I’ve tried to stay away from this talk somewhat since it is still January, but after last night’s supposed NCAA Tournament elimination game I think it’s time to talk NCAAs. Especially since the ‘Cats weren’t the team eliminated. Most people are still skeptical of Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament chances. That’s in part because NU only has one big win (vs Purdue) and Northwestern has only two true road wins (vs Michigan and vs N.C. State). But NU will get multiple chances to prove themselves dance worthy in the next few weeks.
Perhaps the best way to study NU’s current NCAA chances is to look at a team who many experts say will be among the last four in or out and compare them with Northwestern. Right now, Joe Lunardi has Cal as one of his last four teams in the tournament. This comparison is also somewhat more relevant because the teams do have some common opponents in Iowa State, Ohio State, and Stanford.
Looking at RPI, Cal has something of an advantage. The Golden Bears current RPI is #25. Northwestern’s is #53. However, the Wildcats do have the advantage both in number of wins and with fewer losses. Northwestern is sitting at 14-5 against Division 1 teams while Cal is 13-6. The Wildcats also have the best win of the two teams with their victory over Purdue. Cal is actually 0-4 versus RPI top-50 teams. Against RPI top-100 teams Northwestern is 4-5. Cal is 3-5. Based on those numbers Cal is probably slightly better, but for them to be one of the last four in and Northwestern not even to be in the last eight out doesn’t seem entirely logical.
What Lunardi is likely looking at is the team’s strength of schedule. Right now Cal’s SOS is 3rd in the nation. NU’s is 69th. However, the best team Cal has left on their schedule is RPI ranked #60 USC. Northwestern still gets RPI #10 Wisconsin and PRI #16 Michigan State on the road. Besides that, the Wildcats have #64 Minnesota twice. Those games are huge as Minnesota might have replaced Illinois as in-conference competition for an NCAA bid. If Northwestern can get wins over those teams their case will be greatly improved. Playing tough competition is great, but you have to beat those teams. Personally, I think team’s records against the top-50 and on the road should mean more than SOS. Sure, you might play a bunch of good teams, but who cares if you can’t beat them. If you play some good teams and some bad teams, beat all the bad teams and a fair number of the good teams, and win regularly away from home—that’s a impressive resume. An NCAA-worthy resume.
A good example of this is UNLV. The Runnin’ Rebels have an SOS similar to NU (#67), but are projected into the tournament by virtually every analyst as somewhere between a 7 and 10-seed. Lunardi has them as a 9-seed. Part of the reason for this has to be the fact UNLV is 3-2 vs RPI top-100 teams and 7-1 on the road. Northwestern is 2-2 on the road and Cal is 2-3. NU does have an advantage with a 2-0 record on neutral courts while Cal is 0-2.
Bottom line, Northwestern’s resume should be considered competitive for a tournament bid right now. NU’s most important games, though, haven’t yet happened. The Wildcat resume would greatly improve with wins over Minnesota (one of the first four out according to Lunardi) and either Wisconsin or Michigan State (who have top-20 RPIs). If NU gets those victories and holds serve against weaker teams, I think the ‘Cats will dance in March.