ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has Northwestern as one of his “Last Four In” the NCAA Tournament. Why would a regular-season game be so important to a program that has existed since 1904 and has spent the last 95 seasons in the Big Ten?
The Wildcats are the only team in a power six conference to never play in the NCAA Tournament, which has existed since 1939. Only one other power six school -- South Florida (two), which didn’t join the Big East until 2005 -- has fewer than six NCAA Tournament appearances.
Northwestern (17-11 this season) has never won more than 20 games in a season, and both of its 20-win seasons came in the past two seasons. It’s not even March and there are already 63 teams with more than 20 wins this season, including five Big Ten teams.
The Wildcats haven’t had fewer than 13 losses since 1968-69 or fewer than 10 losses since 1958-59. They last finished over .500 in Big Ten play in 1967-68 (8-6) and haven’t won more than eight games in conference since 1932-33 (10-2).
Northwestern has been in this position before -- squarely on the bubble in desperate need of a signature win to impress the Selection Committee.
Northwestern sat at 17-11 (8-9 Big Ten) after a come-from-behind road win at Purdue. But the Wildcats lost their next two games -- a road game at Ohio State and a Big Ten Tournament game against Minnesota.
Perhaps Northwestern’s best opportunity for an at-large bid was in 2009-10, when the Wildcats were 17-8 (6-7 Big Ten) in mid-February. It all went downhill from there.
They lost four of their final five Big Ten games, two against Penn State -- a team that had only one other conference victory all season. With some hope remaining, the Wildcats lost to No. 5 Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament after holding a four-point halftime lead.
Last season, the Wildcats were 16-10 (6-9 Big Ten) before another devastating loss to Penn State. After splitting their next two games, they had an outside shot if they could make a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament. Northwestern had an opportunity for a signature victory in the quarterfinals against No. 1 Ohio State but was held to one field goal in the final seven minutes of regulation and lost in overtime.
Earlier this season, Northwestern had a seven-point halftime lead over No. 13 Michigan. The Wildcats fell in overtime after allowing Michigan to score 18 overtime points – the same amount Northwestern scored in the entire second half.
Northwestern is in position to do something that has never been done in program history. With a top-45 RPI and a 2-9 record against the RPI Top 50, a win Wednesday over Ohio State could be what Northwestern needs to finally get over the hump.