This week, the Dagger will examine some of the most pressing questions the NCAA tournament selection committee will face. The latest installment looks at whether Northwestern has realistic hope of making its first NCAA tournament next month.
On the eve of 11th-ranked Michigan's visit to Evanston on Tuesday night, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody did his best to shoot down the idea that this was the biggest game in Wildcats basketball history.
Asked about that notion on the Big Ten teleconference, he scoffed, "Oh please, c'mon." Carmody then noted some people said the same thing before Northwestern's 69-41 loss to Baylor on Dec. 4.
"They smoked us and we still survived," Carmody said. "It's an important game because you have four left and if you win a few you're in the discussion, but if you lose you're not out of it."
Carmody is probably right Northwestern would still have a glimmer of hope of landing its first-ever NCAA tournament bid if it lost to Michigan, but that dream would definitely be on life support. The Wildcats (16-10, 6-8) would need to win their final three games just to reach .500 in Big Ten play, which would mean somehow upsetting an Ohio State team that beat them by 33 in Columbus last month.
Reaching 9-9 in Big Ten play becomes far more realistic with a victory over Michigan since the Wildcats would only need road victories over Penn State and Iowa to get there. A .500 record in the deepest conference in the nation, a top 40 RPI and wins over Michigan State, Seton Hall (and in that scenario Michigan) would probably put Northwestern on the cusp of an NCAA bid entering the Big Ten tournament.
Michigan beat Northwestern 66-64 in overtime on Jan. 11 in Ann Arbor, but Wolverines coach John Beilein believes the Wildcats have improved since then.
Northwestern shifted star forward John Shurna to center after starter Luka Mirkovic suffered an ankle injury last month, a move that made the undersized Wildcats even more vulnerable on the glass but has also created matchup problems for opponents. Defensive stopper JerShonn Cobb is the healthiest he has been since missing 12 games with assorted knee, hip and leg injuries. And 6-foot-5 junior Drew Crawford continues to provide consistent offensive punch behind Shurna, averaging 16.6 points and shooting 48.6 percent from the field.
"I really think they're a good team," Beilein said. "I keep stats like crazy, and their field goal percentage is up from last year, their three-point percentage is up from last year and their defensive field goal percentage are better from last year. So they're just a really quality team."
The one break Northwestern may be catching in this game is catching Michigan just 72 hours after a monumental victory over rival Ohio State that vaulted the Wolverines into the thick of the Big Ten title race. Still, Carmody is very wary of Tim Hardaway Jr.'s explosiveness, Trey Burke's dribble penetration and the sweet stroke of Michigan's array of outside shooters.
"(Burke) penetrates, he gets into the lane and he finishes pretty well and then you have all those guys who are very good catch-and-shoot guys," Carmody said. "That's troublesome. Then Hardaway is one of those guys. He has played great against us and then he's had some games where he hasn't played so good. But he's very explosive. He can get you 25 every night."
This week, the Dagger will examine some of the most pressing questions the NCAA tournament selection committee will face. A look at what's to come:
• Monday: Which teams will join Kentucky and Syracuse as No. 1 seeds?
• Tuesday: Will Northwestern earn its first-ever NCAA bid?
• Wednesday: Will the ACC get a fifth team into the NCAA tournament?
• Thursday: How many bids will the Pac-12 receive?
• Friday: Which league will receive the most NCAA bids?
• Saturday: Where should Murray State be seeded?
• Sunday: Long Beach State, Middle Tennessee State and Oral Roberts dominated their leagues. Do they need to win their conference tournaments to get in?
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- Bill Carmody