Thirteen games into what was supposed to be a history-making season for Northwestern basketball, the Wildcats' oft-discussed quest to earn their first-ever NCAA tournament berth is now on life support.
An 88-63 drubbing at the hands of rival Illinois on Thursday night kept Northwestern winless in Big Ten play after previous losses to conference contenders Michigan State and Purdue. The Wildcats (9-4) have no signature wins, an offense that has sputtered since conference play began and a porous defense that allowed the Illini to make a school record 70.5 percent of their shots on Thursday night.
Although some of Northwestern's struggles can be attributed to John Shurna's nagging ankle injury coinciding with the most difficult three-game stretch on the schedule, the Wildcats desperately needed to avoid an 0-3 Big Ten start. Now they probably need to win a minimum of 10 or 11 of their last 15 conference games just to play their way into the bubble chatter, no easy feat considering the strength of the Big Ten this season.
Assuming Northwestern shows enough resolve to defeat struggling Indiana at home on Sunday and woeful Iowa on the road next Wednesday, the season will probably come down to a four-game stretch beginning Jan. 23.
Spring a few upsets against the likes of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State and Illinois, and suddenly the Wildcats have a chance to fatten up on a soft February schedule and make a legitimate NCAA tournament push. Struggle again facing the Big Ten's upper echelon, and it's once again wait-til-next-year time in Evanston.
For Northwestern to still be relevant entering that stretch of games, the Wildcats must fix a long list of problems.
Shurna's ankle needs to heal so that he can regain the explosiveness he had earlier this season. Drew Crawford and Juice Thompson need to step up while Shurna is hurting the way JerShon Cobb has recently. And the entire team must collectively compensate for its lack of elite defenders by forcing more turnovers and playing with greater effort and toughness in Northwestern's trademark 1-3-1 zone.
This was supposed to be a historic season at Northwestern. There's still time to salvage it, but those hopes are growing dimmer with every loss.