Tourney talk already? Wildcats looking good; Illini, not so much

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Northwestern had a party on the bench during the late stages of Saturday’s 35-point romp over Iowa. (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

It’s two months down the road, almost to the day.

In the one-game-at-a-time world of sports clichés, that’s practically an eternity. But it’ll be here in the blink of an eye.

Yes, the NCAA Tournament.

Will Illinois and/or Northwestern be in it?

Let’s start with the Wildcats, who (little-known-fact alert) have participated in college basketball’s signature event precisely zero times. They’re 15-4 this season. They’re 4-2, and on a three-game winning streak, in the Big Ten — not bad for a program that hasn’t finished above .500 in league play in, oh, 49 years.

Sunday in Evanston, they blasted Iowa by 35 points. Isn’t that the sort of thing a March Madness-bound team would do?

Is this really happening?

“I think people are starting to really embrace who my guys are,” coach Chris Collins said.

If the Wildcats aren’t careful, the list of major-conference schools that have never reached the NCAA Tournament soon will shrink from one to none. This is our successor to the Cubs World Series story, Chicago. OK, maybe not. But for the tiny sliver of sports fans around these parts that comprises Northwestern basketball die-hards, it’s about as big as it gets.

And if the regular season ended today — yeah, yeah, we know it’s still super-early — the Wildcats would be squarely in the field, according to the projections of the foremost bracket experts. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had them as a No. 9 seed in his latest bracket, released Monday. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm had slotted them as a No. 7 seed in his latest bracket, also updated Monday.

A point often missed by fans come tournament selection time is that, for teams on the so-called bubble, it’s less about how many games they’ve won than it is about whom they’ve beaten. Thus far, Northwestern doesn’t have any true signature victories — and the opportunities to change that will be few and far between in a league that, according to Palm, probably won’t produce a tournament team seeded higher than a No. 3 or 4 this season.

“What Northwestern really needs to do is separate itself from the pack and push toward the top of the league,” Palm told the Sun-Times.

At the moment, it isn’t nearly as hopeful a picture for Illinois, which was blown out Tuesday at Purdue and is now a limp 12-7 overall, with a 2-4 mark in the Big Ten. Before that game, Palm had the Illini as a 10-seed in his bracket. Lunardi didn’t have them in his, nor did he list them among his “first four” teams on the outside looking in.

For Illini fans, four straight years without making the tournament would only feel like a lifetime. If coach John Groce and his team aren’t yet in full-on desperation mode, they need to be.

“The schedule is going to get a lot tougher for Illinois,” Palm said. “It’s an opportunity to build up their résumé, but they’re not going to be expected to do that.

“If I had to pick Northwestern or Illinois getting in, I’d say Northwestern has the better chance.”

Still, the Wildcats are oh-for-forever when it comes to the Big Dance. That’s a whole lot of bad history. They’ve enticed fans a (very) few times before — even last season — but gotten rag-dolled by the better teams in the conference and fallen short. Palm has Collins’ team in the field now, sure, but he’s far from confident it’ll stay there.

“I am not on the Northwestern-in-the-tournament bandwagon yet,” he said. “I’m not a believer in either Illinois or Northwestern at the moment.”

It should be noted that both Palm and Lunardi have Illinois State in their brackets, too. The Redbirds are in first place in the Missouri Valley Conference. In a bit of a down season for that league, though, it’ll likely be a one-bid deal come Selection Sunday. Winning the Valley tournament will be of paramount importance.


Every time we look at Notre Dame’s schedule, it appears to get harder. Such is the case over the next week with games at 10th-ranked Florida State (Wednesday) and at home against Syracuse (Saturday) and 16th-ranked Virginia (next Tuesday).

But whatever. The No. 15 Irish — alone atop the ACC at 5-0 — eat tough opponents for breakfast, or so it often has seemed over the course of a 30-11 run in league play dating back to the 2014-15 season.

Ready for a stat that’ll blow your mind? In the key late-game stretches of their first five league games — totaling 11:27 of game time — the Irish have outscored opponents 45-11. Last time out, in a gritty victory at Virginia Tech, they outscored the Hokies 10-2 over the final 1:52.

“When you win those type of games,” senior Steve Vasturia said, “you like those moments and you’re not afraid to step up.”


No. 19 Florida at No. 24 South Carolina (Wednesday, 5:30 p.m., SECN): Don’t look now, but the Gators (5-0) and the Gamecocks (4-0) are unbeaten in SEC play. Do you realize what that means? Correct: Neither team has played Kentucky yet. But if John Calipari’s Big Blue machine is going to face any real resistance in the race for first place in the league this season, it’s probably going to come from the winner of this game.

No. 12 Louisville at No. 10 Florida State (Saturday, 1 p.m., ESPN): The Cardinals have beaten the two most talented teams they’ve met this season — Kentucky and Duke — though both those games were in Louisville. The Seminoles likewise have been dazzling at home. Both Final Four-caliber squads have extraordinary blends of athleticism, length and toughness.

No. 14 Arizona at No. 3 UCLA (Saturday, 3 p.m., Ch. 2): There isn’t a more hyped freshman duo than Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf this season, and they deserve it; they’re the top two players on what many feel is the most well-rounded team in the country. But you have to wonder if Arizona’s own freshman sensation — Finnish seven-footer Lauri Markkanen — is better than both of them.

No. 2 Kansas at No. 7 West Virginia (Tuesday, 6 p.m., ESPN2): Yeah, right, like a team other than the Jayhawks is going to win the Big 12 this season — or, for that matter, ever. Actually, it isn’t all that far-fetched that it could happen thanks to these Mountaineers, who are as hellacious defensively as any team Bob Huggins has coached.

No. 21 Purdue at Michigan State (Tuesday, 6 p.m., ESPN): Tom Izzo must look at the rough, rugged Boilermakers and see everything he wants his own team to be. Can Spartans freshman Miles Bridges hold his own against Purdue sophomore Caleb Swanigan? Can the Boilers’ pedestrian perimeter players stay in front of MSU’s guards?


Up: No. 4 Gonzaga. At 17-0, the Zags are off to their best start in school history and are the only unbeaten team left in college basketball. Where we come from, that’s pretty good.

Down: No. 7 Creighton. The Bluejays have been terrific, but they were dealt a major blow in their last game when point guard Maurice Watson Jr. — the national leader in assists — tore the ACL in his left knee. It’s just not going to be the same without him.

Up: Luke Kennard, Duke. It’s not junior Grayson Allen, widely picked heading into the season for national player of the year. It’s not one of the team’s several bluest-of-blue-chip freshmen. No, the Blue Devils’ best player — by far — has been sophomore Kennard, averaging over 20 points a game and keeping the ship steady.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.


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