A Vic Law three-point shot. A Law steal, leading to a Bryant McIntosh jumper. A Dererk Pardon bucket, followed by another Law three. And then: back-to-back triples from Nathan Taphorn.
It was a blistering, dizzying sequence by Northwestern — 16 unanswered points in seven offensive trips, all in under three and a half minutes. It belongs in a time capsule, the first-half run that turned a 19-12 deficit into a 28-19 lead for the Wildcats in Sunday’s bigger-than-big upset victory at Wisconsin.
For the Big Ten-leading Badgers, it was merely a frustrating setback.
For NCAA Tournament-starved Northwestern, it was so much more meaningful than that. The never-been Wildcats have to be Dance-bound now, don’t they?
They’re 19-6, the best 25-game mark in school history, and one off the NU record for wins. They’re 8-4 in Big Ten play, a rock-solid, almost unimaginably good mark to anyone who has kept even a single, lazy eye on the program over the years. They’re in every bracketologist’s 68-team field with plenty of room to spare, and do you realize how hard it is to become a bracketologist?
Ah, but the deal isn’t sealed yet. The Wildcats still need to win. Twice? Probably not three times, though one can’t be certain.
Six regular-season games — and the Big Ten tournament — remain, and the road will be hard. The game at downtrodden Illinois, which somehow won last week in Evanston, can’t be taken for granted. Nor can the game at Indiana, which will be scrapping for its NCAA tourney life. Dangerous Michigan and towering Purdue will pay visits to Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The home date with Rutgers almost surely can be locked into the win column, but before that? Before that is the game — Wednesday at home against No. 23 Maryland (6 p.m., BTN) — that might render all speculation about Northwestern’s postseason future moot.
That is, if the Wildcats can take down a second Big Ten title contender in a row. Follow the victory over Wisconsin with another over the league’s second-place team, and quality — of wins — will trump all questions about quantity.
If the Wildcats protect their home floor — as they’ve done 12 of 14 times this season, and in 30 of their last 36 outings — all this speculation about March Madness will just plain stop. Or, at least, it will become about whens and wheres, rather than ifs.
NO REST FOR MCINTOSH
There was a moment, right before Northwestern’s 16-0 run at Wisconsin, when McIntosh wanted to come out of the game.
“I need a blow,” the junior point guard told NU coach Chris Collins.
Collins’ reply: “It’s a TV timeout. Do you really need one?”
For McIntosh, the team’s leader, there was only one answer: “Uh, no, I’ll be fine.”
Fast-forward to the end of the game, and McIntosh had scored a season-high 25 points, dished out seven assists and grabbed a career-high-tying seven rebounds — in a full 40 minutes of action. It arguably was his finest performance since his 28-point game in last season’s victory over the Badgers in Evanston.
“Best player on the floor, hands down,” said Wisconsin coach Greg Gard.
With the team’s No. 1 scorer, Scottie Lindsey, still sidelined as he recovers from mononucleosis, McIntosh’s complete-game effort was a shot in the arm — pure inspiration.
The three-year starter leads the team in minutes played and has long been one of the Big Ten’s busiest players, averaging over 34 minutes a game for his career.
CREAN-ING OUT OF CONTROL
It’s important to remember just how broken the Indiana basketball program was when Tom Crean was hired in 2008, and what a wonderful job Crean did in building the program back up.
Hoosiers fans can always consider Crean the guy who took IU from the depths of the scandal-stained Kelvin Sampson era to, in the 2012-13 season, the very top of the Big Ten.
Alas, they’ll also remember him as a coach whose more talented teams sometimes failed — hugely — to live up to expectations. With the Hoosiers at 15-11 overall and 5-8 in the Big Ten, this most definitely has been an example of that.
Crean’s job status is shaky. What’s he doing about it? After the Hoosiers’ latest defeat, he threw his players under the bus.
A few of his criticisms:
“Immaturity in the backcourt.”
“We don’t play both ends of the floor.”
“Just absolute remedial nonsense.”
To Crean’s credit, he ended his remarks a bit more accountably.
“One thing I’ve learned in nine years,” he said, “is it all falls on me.”
It sure might.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
No. 12 Duke at No. 14 Virginia (Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN2): The Cavaliers have lost three of their last five games, by a total of only eight points. Then again, close games are simply what this team does. Well, that and terrorize opposing offenses. How will Duke freshmen Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson and Harry Giles fare in their first look at UVA’s pack-line defense?
No. 3 Kansas at No. 4 Baylor (Saturday, noon, Ch. 2): Are the Bears starting to slip? The loss at Texas Tech last time out wasn’t exactly impressive. Meanwhile, the Jayhawks — going for a season sweep over Baylor — are soaring after Monday’s amazing late-game comeback to topple West Virginia.
Michigan State at No. 16 Purdue (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN): It’s not a must-win for the Spartans as they seek solid footing in the NCAA Tournament, but they’re running out of time in the quality-wins department. The only ranked team they’ve beaten all season was Minnesota. Paying back the Boilers, who won in East Lansing in January, would be a huge step.
No. 14 Virginia at No. 10 North Carolina (Saturday, 7:15 p.m., ESPN): UNC knocked Virginia out of the ACC tournament each of the last two years, but the Tar Heels haven’t beaten the Cavaliers in the regular season since 2013. Both teams remain in strong contention for the league title.
No. 23 Maryland at No. 11 Wisconsin (Sunday, noon, Ch. 2): Badgers senior point guard Bronson Koenig has been playing hurt, affecting his jump shot and clogging up the team’s normally efficient offense. Can Terps guard Melo Trimble take full advantage? Will first place in the Big Ten be on the line?
Up: the ACC race. Five teams — North Carolina, Florida State, Louisville, Duke and Virginia —within a game of first place? That’s all kinds of awesome.
Down: John Groce. Sorry, it’s probably too obvious.
Up: the Missouri Valley. Heck of a sprint for the finish for Illinois State and Wichita State, which are tied atop the league at 13-1. Can we just go straight to the rubber match in the conference tourney title game?
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.