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For Northwestern Wildcats basketball, now the fun begins

Vic Law, Northwestern

Northwestern has made it through the non-conference with some quality wins and no bad losses. The door is open to make it, if the team performs in B1G play.

Northwestern is the story once again.

Sports Illustrated, the NCAA’s official March Madness twitter account, the bracketologists. Everyone is beginning to think the same thing as Northwestern finished its non-conference schedule with an 11-2 record, the two losses to ranked Butler and Notre Dame and quality wins over Texas and Dayton.

Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com is among the bracketologists to have Northwestern in the field. And he is not alone.

For the first time, the Wildcats did not trip over themselves — although both Chicago State and Houston Baptist tried. There are no bad losses, there are a few good wins. And the Wildcats enter the conference season firmly in control of their own destiny.

Yes, Northwestern is in firm control over its own NCAA Tournament destiny. I repeat: Northwestern is in firm control over its own NCAA Tournament destiny.

That may always be the case. The Big Ten is a strong enough conference that a good performance in-conference is usually enough to get a team in the tournament. But it feels Northwestern can aim for more and find some more wiggle room this year with the team’s schedule.

The path for Northwestern to make the NCAA Tournament is as open as it has ever been.

As the Wildcats begin conference play Wednesday at Penn State, they have the chance to prove this year will be different. Northwestern has long struggled with Penn State in conference play. On several occasions, a loss to the Nittany Lions has derailed the Wildcats’ postseason hopes. Coming out with a win over a Penn State team that is not expected to do much in the conference is vital to Northwestern getting off on the right foot.

The Wildcats have not finished better than .500 in the Big Ten since 1968 and have not finished .500 in conference since 2004. The task is still very tall for Northwestern to reach that level.

But perhaps the Wildcats only have to finish at .500 or better to achieve their dreams with the work they have done out of conference. Then again, maybe Northwestern cannot rely on that. The team may still need a few good wins and to avoid any bad losses in conference.

The challenge then is set out for Northwestern. The question is whether they will rise to meet it.

Northwestern has been here before needing a stellar conference season to make it. But this team does seem more equipped than ever to make that magical run.

Bryant McIntosh has not had to carry the huge scoring load he had to carry last year. Victor Law has returned from the shoulder injury that cost him all of last season without missing a beat. He looks like he has made the big step forward from his freshman year two years ago.

The Wildcats have gotten key bench contributions from Gavin Skelly and freshman Isaiah Brown. Sanjay Lumpkin has helped lock down the glass along with freshman Barret Benson while Dererk Pardon recovers from a broken thumb.

This is a team that has balance and seems to fit together. On both ends. Northwestern has shown an incredible ability to hit 3-pointers and spread the floor for McIntosh and Law to attack and a strong defense that makes life hard with its versatility and ability to switch.

All of this, of course, will get tested in Big Ten play. That is where the physicality increases and the Wildcats’ lack of size, especially without Pardon could become exposed.

And Northwestern has been far from perfect.

Wins over both Chicago State and Houston Baptist were a little too close to comfort. And those are both teams that, no offense, hurt a team’s RPI just by playing them. Losses in either of those games would have been catastrophic.

Those two non-conference wins showed how Northwestern can let go of the gas pedal and struggle on offense. The Wildcats pulled out both wins in the end. But the specter of those games may come back at some point during conference season.

For sure, Northwestern’s attention will have to be up to perform well in the conference. The door is open though. The door is wide open for Northwestern to end that streak.

The Wildcats have some room for error. Some, but not much. Northwestern controls its own destiny.

In the next three months, NU will find out if it can finally do what has been impossible before now. Now, the fun begins for the quest for that first NCAA Tournament berth.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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