It is probably too early to start making a case that Northwestern should be in the NCAA Tournament, but after last night’s win a discussion of just where on the NCAA bubble Northwestern sits is worth some analysis. According to baselinestats.com Northwestern’s RPI is now #69. That’s probably too high to make the NCAAs, but other bubble teams are right around the Wildcats. Penn State is #66 Providence is #68 and Notre Dame is #72. Of those teams, I think Penn State is almost assuredly in the Big Dance and Providence, much like NU, has a case for inclusion based on some very strong wins. With those facts in mind, let us look at the Wildcats NCAA resume in relation to both Penn State and Providence. I think many outside of Wildcat Nation would be surprised at the result.
What most obviously works against Northwestern is the head-to-head loss to Penn State. Unfortunately, despite a myriad of possible first round matchups in the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern isn’t likely to get a second chance at Talor Battle and company. Also working against NU is that both Penn State and Providence have better overall records. PSU has 20 wins and Providence has 18. Northwestern only has 17 wins right now. While there isn’t a magic number of wins to make the Big Dance, if you don’t have at least 19 wins you can probably skip watching the CBS Selection Show and turn on ESPNU and wait for the NIT bracket.
Another item which works against NU is that Providence has a stronger strength of schedule 49 to 54. However, NU’s strength of schedule will improve this weekend after the Ohio State game. Also, Penn State’s strength of schedule isn’t even in the neighborhood of the Wildcats and Friars as it comes in at 93. Even more impressive for NU is that when looking at non-conference strength of schedule Northwestern is the best of these three teams. The Wildcats are at 66 in non-conference SOS compared to Providence at 97 and Penn State at a near the bottom of the Division 1 310. This is a key point. Like I said above, I think Penn State’s record probably gets them into the Dance if it starts today, but they got that record by feasting on a ton of early cupcakes. NU might not have faced the basketball equivalent of the ’27 Yankees, but at least the Wildcats took on challenges like Butler, Stanford, and a talented UC-Riverside squad. Northwestern also played a tougher ACC/Big Ten Challenge game, but I’ll give PSU a pass on that as the league office and ESPN decide that matchup.
Finally, we come to NU’s strongest case against their bubble brethren. Yes, the Wildcats gave away some games, but they also have more wins than Penn State or Providence against top 50 RPI teams. The Wildcats have 6 top 50 wins. Penn State has 5 and Providence 3. If Northwestern had just one more win against the top 50 (e.g. Butler, Illinois, Purdue) I think it would be very tough for the selection committee to keep them out. As it stands now, the Wildcats probably need at least two more good wins to make the NCAA tournament. That would give them at least 19 wins and an increase in RPI and SOS. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that even as things sit right now Northwestern stacks up well against potential bubble competition.
Also, though the ‘Cats have bigger dreams, it is important to remember this bubble competition is also the competition for top seeds in the NIT. Given this data, I would say if NU doesn’t make the Dance, they should now expect to be an upper division NIT seed. After last year’s struggles, NU must remember that any postseason appearance will be a great stepping stone for the ‘Cats. Of course, after last night I don’t think anybody would blame those of us in Wildcat Nation for getting a little greedy and pushing for the ‘Cats inclusion in the Big Dance whenever possible.