Northwestern needs 3 Wins to grab a NCAA Tournament berth

Northwestern needs 3 Wins to grab a NCAA Tournament berth

In our latest NCAA Tournament bracket projection, we have Northwestern as a #12 seed, one of the last four teams in. Of course, this isn’t a place you want to stay right now as Selection Sunday approaches.

Even though this is a supposedly “weak bubble,” bracket projections don’t and can’t factor in the “bid-stealing” that will occur next week when small conference favorites lose in their in their league tournaments. How many of these “one-bid league” upsets will we have? Who knows, but you need to get above that last #12 seed line to be safe, and the ‘Cats need to beat the Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City and then pick up two more wins in Indy.


The Iowa win is critical because UI has a TERRIBLE RPI, and losing in Iowa City would do immense damage. The Wildcats did beat them by over 20 in Evanston earlier this season.

RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) is an algorithm based on opponents’ winning percentage, opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage, and opponents’ opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage. This is the truth, I’m not trying to sound like Dr. Seuss here. So RPI is like the BCS, a very controversial number that certain groups of people ascribe meaning to; other groups of people resent.

That fact is, RPI is taken very seriously by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and from a numerical standpoint, it’s all about “who have you played?” Then there’s the eye-test with RPI, which asks “who have you beaten?”

And these numbers are what gives the Northwestern Wildcats a decent tourney profile. A 17-12, 7-10 in conference team with two 28+ point losses doesn’t seem like a good candidate to go dancing at first glance. But when you look at their #43 RPI and strength of schedule, the picture completely changes.

As you might have heard 799, 654, 000, 765, 890, 324, 450 times, Northwestern is the only school from a power conference never to have never made the NCAA Tournament. They’ve come much closer in each of the past three years: making the NIT every time and breaking the school record for season wins twice. And of course, they can just end all speculation and number crunching by just winning the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, securing an automatic berth that way.

That’s always an option.

The ‘Cats have just been hampered by a lack of ability to close. Last night’s 75-73 loss to Ohio State is a classic example. Closing out a couple more Ws in ’10-’11 and ’09-’10 and they might have secured a berth. Same problem arose last week, when NU blew a lead at home, falling by 1 to the rival Illini and then again at Ann Arbor in overtime; when they had led for all of regulation. Illinois has an RPI of 74, and Michigan 15, so closing either of those would have helped the tournament resume.

But they do have a signature win in January, beating RPI #4 Michigan St.

So why does Northwestern’s RPI put them in the tourney conversation? In addition to the MSU win, they beat both Seton Hall (RPI #44) and LSU  in an early season tournament. And they have no bad losses to teams with very low RPI.

It was important to improve the non-con scheduling this year, which had been exceedingly weak the past couple years. This year, NU’s non-con helps instead of hurts their tourney resume.

And then there’s the Big Ten schedule itself- very strong. In addition to the three schools I mentioned, Indiana is #17 in RPI, Ohio State #9, Wisconsin #20, and Purdue #40. The league itself is very robust. The teams at the top may not be nationally top 5 units, but the soft under belly of the league is much much stronger than in other leagues.

In other conferences, the best teams are extremely separated from the pack, and your only chance to get signature wins comes against the top heavy two or three.

In this league, even the bad teams aren’t all that bad, and the middle of the road group (where Northwestern squarely finds itself) are much better than in other leagues. Beating them=quality wins.

Therefore, in order to get in, NU will need to 1.) not lose at Iowa Saturday, and 2.) get at least two Big Ten Tournament wins. That should be enough to keep them safe after all the Championship Week “bid-stealing” is done. Even though it’s a supposedly “soft bubble,” a cushion is still needed.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; and he’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.

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