Last year when I was breaking down Northwestern’s chances to make the NCAA Tournament I got most of my stats from http://www.baselinestats.com/. The site has a wealth of knowledge and it is very easy to navigate between the excellent analysis and the detailed statistics. One of the site’s writers and founders is 2004 Northwestern graduate Brendon Desrochers. Brendon graciously agreed to answer a few questions and share his statistical breakdown of NU’s tournament chances with us today. He also took the time to share some fun memories of his time watching hoops as an NU student. Here’s what he had to say…
WRR: Obviously the loss to Minnesota hurt Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament chances, but just how badly did it hurt?
BD: Unscientifically, I put Northwestern's chances to make the NCAA Tournament at about 40 percent entering the Minnesota game, and I've dropped that to 35 percent although that might be a bit generous. I don't think this one loss was particularly damaging -- perhaps less damaging than the Wisconsin loss was -- but it just leaves little margin for error. Barring an unlikely win at Wisconsin or Michigan State, Northwestern will have to win seven of the nine other games (plus Chicago State) merely to stay in the mix.
Since I started looking at Northwestern closely, I've said that the magic number was 24. Twenty-four wins will get Northwestern in, and 23 will put the Cats at just about even money, maybe 40/60 to go. It sounds like a lot of wins out of a Big Ten team just to get in, but with eight conference games this season against teams unlikely to finish in the top 100 of the RPI, NU has little margin for error.
In terms of my model -- I call it the BTI (Baseline Tournament Index) -- there are still about a dozen teams between Northwestern and the at-large cutline. That's a lot of teams, and the only way to pass those teams -- especially with scarce opportunities at eye-popping wins -- is by winning a lot of games.
If you extrapolate the projections for this site(http://www.rpiforecast.com/teams/Northwestern.html), you get about a 20 percent chance of Northwestern reaching the threshold it would need to get in. I do think the Sagarin ratings he's using to do his projections sells Northwestern a smidge short, though.
WRR: Is there a magic number of wins which will put Northwestern into the Big Dance? I know in the past people talked about 20 wins, but that was back when the NCAA only allowed teams to play 27 regular season games. Now teams play 31 games plus a conference tournament, so I assume the number has changed.
BD: I realize that I probably answered this question above. To be clear, a 10-8 conference record plus a win over Chicago State and a win in Northwestern's first Big Ten Tournament game will put NU right at the bubble heading into Selection Sunday. Whether the Cats are in or out at that point will depend on how things break in conference tournaments and with other bubble teams. A 24th win would be a clincher, but that means no slip-ups in the games against Penn State, Indiana and Iowa, plus the home games against Minnesota and Michigan. Win those eight to finish 11-7 and win another in the Big Ten Tournament, and it's hard to imagine Northwestern being left out.
WRR: What games on the remaining schedule would you consider “must-win” games for Northwestern?
BD: This is tricky, because any loss to the bad teams in the conference will kill the RPI, but any home loss will also really damage the RPI, and a loss to Minnesota would mean a sweep and make it hard for NU to get in ahead of the Gophers. And then, of course, there is Chicago State. That makes nine must wins -- I'd say Northwestern will need to go 8-1 against those teams or take one of the two tough roadies as a replacement for an extra loss. A slip-up at Iowa, Penn State or (especially) Indiana is my biggest fear as a Wildcats fan. (Editor’s note: Penn State really scares me. They might be the best 0-8 team in Big Ten history)
WRR: Are there any teams Northwestern fans should actively be rooting against because they’ll be teams Northwestern ends up competing with for a bid?
BD: I would root against Illinois. Five bids seem the most likely figure for the Big Ten, and so finishing ahead of Illinois in conference should give Northwestern an edge. And, considering the non-conference play of the Illini, just finishing tied with Illinois in conference should give NU the edge.
In other conferences, it's always hard to say which teams will be at the cutline in March, but some that come to mind are Florida, Dayton, Seton Hall and Cincinnati. Basically, root for the chalk and dreck in the major leagues at the expense of the middle teams.
WRR: Bottom line, what do you see as the end result of this season for NU. NIT? NCAA? CBI?
BD: To not get invited to the NIT at this point would require a near disaster, and in the NIT is where I'd expect the Cats to end up. I think there will be a slip-up against one of the bottom teams on the road -- the two consecutive weekend trips to State College and Bloomington make me cringe -- and that will be enough to derail the dream, barring a deep Big Ten Tourney run.
It's a real shame, because Northwestern really hasn't done anything wrong this season. It's the other Big Ten teams, especially the bottom three plus Illinois, Michigan and, yes, even Michigan State, whose non-conference play has set the bar so high for the Cats.
I do already have plans to attend should Northwestern make it. I'm hoping that, if the Cats do, they'll go to Providence, where I have family, and not to the very-hard-to-get-to Spokane. Either way, I won't complain.
WRR: As an NU graduate, what do think about the current state of the NU hoops compared to your time on campus?
BD: Well, I'll be honest -- I've never much liked watching the Princeton offense, although I did think that Coach Carmody was a good hire because of the institutional fit and the slow pace that should help a perpetual underdog. He started at Northwestern the same year I did, and I think he's an awesome guy. There were times, though -- as recently as before last Big Ten season started -- when I thought there was little hope in Evanston.
When I was at school, Northwestern had three pretty decent years but never really sniffed the NCAAs, and even fell tantalizingly short of the NIT twice, because of poor starts out of conference. Jitim Young and Tavares Hardy brought some big wins to NU, and they were part of not-terrible teams (which is pretty good at Northwestern). I was ushering at Welsh-Ryan the last time Northwestern beat Illinois (prior to Saturday). My spot was right at the corner of the court, across the way from the Northwestern bench, and watching the crowd storm the court was one of my favorite moments at Northwestern. I remember that the Daily Northwestern had this great shot with fans rushing everywhere and Carmody's head popping out of the crowd and looking directly at the camera, despite there being no way he could have seen it.
So, there were moments, but just too far and few, and every Big Ten win felt like an upset (except for the ones against Purdue) -- and it seemed we were gimmicking our way to those upsets. Northwestern's performance last year, and even without Kevin Coble this year, has changed the feel around the program. Suddenly, Northwestern is expected to beat teams like Indiana, Penn State, Iowa. So, however, Northwestern handle's the pressure that comes with that change is less important than that the change has occurred. And that change came with better players. Craig Moore, Coble and Juice meant business as usual for Carmody and recruiting -- one good player per year, but things began to change with Hardy's arrival on the staff and the Shurna/Mirkovic class followed by this year's Crawford/Marcotullio class.
As good a coach as Carmody is, he needs players, and he simply hasn't had them until now. What Carmody can do with players who fit his system -- and even some like Crawford who can flourish when it breaks down -- is hopeful. There was no way an earlier Carmody team could have lost a player as critical as Coble and finished anywhere near .500 in conference. For instance, there was a lot of optimism entering what was to be the senior seasons of Hachad/Vukusic/Parker (2005-06), and then Parker left for Europe, and Northwestern struggled to 6-10. The fact that that hasn't happened this season is probably the biggest transformation since when I went to school.
The question is whether this class of juniors -- Thompson and now Coble -- can close the deal and reach the Big Dance, or whether it will fall on the underclassmen to bring it home. They'll become legends if they do, and there's reason to believe that it will happen by March 2011 with a few good bounces.
WRR: Thanks, Brendon. We’ll have to bring you back for another breakdown of NU’s chances closer to Selection Sunday if the ‘Cats close in on those 23 wins.