The Wildcats' tournament bubble is near popping; their hopes are fading fast.
NU's loss against No. 18 Indiana came in familiar fashion. A chance to earn a key win for the tournament résumé was lost. Such was the case against Creighton, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Purdue.
Sure, the NCAA tournament selection committee will appreciate Northwestern's Top-50 RPI and 14th-ranked strength of schedule. But the ‘almost' losses are an albatross around the Wildcats' neck; a mark of a team that isn't tournament-worthy.
The consensus is that Northwestern needs to earn at least three more wins on the regular-season slate, plus make a run in the Big Ten tournament.
The clock is ticking.
"I told the guys, 'you got to get wins, fellas.'" Bill Carmody said to the media after Wednesday's game. "At 5-8, we're not in the (NCAA tournament) discussion. We need to get to eight (conference wins) to get in the discussion. And we're playing at a decent level."
True, the Wildcats are playing at a high level. Ask Tom Crean, John Beilein, and Matt Painter, who saw their highly-rated teams get a scare.
Each down-to-the-wire scare is adequate enough to earn national respect, but falls short of the tournament's credentials.
This could still be "the year" for the Wildcats; a ticket to the Big Dance is still attainable. But they take advantage of each opportunity.
Two straight home games—Minnesota on Saturday, then Michigan on Wednesday—loom for Northwestern. Bill Carmody said last week: "If you want to be in the mix of anything, you have to win your home games." Both home contests are must-wins.
That makes five chances for critical wins, including one over a top-ten opponent. Northwestern's résumé has not yet been submitted; opportunities remain, and each one is equally important.
John Shurna, the Big Ten's leading scorer and Northwestern's team leader, took charge during Wednesday's game, as he has through much of the season. Drew Crawford has averaged 16.8 points per game this season.
On Wednesday, the Wildcats received just 47 points from Shurna and Crawford. The other three starters combined for 18 points and Jershon Cobb contributed the lone scoring from the bench, one point.
A team built with tournament-caliber talent is falling short.
Northwestern has just a few more chances to enhance its tournament credentials and needs to take advantage of each lasting second. Coming close isn't good enough anymore. Almost won't suffice.