If NU wants W over UW, tonight's the night

A win against Wisconsin always looks good, especially this year, with UW currently ranked No. 13. But history suggests if NU wants to bolster its tourney resume with a victory over the Badgers, it'd better come tonight, because wins in Madison have been hard to come by. A look at what this game means for the Cats, especially in light of the struggles NU has had in Madison.

If you dare to look – really, you're better off squinting…with one eye – you will see that it's been rough sledding for Northwestern at Wisconsin. Thus, if NU wants to add a victory over the Badgers to its 2010 tourney resume, tonight is the night.

Along with the fact that Northwestern has struggled mightily in Madison – an issue discussed at length below – a win against Wisconsin on Wednesday would be good on multiple fronts. First off, it's Wisconsin, and the Badgers have been to the NCAA Tournament for 11 straight seasons, plus four of the last 10 Sweet Sixteens, plus they are currently ranked No. 13. Because of its grind-it-out style, the Badgers don't necessarily have cachet. But they definitely command respect.

And that's why this would be exactly the type of win that Northwestern could hang its hat on come Selection Sunday.*

* Until there's a reason not to, Purple Reign is going to keep writing about the NCAA Tournament and Northwestern's chances of getting in. It may strike some as pie-in-the-sky, what with NU having lost Kevin Coble before the season and the 0-2 conference start and the 21-point loss to Michigan State and the unceremonious plunge out of the Top 25. But right now Northwestern is 12-3 with a top-70 RPI. There is no reason to think that the Tournament isn't still a totally legitimate possibility.

But there's more to tonight's game than just beating Wisconsin. As was discussed here, it is really hard to start the conference slate 1-3 and still make the Tournament. Only two teams started 1-3 and made the tourney last season, and should NU fall tonight, they'd be….1-3.*

* With No. 6 Purdue, at Ohio State, Illinois next up on the docket.

A win would also put Northwestern in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Right now, Illinois and Michigan State have undefeated conference records, Wisconsin and Minnesota are 3-1, Purdue and Michigan are 2-2, and Ohio State is 2-3. So should NU win, the Cats would jump over OSU, which is idle tonight, and into a three-way tie for fifth place with Purdue and Michigan, which are also idle. Should the Cats lose, however, they would fall below everyone except winless-in-conference Penn State and Iowa. Granted, conference play is not even one-third completed yet, but cellar-dwelling is bad regardless.

OK, so that's what's at stake tonight. A chance for a marquee, "We beat Wisconsin!" win; avoiding the ominous 1-3 conference record; and keeping pace with the Big Boys in the Big Ten out of the gates.

But this game is also significant because, like Bart Simpson in school, Northwestern has a long, unbroken streak of failure in Madison.

Just look at the Cats' last 10 trips to the Kohl Center.

2009:
29-point loss

2008:
12-point loss

2007:
17-point loss

2006:
16-point loss

2005:
15-point loss

2003:
19-point loss

2002:
29-point loss

2001:
18-point loss

1999:
22-point loss

1998:*
23-point loss

*In 1998, Wisconsin also played NU in Evanston, and Northwestern won 47-39. It was the lowest-scoring game in Big Ten history – 86 total points – until Iowa lost to Wisconsin in 2008 by a score of 51-34 – 85 total points. Hopefully we won't see any similar records set this season.

That's 0-10, with no single-digit setbacks and the average loss coming by 19 points. Indeed, NU has been cold at Kohl. And not only when Wisconsin is really good. Sure, the Badgers were really good in 2008, when they were ranked No. 8, and in 2007, when they were ranked No. 2. But even the not-so-highly-ranked Wisconsin teams – like last season's outfit that still beat NU by 29 – have picked on NU in Madison.

In Evanston, not so much. Northwestern won last season behind an eight-for-13 effort from downtown. And in 2008 and 2007 – when Wisconsin was ranked No. 8 and No. 4, respectively – Northwestern went 0-2, but is was by a combined 13 points. In 2006, NU won by 11.

Now, NU has a better record than it has in years. Therefore, maybe that's why this will be the year that the Cats waltz into Madison (on Feb. 21) and ends the futility. But let's not count on it.

That makes tonight's game a bigee. Sure, it's still early in the conference season, and sure, NU is 12-3, so a loss wouldn't be a pull-out-you-hair scenario. But needing a win at Wisconsin might be.

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