The Northwestern Wildcats are in an unfamiliar spot — on the right side of the bubble. The Wildcats now must handle the weight of this expectation.
There is a healthy amount of alarm among Northwestern fans whenever something good is happening. Particularly when it comes to the basketball team.
It is hard not to talk about the basketball team at any point without mentioning the team has never made the NCAA Tournament. Even among casual basketball fans, this fact receives incredulous looks. It cannot be possible that a team in a major conference has never gone to the tournament, right?
That story gets tired very quickly. But that is part of the Northwestern story. And every game this year has that achievement lurking in the background.
As Northwestern continues to win — and especially after the team’s 35-point destruction of Iowa — the narrative only gets louder. And now the interesting storyline becomes less will Northwestern make the Tournament, but how will the team handle life on the bubble?
The Wildcats are quickly making waves.
Joe Lunardi has Northwestern in the field as a nine-seed (relatively safe if things keep going as they are for the Wildcats). Northwestern achieved its highest KenPom ranking ever, ranked No. 30. Another stat-based site, TeamRankings.com, gives Northwestern a 60 percent chance to make the tournament.
Watching this team, it is hard not to see all those possibilities. The Wildcats have surprising length on the perimeter, establishing themselves as one of the best defenses in the country. They have athleticism to get out on the break, turning turnovers into points. Their shooting is superb, freeing up driving lanes and their unselfishness to move the ball.
The Wildcats are 4-2 in conference, having played just two home games in those first six conference games. They still have some big tests ahead — at Ohio State is next Sunday, followed by another battle with Nebraska, then Indiana and Purdue after that.
Northwestern has some nice wins on its resume — Wake Forest is proving itself to be a much better win than anticipated — and the team’s losses are not killer. A steady Big Ten showing have Northwestern with the inside track.
Despite all these signs, the Wildcats are not in yet. They still need to do the deed and get into the Tournament. They will be pins and needles until then.
But even in those John Shurna-led years where Northwestern threatened to make the Tournament, their bubble status never felt this secure. They were never “in.” They never had something resembling a margin for error.
Unlike those other years, they took care of business in non-conference and scored some nice wins. The Wildcats defeated KenPom No. 36 Dayton on a neutral court at the United Center and dispatched KenPom No. 38 Wake Forest at home in the ACC/B1G Challenge. Their losses are to No. 16 Butler, No. 22 Notre Dame, No. 48 Michigan State and No. 39 Minnesota. Only Minnesota came at home and Notre Dame was on a neutral court. And none of those losses will stain a resume.
The Wildcats are fourth among Big Ten teams in KenPom’s rankings. Fourth!
Northwestern is playing with house money for the first time. The Wildcats are not just merely winning, but they are expected to win. And that is a new posture, only raising the expectations for this group to make this the year.
Northwestern just has to take care of its business. And that is a weird feeling for a program so unfamiliar with this posture.
How the team plays with this weight of expectation will be the measure for the rest of the season.
Northwestern clearly has the team and the talent to get there. Everyone seems ready for this streak to finally end.
The question will be whether Northwestern can handle the pressure and keep the pace. That is a place no Wildcats team has ever been. And this one seems to have all the pieces.
Everyone else seems ready to believe.