Until Northwestern makes the NCAA Tournament fans will always come into the season wondering if this is going be the year the ‘Cats finally break into the NCAA Tournament field. Just two weeks from the opening tip of the season versus Texas-Pan American, I can’t help but wonder what it’ll take for this to be the year the ‘Cats make that breakthrough. They’ve been close each of the last three years. Three years ago a couple late season losses to Illinois and Ohio State doomed them, two years ago an inability to beat the bottom of the Big Ten doomed them, and last year a weak non-conference schedule combined with the inability to beat a “marquee” opponent ruined the ‘Cats shot at being named on Selection Sunday. On paper the teams of the last three years might be stronger than this year’s squad, but I find myself hoping that this version of the Wildcats led by a group of seniors who have seen the mistakes of the past three seasons will finally breakthrough. Let’s take a look at what they need to do.
1) Take advantage of non-conference opportunities. – Last year the Wildcats didn’t get many chances in the non-conference schedule to get big wins and they lost in one of their best chances when they played at St. John’s. This year NU gets a decent field at the Charleston Classic and huge home tilt vs Baylor. If NU can win the Charleston Classic and beat Baylor they’ll have several RPI boosting wins that were missing in previous years. Road contests at Georgia Tech and Creighton also potentially offer a greater challenge than games of the past two years.
2) Get consistent production for the center position. – Looking at history the best Princeton Offense teams have always had centers who stuffed the stat sheet consistently. Over the past three years Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti have had some big games in some of NU’s biggest wins (see Luka’s double-double in an upset of #6 Purdue) but they haven’t been consistent. If these two demonstrate a level of consistency I expect this could be THE year. They’ll get a good challenge early in 7-0 260-pound LSU center Justin Hamilton (an Iowa St. transfer) who will be eligible to play when NU takes on the Tigers.
3) Get production from unlikely sources. – When teams have breakout years they usually have a player nobody has expectations for who steps up. For NU that might be Nick Fruendt who is a senior that has shown flashes of ability, but who never consistently got into Bill Carmody’s rotation. Also, Carmody mentioned walk-on Reggie Hearn as somebody who might crack the rotation when interviewed at Big Ten media day.
4) Start fast in the conference season. – The last couple years NU hasn’t started great in conference play. Yes, the schedule has been tough, but that’s not an excuse that NCAA Tournament teams make. To make the Big Dance NU needs at least a .500 conference record and they won’t get it if they again start the Big Ten 0-4. The good news is that while the opener at Ohio State is going to be very tough, home games vs Penn State and Illinois offer NU the chance to get at least two Big Ten wins in the first week and a half of conference play.
5) Play defense – Northwestern has been inconsistent on defense over the past few seasons. They’ve had their moments, but haven’t really played that well. A strong defensive finish to last season gives me hope, so we’ll see how it goes in a couple weeks.