There has been a lot of talk this year about whether Northwestern can make the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. Right now, the Wildcats still have some work to do after a 77-70 loss to Michigan State on Saturday night.
Naturally, there is no shame in losing to MSU (19-3, 9-0) on the road. Almost everyone in the Big Ten loses in East Lansing, but the defeat left Northwestern with a pedestrian 3-6 conference record (14-7 overall). Most years, the formula for getting into the NCAA tournament for Big Ten teams involves 10 conference wins and 20 wins overall.
Can the Wildcats find seven wins in their final nine games in order to get to 10 conference victories? Well, believe it or not, they have the schedule to do it. The toughest games are behind Northwestern now, and they do have quality homecourt wins over Purdue and Illinois.
The remaining games for NU: Home contests with Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, Penn State and Iowa, plus road games at Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana.
AT WORST, Northwestern will go 5-4 in those games. If the Wildcats protect their homecourt and win two of those four road games, hey, they're probably in.
They've got non-conference wins over Notre Dame, Iowa State, North Carolina State and Stanford. That resume actually isn't too bad.
Illinois 72, Indiana 70
The Illini (14-8, 6-3) are another team trying to find their way into the NCAA tournament. Illinois got a win it absolutely had to have at home against Indiana (9-11, 3-5) on Saturday. The Hoosiers outhustled the Illini to a lot of loose balls and hit a season-high nine 3-pointers, but Illinois point guard Demetri McCamey hit a shot at the buzzer -- a floater in the lane -- to get his team into the win column. With the victory, the Illini tie the all-time series between these two heated rivals at 82-82.
Right now, Illinois is a classic bubble team. It hasn't done enough to play its way into the tournament, but it hasn't played itself out of contention either. Unlike Northwestern, the Illini have a difficult February schedule that includes home games against Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin, plus road games against Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan and Ohio State.
That schedule might actually work in the Illini's favor, because their only quality non-conference wins are over Clemson and Vanderbilt. They need a couple of resume-building victories, and a tough slate of games ahead affords them numerous opportunities to beat NCAA-quality teams.
Using our formula of 10 conference wins and 20 victories overall, the Illini would need to win four of these nine, plus two games in the conference tournament. Or, five of these nine, plus one in the conference tournament. Or, six of the remaining nine regular-season games.
The two most winnable road games are Iowa and Michigan. If the Illini can get those two games and beat Minnesota at home, that would be nine conference wins. That, plus wins in two out of the three home games against MSU, Ohio State and Wisconsin and Illinois is probably in. It's a tall task, but not impossible.
Right now, among Division I schools in the state, you'd have to say Northwestern is the one with the best shot at the NCAA tournament field. Surprising, isn't it?