end up better than it looked like it would when they got drubbed three out of four games to start Big Ten play.
This is my long way of saying Northwestern is probably gonna lose to Nebrasketball tomorrow and make us all feel stupid.