Northwestern basketball is in a big jam — and that’s a very good thing

Gnarled together in the Big Ten standings with Illinois and four other 7-5 squads are the Wildcats, who go for league road win No. 5 at Ohio State on Thursday.

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Northwestern v Wisconsin

Northwestern’s Boo Buie calls out a play during Sunday’s win at Wisconsin.

Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

One of the nicer surprises in college basketball is taking place in Evanston, where Northwestern — 16-7 and in the upper half of the Big Ten — has a realistic shot to make the NCAA Tournament for only the second time.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Wildcats as a No. 9 seed in his latest bracket, which came out Tuesday.

Even more surprising is what the Wildcats are doing in other Big Ten cities. They have four conference road wins — at Michigan State, Indiana, Nebraska and Wisconsin — trailing only Purdue, the No. 1 team in the country, which has five.

“If you drop one at home,” coach Chris Collins told his team after last week’s home loss to Michigan, “you’ve got to go find one on the road.”

They went up to Wisconsin on Sunday and slugged out a 54-52 win. However this seemingly undermanned team is doing it — defense, mainly, and taking advantage of a down season overall throughout the league — it has played its way into the logjam behind the runaway Boilermakers.

Eight teams ranged from 8-4 to 6-6 in Big Ten play entering Tuesday. Gnarled together with Illinois and four other 7-5 squads were the Wildcats, who visit Ohio State on Thursday and will aim their slingshot at superstar big man Zach Edey and Purdue on Super Bowl Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“We’ve got to play great defense,” Collins said. “We can’t make mental mistakes, we can’t have breakdowns, we can’t have people run out against us and have big runs because we haven’t been that kind of offensive team. I think the margin of error for our success is slim, but our guys have embraced that.”

The “margin of error” thing is a reality for everybody not named Purdue, which coaches around the Big Ten are wont to attribute to the physicality of the league, the unrelenting grind of its schedule and the outright brilliance of their colleagues. As if life is somehow any different in the Big 12, the Big East or the SEC.

Really, though, the Big Ten is just down, clogged with pretty good, but far from great, teams, as evidenced by its second-highest-ranked member, No. 18 Indiana, trailing six teams from the Big 12 alone in this week’s Top 25.

“No one said it was going to be easy,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said after beating Northwestern on the heels of a 2-5 stretch.

But it wasn’t supposed to be this hard for the Hoosiers, the Illini or Michigan, to name a few.

None of them has a prayer to run down the Boilermakers, but somebody has to shake free of the logjam and grab the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament. That’s worth fighting for.

Purdue, 22-2 overall and sitting pretty in league play at 11-2, shouldn’t have to sweat too hard to become the first regular-season champion by a two-game margin since the Boilermakers of 2016-17. That was an even worse season for the Big Ten because there was no true heavy hitter at the top; those Boilers got the league’s best NCAA seed, a No. 4.

The last winner by a three-game margin was Michigan, which went 15-3 in 2013-14. At 12-6 were Michigan and Wisconsin, but the Badgers, like the Wolverines, got a No. 2 seed and, unlike the champs, made it all the way to the Final Four.

Should we talk about the last winner by a four-game margin? Let’s, because Purdue can — especially now that it’s a 20-game league schedule — pull it off. That was Michigan State at 15-3 in 2008-09, and talk about an also-ran logjam: Two teams finished 11-7, three were 10-8 and two others were 9-9. The No. 2-seeded Spartans fell to North Carolina in the national-title game.

When March Madness arrives, will Purdue be the Big Ten’s only hope to end a title drought that goes all the way back to Michigan State’s Mateen Cleaves-fueled run in 2000? Put one vote in the “yes” column. But all the also-rans in the logjam that make the field will give it their best shots anyway.

And if you’re Northwestern, you’re thrilled to be in this position. They’re not exactly thrilled at Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa.

After the win at Wisconsin, Collins entered the visitors’ locker room pumping his fist and skittering on one foot, not the most rhythmic jig but a joyous one. It got him to the center of the room, where Wildcats players jumped up and down as they showered him with the contents of their Gatorade bottles.

It was hardly an uncommon scene in college basketball, but the Wildcats are still getting used to having reasons to get in on the act. Hey, they’re pretty good. The logjam is a much better place to be for some than it is for others.

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