ESPNChicago.com will be evaluating Northwestern’s chances of reaching its first NCAA tournament on a weekly basis from here on out. This is the first installment of Wildcats Watch.
Some history: Northwestern has seldom been involved in the NCAA tournament discussion throughout the course of its program’s history.
Ironically, Northwestern was dominant just before the NCAA tournament was created in 1939. The Wildcats were 130-78 from 1927-1938 and went 15-1 and won the Big Ten during the 1930-31 season. In the first year of the tournament, Northwestern finished 7-13.
Since that first tournament, the Wildcats have finished with a record better than .500 in 15 seasons. In the 1958-59 one, the Wildcats rose to No. 6 in the AP poll and finished tied for second in the Big Ten, but Michigan State was the conference representative in the 23-team tournament field.
When the tournament began to expand in the 1970s, Northwestern took a dive. It had three winning seasons between 1969 and 2001, and two of the those were 15-14 ones.
Current coach Bill Carmody took over the program in 2000, and he has made it respectable. Northwestern has won 10-plus games in all but one season and is currently working on its fourth winning season under Carmody. The Wildcats were talked about as a potential NCAA tournament the last two seasons and fell on the wrong side of the bubble with a 17-14 record in 2008-2009 and 20-14 last season.
In 2011, the Wildcats possess their great chance at making history. Led by four-year starting point guard Michael Thompson, a possible future NBA player in junior forward John Shurna and gifted sophomore shooting guard Drew Crawford, Northwestern is as talented as it has ever been. The Wildcats took care of most of their business in the non-conference season and built a 9-1 record. How they finish in the Big Ten will determine whether they reach their first-ever NCAA tournament.
The Big Ten: Through two conference games, Northwestern is 0-2. It fell 82-69 at Purdue on Dec. 31 and 65-62 against Michigan State on Monday. The Wildcats were competitive in both games and made second-half runs to make them interesting, but have nothing more to show them.
They travel to No. 20 Illinois and face going 0-3 in conference.
Lunardi’s take: Among the Wildcat Watch’s features will be a brief Q&A with ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi each week.
What does Northwestern likely have to do in the Big Ten to make the NCAA tournament?
JL: It’s more who they beat along the way. Sweeping all the non-NCAA teams and finishing a game or two over .500 won't be enough. A lesser record (within reason) and multiple "scalps" are the formula for a team in Northwestern's position.
Does a slow start in the Big Ten -- 0-2 so far and possibly 0-3 after playing at Illinois on Thursday -- lessen their chances?
JL: It doesn't help, that's for sure.
How much does Northwestern's weak non-conference schedule (wins over Creighton and Georgia Tech and a loss to St. John's) affect what it has to do now?
JL: You’re right, Northwestern gained little or nothing from its non-conference results. It all comes down to the Big Ten, and they have to find a way to win games like Michigan State at home (instead of losing at the end). That's their "fine line" between the NCAA and NIT.
Quotable: “I spent four years in Welsh-Ryan Arena, watching Shon Morris and Walker Lambiotte and Phil Styles and Rob Ross play. I would love to see these guys make it for all of them, and all of us, it's been a long time coming.” -- Mike Greenberg, 1989 Northwestern graduate and co-host of ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning.
Shurna hurting: The recent ankle injury to Shurna has obviously affected him. After NBA scouts began taking notice of him after his outstanding non-conference play, he’s shot 5 of 19 from the field, 2 of 7 from 3-point range and scored a total of 22 points in his first two Big Ten games. He was averaging 20-plus a game before.
Shurna probably needs to rest his ankle, but Northwestern needs him to play.
Road ahead: After Northwestern plays at Illinois on Thursday, its schedule does get a bit easier. The Wildcats host Indiana on Sunday and go to Iowa on Jan. 12. Both will be must-win games.
Tournament odds: Right now, it’s probably 50/50. An 0-3 start to the Big Ten isn’t the end of the world with the conference being so loaded this season, but it’s not ideal. A win over Illinois could do wonders for the Wildcats. If they lose, the pressure continues to build.