Big Ten’s mediocrity shouldn’t hurt Northwestern at tourney time

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Northwestern’s Vic Law, left, drives around Ohio State’s Marc Loving during the Wildcats’ 74-72 victory Sunday. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

I’m pretty sure Northwestern coach Chris Collins and athletic director Jim Phillips aren’t going to like the following statement, what with the cart being positioned about a mile before the horse:

With the Big Ten so remarkably unremarkable this season, the Wildcats don’t need many signature victories to receive their first NCAA tournament bid in school history. Or maybe any.

NU, at 16-4 overall and 5-2 in conference play, is ranked 35th in the latest RPI. The tournament-selection committee uses many resources when making its choices, and the RPI is one barometer of where a team sits. The BPI, another measuring stick, ranks the Wildcats 34th. All good, right?

Not so fast. NU’s strength of schedule is ranked 105th in the RPI, and its nonconference strength of schedule is ranked 189th. The KPI — don’t ask — has the Wildcats’ strength of schedule ranked 54th. They are 1-3 against teams ranked in the RPI’s top 25, 1-1 against teams ranked 26-50 and 3-0 against teams ranked 51-100. All of this is not so good, right?

At the risk of angering the tournament gods — and I didn’t even know there were any — it might not matter. NU has 11 Big Ten games remaining. Four of those games are against Associated Press-ranked opponents — home-and-home against No. 20 Purdue, at No. 15 Wisconsin and home against No. 22 Maryland. (The Wildcats would be ranked 28th based on their vote total in the AP poll.)

Although I think NU has a good chance of winning at least two of those games, let’s say they lose all four but win the games they should win against the likes of Nebraska, Rutgers, Illinois, et al. That means they would be 12-6 in the Big Ten and 23-8 overall before the conference tournament started.

Is the selection committee really going to reject a team that finishes fourth in the Big Ten because its schedule wasn’t exactly Mount Everest? I don’t think so.

Is it going to spurn a team that wins two games in the Big Ten tournament, which the Wildcats should do? I don’t think so.

Is it going to ignore the feel-good vibes of a team going to the Big Dance for the first time in the 79-year history of the tournament? I don’t think so.

None of this is meant to take anything away from what NU is doing. The Wildcats are a good team, and it’s not their fault the conference is mediocre. Their journey might not have the significance of the Cubs ridding themselves of a century-plus of futility, but what NU is accomplishing this season is Cubs-like — or at least Cubs Lite, which isn’t bad. The Wildcats haven’t made the tournament since it debuted in 1939. Next year is here?

They beat Ohio State on Sunday in Columbus, the first time in 40 years an NU team has beaten the Buckeyes on the road. History comes up a lot when discussing the talented Wildcats these days. They are dismissing ghosts left and right.

But it needs to be pointed out that they beat a team that is 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten. Ohio State isn’t very good. We can argue forever whether NU is a product of a down year for its conference or simply a good team that is getting hurt by its neighbors’ mediocrity. I happen to believe that the Wildcats are good, that Collins is a good coach and that good high school players have noticed the things going on in Evanston and want to join in on the historical fun. But we need to look at the facts head-on.

NU is led by Scottie Lindsey, a former Fenwick star who is seventh in the Big Ten in scoring. He had 21 points against the Buckeyes. But as good as Lindsey and teammate Vic Law (St. Rita) are, this is a true team effort. The Wildcats are ranked second in the conference in scoring defense (64.3 points a game) and opponents’ field-goal percentage (38.7). Those are two valuable assets for any team to have in the NCAA tournament.

The NU teams that came before this one didn’t deserve a spot in the NCAA tournament. Some of those teams had high hopes, but they had National Invitation Tournament written all over them. They always were praying for a Selection Sunday miracle. This version doesn’t need that; it’s simply good.

There’s a decent chance the Wildcats will get an invitation to the Big Dance because of a few good victories and a few tough losses to good teams. And after all the years of struggle, no apologies will be necessary.

Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.


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