February 11, 2010
Unless you're the sort of person who steals Halloween candy from kids or swerves toward stray puppies in the road, you probably were rooting for Northwestern to make its first NCAA tournament in program history this season.
Unfortunately, that dream is on life support after the Cats careened to a 78-65 loss at Big Ten doormat Iowa on Wednesday night.
With a 5-7 conference record, a dearth of marquee non-conference wins and an RPI hovering in the high 60s, Northwestern (16-8) desperately needs a flurry of notable victories to close the season in order to get back into the at-large bid conversation. Unfortunately for the Cats, their remaining schedule includes two games with last-place Penn State, one apiece with Iowa and and Indiana and even a home game against Chicago State, not exactly the formula for a late RPI boost.
The only game remaining on Northwestern's schedule that could help them is a visit to Wisconsin, and are Bo Ryan's Badgers really going to lose to a second unranked team at home in two weeks?
Before Northwestern even lost to Iowa on Wednesday night, the experts were already lining up to say the Cats had dug themselves to deep a hole to climb out of in the first half of the Big Ten season. Said ESPN's Joe Lunardi to the Chicago Tribune earlier this week: "I root for underdogs like everyone, but this is not the year to buy Northwestern stock."
The Wildcats' NCAA tournament quest received national publicity from Sports Illustrated, ESPN.com and even Deadspin, partially because so many journalists hail from Northwestern and partially because the program's past futility made for a good story. Optimism didn't wane even after star Kevin Coble underwent season-ending foot surgery in November because Northwestern kept winning, dropping just one game to Butler in an otherwise tissue-soft non-conference schedule.
Turns out either injuries caught up to the Wildcats or that schedule failed to prepare them for a frontloaded schedule in perhaps the toughest Big Ten of the past five years. Northwestern opened with losses to Illinois and Michigan State and haven't seen .500 in conference play since, at one point falling to 3-6 in the Big Ten before the schedule appeared to soften.
If there's a silver lining for Northwestern, it's that four of its starters including leading scorer John Shurna are expected back next year. Plus, Coble is seeking a medical redshirt and should be granted one more year of eligibility.
So, yes, barring a shocking run through the Big Ten tournament next month, Northwestern's motto will once again be "Wait Until Next Year." But at least for once that has a little bit of credibility this time.