When Northwestern forward John Shurna told the Chicago Tribune his goals for his senior season last July, he set the bar higher than most others in his position would have.
"It's tournament or bust," he said. "If we don't make it, I'll feel like my career here would be a failure."
Hopefully Shurna will one day be able to view his accomplishments with pride whether he helps Northwestern make its first-ever NCAA tournament or not because that objective is looking increasingly unlikely. The Wildcats (11-5, 1-3) have lost four of their past five games, squandering several opportunities for marquee victories in the process
They were tied with seven minutes to go at nationally ranked Creighton on Dec. 22 before yielding seven straight points and falling 87-79. They surrendered a 10-point first-half lead at home against rival Illinois on Jan. 4 and lost by one when Drew Crawford's potential game-winning jump shot rimmed out. And they failed to score in the last 2:54 of regulation on Wednesday night at 13th-ranked Michigan, eventually falling 66-64 in overtime.
The loss to the Wolverines may have been the most agonizing of all for Northwestern since it outplayed one of the better teams in its league on the road. Stars Shurna and Crawford combined for 41 points and Michigan shot just 33 percent as a team, yet the Wildcats lost because they committed 16 turnovers and surrendered 17 offensive rebounds.
What magnifies the significance of the loss for Northwestern is the difficulty of its upcoming Big Ten schedule.
Up next is a home matchup with first-place Michigan State, followed by challenging road tests at Wisconsin and Minnesota. It's easy to envision the Wildcats either 1-6 or 2-5 in Big Ten play entering a home game against Purdue on Jan. 28, especially since JerShon Cobb (hip) and Alex Marcotullio (toe) are hampered by injuries.
The combination of Shurna and Crawford have spearheaded a Northwestern offense that ranks among the Big Ten's best, but the Wildcats' defense is marginal and their ability to hold a lead is suspect at best. Unless those two traits change, it's difficult to envision this Northwestern team doing what so many of its predecessors couldn't: Making the NCAA tournament.