According to '09, are we fine?

It's not time to panic, not at 10-3. But if the Wildcats intend to make the NCAA Tournament, history says they'll have to turn things around sooner rather than later. Purple Reign looks at the "Big Six" conference tourney teams from 2009 and tries to find a tipping point at which early conference-season malaise dooms tourney hopes.

Let's look at the bright side, shall we?

Northwestern is currently 10-3, and with a visit Thursday from 1-14 Texas-Pan American,* the Cats should push their record to 11-3. That's pretty darn good considering that through 14 games, NU was at 8-6 last season and 6-8 in 2008.

* Purple Reign is ever-paranoid about jinxing, especially after this, but this T-PA game seems jinx-proof. Eight of the Broncos' 14 losses are by at least 20 points, and twice – against Texas and Missouri – they gave up 100 and failed to crack 45. Anything can happen; Tennessee State, after all, is just 3-11 and they had Wildcat fans sweating bullets. But let's just say that a loss to Texas-Pan American would render any NCAA Tournament discussion moot.

Eleven and three and winner of 10 of 12 – not bad.

But, as documented here, Northwestern's schedule is about to get brutal. Actually, the brutality has already begun. It started with a road game at Illinois (an 89-83 overtime loss) followed by a tilt with Michigan State (a 91-70 loss). Each of Northwestern's first 10 conference games are against a tourney team from last season, teams that have their own NCAA Tournament plans.

That is no reason, though, to give up on our NCAA Tournament aspirations. Some fans and media seemed to write off NU after Kevin Coble went down, but the Cats themselves would have none of it. They went out and won 10 of their first 11 and won a neutral-site game against Notre Dame and won at North Carolina State* and took the Illini to overtime.

* That NC State win has lost some shine, seeing as the Wolfpack – after an 8-1 start – have now lost three of their last five. But look at their losses. At 13-3 Wake Forest, which has won seven in a row. At Arizona, by two points. Against Florida, by one point. So yeah, NC State is 10-4, but it's not like they're a pushover.

NU obviously hasn't packed it in, and Wildcat fans should follow suit. But, that being said, at what point is it time to recalibrate our expectations and focus on a different kind of postseason play? One that has, say, three letters (like NIT) instead of four letters (like NCAA).

Last season, Northwestern started conference play 0-4 and pretty much played itself too far out of tourney consideration to get back in – even after the Cats won five of their next six games. That slow start – coupled with a three-game losing streak in February where NU lost by a combined nine points – made it impossible for the Cats to get into the Tourney.

Thus, Purple Reign asked: What is the slowest start to conference play that a team can have and still make the NCAA Tournament? After all, it is probably harder now to recover from a slow start, seeing as mid-majors mandate an ever-growing chunk of the 65 tourney spots.

To try to gauge what exactly NU must do from here on out, Purple Reign compiled the ensuing list of Tournament teams from last season. All of these teams (a) were from one of the "Big Six"* conferences, and (b) weren't a top-four seed.

* Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC, ACC and Big East.

There are a few reasons for these two criteria. First off, the résumé for a Big Six tourney team looks different than the résumé of a non-Big Six team. For instance, Oklahoma State made the NCAA Tournament last season as a No. 8 seed with a 22-11 pre-tournament record. Dayton, meanwhile, was a No. 11 seed and the Flyers were 26-7. Arizona State was a No. 6 seed with a 24-9 record, and Northern Iowa was a No. 12 seed with a 23-10 record. So the Tourney Committee – wisely – weighs the rigidity of the conference in which a team plays.

Thus, it's futile to analyze Northwestern's tourney hopes this season by comparing it to a tourney team from a conference like the MAC or Horizon. (Admittedly, it might also be futile to analyze Northwestern's tourney hopes this season compared to any team from last season, but let's just have some fun. There are no games until Thursday.)

The second criterion, about the teams being lower than a No. 4 seed, is because those are the teams that will be most instructive for Northwestern. If Northwestern should somehow put itself in a position over the next two months to garner a top-four seed, that would be awesome. But in reality, if NU goes dancing, it will almost certainly be as one of those 5-12 seeds. So those are the teams we'll look at.*

* It may be helpful to take a broader sample size than just the 2009 tournament. But as was said earlier, the proliferation of mid-level tourney teams like Butler and Gonzaga and Utah State and the like means that the tournament in 2004, for instance, is different than it was last season, and different than it will be this season. Consider: there are currently four teams from outside the Big Six ranked in the AP Top 25 – No. 15 New Mexico, No. 19 Gonzaga, No. 21 Temple, No. 25 BYU. There were two such teams, Creighton and St. Joseph's, at this point of the 2004 season. The tourney selection process, therefore, is an ever-evolving beast. Plus, this is pretty tedious work, so 2009 it is.

