There was still doubt even coming into Wednesday night, but you can say it now: Northwestern is going to the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats ended all doubt, and in the most dramatic of fashion, with a 67-65 overtime win over Michigan on Wednesday. Nathan Taphorn threw a length-of-the-court inbounds pass that somehow found Dererk Pardon, who scored at the buzzer to give them maybe the biggest win yet of a breakthrough season.
Northwestern had been leaking some oil of late, doing enough to leave some doubt of their NCAA Tournament fate. At 21-9 overall and 10-7 in the Big Ten now and with plenty of metrics in their favor, the Wildcats are in such a position where even losing out their last two games isn’t going to keep them out of the tourney.
(If one wants to nitpick, a 3-6 record against the RPI top 50 still isn’t that great, and Northwestern’s non-conference leaves a bit to be desired. A 9-9 mark against the top 100 is plenty respectable, though, and again: there’s no way a team that’s 21-9 overall and 10-7 in the Big Ten is going to miss the field.)
As much as ending the team’s NCAA tourney drought is going to be the story, for us every bit of a big deal is this: Northwestern is all but guaranteed to finish in the top half of the Big Ten standings for the first time since 1968. We might say breaking this dry spell is even more impressive than finally breaking through to the NCAAs; in the 64-plus team era, there are ample opportunities for even teams in the bottom half of major conferences to get into the field. That the Wildcats haven’t even been in the top half of their league in 49 years is jawdropping.
Northwestern’s win also was another example of how just about every imaginable scenario is working out for the Big Ten in a down year to steal a whole lot of NCAA bids when selections are announced in 1 1/2 weeks. Michigan is still very likely to make the NCAAs as well even with only one true road win all season. Illinois is making a late run at a bid, having won four straight including a 73-70 win last night at home over Michigan State, another team that has been less than inspiring but has likely done enough (that win over Wichita State in November will pay big dividends soon). Also, don’t forget about Iowa, which his lurking just outside the NCAA picture but if it can beat vulnerable Wisconsin tonight will start being talked about a whole lot more.
Nine bids for the Big Ten? Still nowhere close to likely, but it’s possible. It’s what happens when a league’s top teams early on become vulnerable later, allowing the teams in the middle and even nearing the bottom to pick up quality wins over those top teams to boost their profiles. The league’s relative lack of strength does not make the Big Ten worthy in the least of nine bids, but as always is said: conferences get bids, not teams. And if nine teams have the profiles to get in-and they just might-then that’s what it will deserve.
- A number of bubble teams won last night, including Wake Forest, which defeated Louisville at home 88-81. The Demon Deacons are alive, though that 16-12 record still isn’t speaking very well of them.
- Dayton won a showdown of Atlantic 10 heavyweights, defeating VCU 79-72. The Flyers-a team Northwestern defeated early on, by the way-have really had a nice season after some early struggles, and there’s a lot of experience on this team to make a run in March.
- Marquette won at Xavier 95-84 to complete the sweep of the Musketeers. While this win can only help the Golden Eagles, we have to believe X is coming very close to falling completely out of the NCAAs. Fancy power rating numbers aside, the depleted Musketeers just look nothing like an NCAA tourney team right now.
- Rhode Island is another team that stayed plenty alive for the NCAAs, taking care of Saint Joseph’s 68-49 on the road.
- There were some terrific conference tourney games last night. The Northeast Conference quarterfinals included 7 seed Robert Morris stunning No. 2 LIU 69-68 as Kavon Stewart hit the game-winner with three seconds left. NEC 3 seed Wagner also edged defending champion and 6 seed Fairleigh Dickinson 72-70, and top seed Mount St. Mary’s edged eighth-seeded Sacred Heart 76-73.
- Also in the Ohio Valley, overtime was the rule. SE Missouri State eliminated Tennessee State 78-75 in double overtime, then Murray State outlasted Tennessee Tech 85-84 in two OTs as Jonathan Stark scored 41 points in a performance that will be remembered for a long time.
- Very unfortunate news for Valparaiso senior Alec Peters, as reports are his season is finished due to a stress fracture. Peters will rank right there with Bryce Drew as the best players in Valpo recent history, and he should always be remembered for going against the grain and staying with the Crusaders for his senior year, when it would’ve been exceptionally easy to ditch his team and transfer somewhere else.
- Finally, more from Hoopville yesterday as Phil Kasiecki and Ted Sarandis paired up for their latest podcast.
- It starts with the Big South Tournament quarterfinals, led by No. 7 seed Campbell against 2 seed UNC Asheville. Top seed and quarterfinal/semifinal host Winthrop
- Other tourneys opening include the MAAC and the MVC, while also continuing are the OVC second round, Atlantic Sun semifinals and Patriot League quarterfinals. Most notably, No. 1 seed Florida Gulf Coast hosts No. 5 Kennesaw State and second-seeded Lipscomb welcomes No. 3 North Florida in two good A-Sun semis.
- Outside of the conference tourneys, Houston has a huge chance for a marquee win when it’s at Cincinnati (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2).
- Big Sky leader North Dakota looks to clinch at least a tie for the crown when it hosts Sacramento State. Similarly, New Orleans has a chance to clinch an improbable Southland championship when it hosts stubborn SE Louisiana.
- First in the SWAC is on the line as leader Texas Southern hosts Alcorn State, which is just one game back of the Tigers
- Iowa is the next team with a chance to get a big win against a sliding Big Ten leader as it goes to Wisconsin (9 p.m., ESPN).
- A good one to end the night with plenty of frontline strength is California at Utah (11 p.m., ESPNU).
Have a terrific Thursday.