Lunardi places NU in latest projection

Northwestern's 2012 NCAA Tournament hopes hinged on the return of John Shurna. AP Photo/Charles Cherney

Will next season finally be the one Northwestern reaches the NCAA tournament?

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi believes so, at least for now. Lunardi snuck the Wildcats into his latest tournament projections, placing them as a No. 11 seed in Wednesday’s bracketology.

"None of this would even be on the table if not for the return of John Shurna,” Lunardi said. “Along with Luka Mirkovic and Drew Crawford, Northwestern can now compete up front with any Big Ten team not named Ohio State. If the point guard position can be managed through some combination of Alex Marcotullio and the freshman Tre Demps, there will be enough flexibility in the middle of the Big Ten for Northwestern to sneak into the conversation.

“Not sure I would bet on a tournament bid, but the possibility cannot be discounted.”

Northwestern will return four starters and six of its top seven scorers. The Wildcats went 20-14 overall and 7-11 in the Big Ten last season. They reached the NIT quarterfinals for the first time in team history.

Illinois was among Lunardi’s last four teams in and was placed as a No. 12 seed. The Illini graduate four starters and lost freshman Jereme Richmond to the NBA draft. They’ll welcome seven new players to their team next season.

Seven Big Ten teams were included in the bracket, along with 10 from the Big East, including Notre Dame.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.