Another Solid Step

Northwestern's victory over Georgia Tech is just win number six of the season, but it showed a lot more for a program seeking its first NCAA tournament berth. It was another sign that the Wildcats may be worthy of their first trip to the big dance.

On the surface, a 76-60 win over mediocre Georgia Tech may not seem like a big win, but for the this Northwestern team, it was another solid step toward an NCAA tournament berth.

The Wildcats are 6-0, winning the Charleston Classic along the way and picking up wins against SEC, Big East and ACC teams — albeit none of those teams are likely to be dancing in March.

More importantly, something feels a little big different about these Northwestern WildWildcats — they look like a tournament team. When NU is expected to win its preseason tournament and expected to win its ACC/Big Ten Challenge game, that's progress.

But Wildcats fans are sick of progress; they want to win now. Finally, it seems like that's a possibility.

Tuesday's win in Atlanta was the most complete performance NU has put together this season. The Wildcats didn't just rely on outside shooting; they dominated the Yellow Jackets in every phase of the game, finding an inside presence that they haven't had against a major conference team this season.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Tuesday's performance is that NU didn't rely on the three. John Shurna shot 50-percent from beyond the arc, but he was also comfortable driving the lane. Drew Crawford added 14 points — none were threes — and Luka Mirkovic dominated down low offensively with 13 points, something he hasn't done all year.

Defensively, the Wildcats were impressive, playing tough perimeter defense and not allowing Georgia Tech to crash the boards. The Yellow Jackets didn't even have a rebounding advantage — both teams had 29 boards — which is a big change from past NU teams.

This wasn't the same old Bill Carmody team that lives and dies with the three; this looked like a solid, balanced Big Ten basketball team.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, this was just Georgia Tech, which is rebuilding this season, and this win comes one game after a mere five-point win against Stony Brook.

But NU has a chance to make a big statement on Sunday, when No. 8 Baylor comes to Welsh-Ryan Arena. A win against the Bears can validate the Wildcats' rise on a national level.

One win doesn't make a season — NU must go over .500 in Big Ten play in order to be dancing in March — but this could be the biggest game for this program in a very long time.

Baylor is a national name, a team the nation views as far more athletic and just better than the NU. A win in that game likely vaults the Wildcats into the top 25 and boosts their RPI come tournament time.

More importantly, it's a statement that NU can be a consistent winner, a team that takes care of business when it should and wins big games at home.

This game isn't all or nothing, but it's a chance to elevate the program to new heights. Tuesday's performance was proof that the Wildcats have clearly taken the next step; Sunday is its chance to showcase that to the nation.


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