• 13-8 overall, 3-7 in conference
• RPI: 87, SOS: 77
• Record against the RPI top 100: 1-8. Lone win at home against Michigan.
Something had to change. Northwestern was on the doorstep numerous times and were so close to grabbing that marquee win on so many occasions. It was a matter of whether the Wildcats could kick down that door and enter a house full off teams competing for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
Enter the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday afternoon. Illinois is a nationally ranked team. They are a team that has future NBA players and additional pros up and down their roster. The Illini pounded Northwestern by 24 points during the first meeting of the season. Illinois owned the series winning 21-of-22 going in Saturday. And lastly, it was the first time Northwestern had a home game televised on CBS for the national audience to see.
However, Northwestern proved that with or without John Shurna, they could compete with the best teams the Big Ten had to offer, especially at home. However, close losses have no benefits when the selection committee is deciding your fate.
Northwestern finally got over the hump and grabbed a key 71-70 win over Illinois. Though it is possible that Northwestern still has no wins against an at-large tournament team, this was a critical wins on so many levels.
Two positives that stood out to me:
1. Northwestern competed down low.
For the entire season, I have questioned if Northwestern had the size to compete with quality teams. They were exposed at St. John's, Michigan State twice and against Ohio State. It turned around a bit today. Illinois' starting frontcourt of: Jereme Richmond, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale combined for: 18 points, 13 rebounds on 8-of-22 shooting. For the season, those three average: 29.7 points, 19 rebounds and shoot 51.7 percent shooting. Sure, the Wildcats will never have the advantage in the paint against the rest of their opponents, but it is an encouraging sign that they were competitive up front.
2. Northwestern can win without slowing down the tempo.
Ever since Notre Dame used a snails pace offense to pull an upset at second ranked Pittsburgh, it has been the talk of the nation. Notre Dame used just 47 possessions and maximized each possession. Northwestern had great success using that strategy against Ohio State. That game had just 48 possessions each way and the game went down to the final possession. What everyone seems to forget is the Wisconsin debacle. That game had just 50 possessions each way but Wisconsin averaged a ridiculous 1.56 points-per-possession (PPP) and they lost by 32. The slow tempo is great if you can hit a couple 3-pointers and get to the free throw line somewhat routinely. If those things don't happen, Northwestern will get blown out because they are not very good defensively.
The Illinois game had 64 possessions. That is slightly below average for each team but the Wildcats proved that they can play different styles and still be efficient offensively. Additionally, despite the number being inflated due to late game fouling, it was nice to see Northwestern attempt 22 free throws. The Wildcats rank 295th in the country in free throw rate (FTA/FGA) at just 32.3%. It was 45.8% against Illinois.
However, there were two things to be concerned with:
Northwestern has struggled during the entire Big Ten season defensively. As a whole, they rank just 100th in the nation in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions). Northwestern's opponent's points-per-possession has been even poorer in conference play. The national average for opponent's PPP is between 1.01-1.02. Northwestern has held its Big Ten opponents under 1.03 only once; at Michigan State. Despite the slow pace, Ohio State still averaged 1.21 PPP. It is an area Northwestern has to improve. If they can hold their opponents at 1.00 PPP, they will be in good shape because they are very efficient offensively.
2. There is a lot of work left.
It's time to return to reality. Sure, beating Illinois is an important step. If Northwestern can turn this into an even rivalry, they can certainly compete with Illinois to get better talent around Chicago to come to Evanston.
Northwestern's next five games are against teams outside the top 25. Road games at Michigan, Penn State and Indiana will not be easy tasks. Home games against Iowa and Penn State are virtual must wins. Remember how well Penn State has played against the Big Ten's best, just like Northwestern. Iowa pounded Michigan State recently and are playing much better of late. Indiana won consecutive home games against top 25 teams in Illinois and Minnesota.
To make the NCAA Tournament, a lot of work remains for the Wildcats. One win over Illinois will not get it done. It is imperative Northwestern uses this momentum and puts together wins in bunches to close out the season.