Alright, so here's how this is laid out. The first column is the team, and second is that team's 2009 tournament seed – simple enough. The third column is that team's 2009 record heading into conference play, and the fourth column is their record in their first four conference games. (In light of NU's 0-4 start last season, coupled with the killer schedule this season, it is column four that inspired this whole thing.)

The fifth column is the conference record midway through conference play; the sixth column is the final overall record before the conference tourney; the seventh column is the team's overall final conference record. Phew. Out of breath.

Team Seed Rec. b/f Conf. 1st 4 conf. games Conf. midway Final Rec. Conf. Final
Ohio State 9 9-1 2-2 5-4 20-9 10-8
Arizona 12 9-1 2-2 4-5 19-12 9-9
W. Virg. 6 10-2 2-2 4-4 20-9 9-7
BC 7 12-2 1-3 5-3 21-10 9-7
USC 10 9-3 2-2 6-3 18-12 9-9
Tex. A&M 9 14-1 1-3 3-5 23-8 9-7
Purdue 5 11-2 2-2 6-3 22-9 11-7
Miss. St 13 10-5 3-1 6-2 19-12 9-7
Marquette 6 11-2 4-0 9-0 23-8 12-6
Cal 7 11-2 4-0 5-4 22-9 11-7
Maryland 10 11-2 2-2 3-5 18-12 7-9
Mich. 10 10-2 3-1 4-5 19-12 9-9
Clemson 7 12-0 2-2 5-3 23-7 9-7
ASU 6 11-1 3-1 5-4 22-8 11-7
Illinois 5 12-1 3-1 6-3 23-8 11-7
LSU 8 12-2 3-1 7-1 25-6 13-3
Texas 7 11-3 3-1 4-4 20-10 9-7
Minn. 10 12-0 3-1 5-3 21-9 9-9
UCLA 6 10-2 4-0 7-2 24-7 13-5
Wisc. 12 9-3 3-1 3-6 19-11 10-8
FSU 5 13-2 2-2 5-3 23-8 10-6
Tenn. 9 9-4 3-1 5-3 19-11 10-6
Ok. St. 8 11-3 2-2 3-5 20-10 9-7

So what does this tell us? Well, of the 23 teams, not one started the conference season 0-4. That's not a total shock, but it's also kind of scary. NU's next two conference games, after all, are at Michigan and against No. 17 Wisconsin. What's more, only two of the 23 teams – Boston College and Texas A&M – started 1-3. Nine teams started conference play 2-2, nine teams started 3-1 and three teams – UCLA, Marquette and California – started a perfect 4-0.

Starting 0-4, therefore, seems pretty much out of the question* if you want to make the Big Dance.

* Not that Northwestern would be totally, wholly, 100 percent cooked with an 0-4 start. A benefit of the ridiculous early-season schedule is a comparatively light February that features Indiana twice, Iowa twice, Penn State twice and a where'd-that-come-from March 3 game against Chicago State.

While the start is telling, so, too, is a team's record halfway through the conference slate. Texas A&M, Maryland, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin had the worst mid-way point marks. A&M, Maryland and OSU were 3-5, and Wisconsin was 3-6. Arizona and Michigan were both 4-5, but other 17 were all at least .500 at the midway point of the conference season. (Maybe it's encouraging that Wisconsin and Michigan were among the teams that struggled the most through the first half of conference; maybe the Big Ten's rep can help teams overcome some toe-stubbing.)

Only one team, Maryland, had a losing conference mark. The Terps squeezed in on the strength of wins over Michigan State, North Carolina and Wake Forest. At the moment, NU lacks such marquee wins. And if Northwestern is to avoid dipping below .500, which would likely be a kiss of death come Selection Sunday, then the Cats will have to go 10-6 over their final 16 conference games.

Working in Northwestern's favor is its hot non-conference start. Only four of these teams entered conference play in 2009 with better records than NU's 10-1 mark in 2010: Texas A&M was 14-1, Clemson was 12-0, Minnesota was 12-0 and Illinois was 12-1. So there's that. And even if Northwestern simply went 9-9 in the conference – and beat doormats Texas-Pan American and Chicago State – its record heading into the conference tournament would be 21-11. That would be good. No guarantee, certainly, but better than a handful of these 23 teams. But only 10 of these '09 tourney teams would have had more wins entering their conferences tournaments.

One more thing: the conference tourney can change everything. An early exit or deep run could render this discussion moot. But nonetheless, the regular season matters, and if you look at this chart, there are some things that stand out. You probably can't go 0-4 to start the conference season, let alone 0-5 or 0-whatever. Also, unless you down some giants along the way, you must hit that .500 mark in conference play.

So if Northwestern doesn't want to have to rip through the Big Ten Tournament, the Wildcats will need to start winning some conference games. And of course beat Texas-Pan American.

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