The Northwestern Wildcats all but punched their tickets to the NCAA Tournament in defeating Wisconsin on the road. This is no fluke, they deserve it.
It is never easy for Northwestern. Nothing is ever certain. And the season that seemed finally to be “the one” was seemingly close to slipping away.
The Wildcats’ first categorically bad loss to Illinois on Tuesday will do that. Being without Scottie Lindsey, the team’s leading scorer, will do that. Having to face Big Ten leaders Wisconsin and Maryland in their next two games will do that.
Northwestern had a firm place on the bubble. A relatively safe place. But nothing is ever certain. And trying to score the upset at the Kohl Center, nothing is ever certain.
Go on a 16-0 run to take a nine-point lead to the halftime locker room? Sure, but you are going to give up the first 10 of the second half and become involved in a close game the rest of the way.
Halt Wisconsin’s leading scorer Ethan Happ to nine points, give up 7-for-19 shooting from beyond the arc and post-up play to Nigel Hayes to keep the team close.
But on the road and without Lindsey, Northwestern responded each time. Every time the Badgers hit a bucket, Bryant McIntosh would find the space to drive in and hit one back. When Northwestern finally worked the ball to Sanjay Lumpkin in the corner for a 3-pointer, the least likely player to hit one made the backbreaker in a 66-59 win at the Kohl Center on Sunday.
Everyone played their role. Dererk Pardon provided stellar play around the rim and solid defense on Happ. McIntosh proved to be the creator for himself and for others in scoring 25 points on 10-for-23 shooting. He added seven assists and seven rebounds for good measure. Victor Law was there hitting big 3-pointers and helping out on the glass.
This Northwestern team is different. That has probably been said a million times this season before. It has always felt different but with that tinge of Northwestern doubt.
After dispatching No. Wisconsin on the road, there is no doubt. Northwestern is going to the NCAA Tournament.
The team has the resume with wins over Dayton, upstart Wake Forest and now Wisconsin. That marquee road win shines brightest. The Wildcats have avoided the piftfalls of any bad losses. Only Rutgers remains as that potential landmine at home.
The question for Northwestern with those kinds of wins is not whether the team will make the Tournament. It is about what seed Northwestern will get. That is the reality for this Wildcats team.
This is what a marquee win like this can do. It creates real belief. Maybe Northwestern can push for the Big Ten ti… Maybe that is a bit too far.
The Wildcats have a real team. This is not some Cinderella story of a team catching fire and sneaking in. The Wildcats are a firm tournament team and deserve to be so.
They got themselves the win Sunday thanks to a stifling defense that set up a 16-0 run toward the end of the first half. They trapped Happ when he caught the ball in the post and scrambled to contest 3-point shooters. The Badgers shot just 38.0 percent from the floor.
This defense has been the norm throughout the year. The Wildcats can shoot the lights out, but they rank near the top of the Big Ten in many defensive categories. Most importantly points allowed per game and defensive rating.
Northwestern has kept itself in games despite poor shooting performances in the past. Bryant McIntosh has had a career-worst shooting season and yet he has found a way to make an impact. And his team has picked up the slack offensively.
The Wildcats have all the characteristics of a tournament team. They have just never been there. Everything is new and everything is uncertain.
The Wildcats’ win over the Badgers on Sunday was enough to punch their ticket. It was the kind of win that a team gets when they are not only getting into the Tournament, but thinking about the second weekend.Or at least the second round.
Northwestern is not about to get greedy. They still should be happy to get into the Tournament to begin with.
One thing is for sure, they belong. And belong comfortably.
Barring an absolute collapse, Northwestern is going dancing. And could be a team to reckon with for the rest of the Big Ten season and in Washington, D.C. in March.