The end of the season hasn't gone as planned for Northwestern. The Wildcats were supposed to be able to use a soft second half of the Big Ten schedule to rack up the wins and getting into the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation, even if it probably would've been a futile effort. Instead, Northwestern proved it couldn't win on the road and solidified itself as a bubble team - for the NIT.
Northwestern has won two true road games all season - at North Carolina State and Michigan. When the Wildcats go on the road its like they've forgotten how to play defense. Saturday's 88-80 overtime loss to Indiana was just the latest example.
There are a lot of bracket projections out there trying to predict the NCAA Tournament, but very few that also tackle the NIT. I'm going to bring you some of the best in this post and try and dissect what Northwestern needs to do to make sure it qualifies for the little dance for the second season in a row. At the end of the post I'll also debate whether Northwestern should consider taking a CBI bid.
First of all, this all precludes the fact that Northwestern will lose in the Big Ten Tournament. If the Wildcats some how find a way to win all of those games and qualify for the NCAA Tournament, well awesome. Even if they don't though, a couple of Big Ten Tournament wins sure would help and here's why.
In order to form these opinions I looked at The Bracket Project's NIT Projections and Blogging the Bracket's NIT/CBI/CIT Projections. It should be noted that all of these are sporadically updated with NIT-ology being the most recent. In the past I've found that they also have the best projections in general, so I'll be leaning heavily on their analysis.
NIT-ology has Northwestern out of the NIT right now. The Wildcats are the second team out after Iona. (I just shook my head after typing that.) Also the treacherous minefield that is the NIT's policy of giving automatic bids to conference winners of one-bid conferences is causing some consternation. During the first week of play two bids went away that way as Jacksonville and Coastal Carolina are now in the NIT field. If you want Northwestern to go the NIT start rooting for the Kent States and Oaklands of the world. (Speaking of which, Oakland plays in the Summit League championship game at 7 p.m. CT on Tuesday.)
Other things that could go wrong for Northwestern are teams stealing NCAA Tournament bids and knocking others down into the NIT. For instance, St. Mary's is taking a bubble spot away from someone as I write this. Still that's not particularly bad because the Gaels were going to be in the NIT field before Northwestern anyways. But there are scenarios where this could come back to bit the Wildcats.
For the record, the Bracket Project's latest bracket has Northwestern hanging by a thread as a #8 seed in the NIT. There is no room for error.
But you know what would help? A couple of wins in the Big Ten Tournament. Indianapolis, Indiana is a nice neutral location for the Wildcats. Heck, even if you want to classify it as semi-away that would be fine. The game against Indiana on Thursday gives Northwestern a chance for redemption. A match-up with Purdue in the next round is basically the best the Wildcats could've asked for. That's the dream scenario in terms of advancing far into the tournament. If Northwestern makes it to the weekend they're guaranteed an NIT bid.
But I wonder what happens if they only win one. It's quite possible that if that happens the Wildcats might be on the outside looking in. Would they then accept a CBI bid?
There are pros and cons. In list format:
Pros of CBI Bid:
- Likely home games would make travel easier.
- Team would earn some postseason experience.
- It is a chance for the team to continue building on the success of the past two seasons.
- Northwestern might have a chance to win.
- The unique championship format is amusing, if nothing else.
Cons of CBI Bid:
- There are a few players on this team banged up (Drew Crawford, etc.).
- The students would be away on break for the likely first round dates. Leading to a quiet Welsh-Ryan Arena.
- There's no proof that CBI success translates to the next season. (It didn't help Oregon State this season, but runner-up UTEP is an NCAA team.)
- The 1-3-1 and Princeton Offense might be exposed even more.
So there are some reasons for it. In the end I think those would probably outweigh the negatives. Though I wonder if Jim Phillips would decide to decline the option of hosting a weekend and instead send the Wildcats on the road to somewhere the fans might show up. I think that strategy might save the school money. We'll see how the next week plays out.