Bubble Banter: Northwestern looks like they’re tournament bound

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WINNERS

Northwestern (RPI: 37, KenPom: 30, No. 8 seed): At this point in the season, it’s too early to call anyone a lock for the NCAA tournament unless their school resides in a town like Spokane, Lexington or Lawrence. It’s particularly difficult to label Northwestern a lock considering that A) Their best win this season is over Wake Forest, Dayton or an Indiana team that is without James Blackmon Jr. and O.G. Anunoby, and B) They’re Northwestern. There’s a reason that they haven’t been to the NCAA tournament in the history of the program, and it’s not simply because they cannot get talent to Evanston.

It’s because they’re Northwestern, the program that always finds a way to choke a defeat out of the jaws of victory.

“We’ll either do something special or we’ll be like every other NU team,” Bryant McIntosh said after a win over Indiana on Sunday night. “I worry about it every second,” head coach Chris Collins added when asked about whether he is concerned about how his team will handle success. (Both of those quotes came via Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated.)

But it seems awful unlikely that this Northwestern team will follow that path. As of today, they’re 18-4 on the season and 7-2 in the Big Ten, something they haven’t done since 1937-38. The win over Indiana was they’re sixth straight win, something they haven’t done in league play since 1932-33. Their schedule is somewhat backloaded – NU still has to play Purdue twice, at Wisconsin and Maryland at home – but all of those games are winnable; no one in the Big Ten is markedly better than Northwestern, and while the Big Ten is down this year, that still says more about the Wildcats than it does after the conference.

Bottom line? I don’t even think that Northwestern can mess this one up.

Michigan State (RPI: 50, KenPom: 51, No. 10 seed): The Spartans are going to be a fascinating team on Selection Sunday. This is clearly not one of Tom Izzo’s best teams, but is it really bad enough that they could end up missing out on the Big Dance? Sunday’s win over Michigan was important because, at this point, Sparty can’t really afford anymore dumb losses. They’re 13-9 on the season. They’re 5-4 in the league after this win snapped a three-game losing skid. They’ve lost to Northeastern, Penn State and Ohio State. Five of their last nine are on the road. This is going to be an uphill battle.

Virginia Tech (RPI: 35, KenPom: 50, No. 8 seed): Virginia Tech is interesting because they’re a team with an awesome record that doesn’t really have many awesome wins. Beating Duke at home is huge, and Duke winning at Wake Forest helps them in that regard, but there isn’t much else in their 16-5 record – other than losses to Texas A&M and N.C. State – worth noting. Four of their next five games are on the road, and three of their next five games are against Louisville and Virginia. This is the stretch that will make or break their at-large profile.

Cal (RPI: 48, KenPom: 59, first four out): Cal picked up a win over Stanford on Sunday night, which isn’t exactly a great win but it means they avoided an ugly loss. The biggest issue for the Golden Bears right now? They don’t have any good wins, but they still get Arizona on the road and Oregon at home.

Wichita State (RPI: 79, KenPom: 21, first four out), Illinois State (RPI: 36, KenPom: 37, No. 10 seed) and Valparaiso (RPI: 74, KenPom: 90, No. 13 seed autobid): At this point, I think it will be nearly impossible for two of these three teams – Wichita State and Valpo – to get an at-large bid if they lose before their conference tournament final, while I think Illinois State is going to get to Selection Sunday with a profile that would make things much less stressful if it comes with an automatic bid. All three won their games on Sunday.

LOSERS

N.C. State (RPI: 64, KenPom: 78, No. 11 seed): The Wolfpack lost at No. 13 Louisville, which is hardly a blemish on their profile. In fact, with No. 17 Duke avoiding a loss at Wake Forest – N.C. State won at Duke on Monday – this weekend was probably a net-positive for them. But that Louisville win had the potential to erase some of the ugliness that N.C. State had endured early-on in league play; they had a chance to give themselves some breathing room.

Michigan (RPI: 59, KenPom: 35, play-in game): On paper, losing at Michigan State isn’t all that bad of a loss, but given the muck that is the middle of the Big Ten and a rough close to the regular season – the Wolverines play four of their last five and five of their last seven on the road – John Beilein’s 13-8 Michigan team is in a tough spot.

Indiana (RPI: 80, KenPom: 39, No. 7 seed): Assuming that whatever is ailing James Blackmon Jr. isn’t season-ending, the Hoosiers should be able to shake this loss off. The bigger issue for them is going to be how the committee judges their hideous RPI and just how much they take into account the fact that O.G. Anunoby played in the big wins Kansas and North Carolina but is now out for the year.