Look closely – you can still see the Tourney

Northwestern has hit the skids of late by losing three of four games – two of which, of course, came to Big Ten cellar-dwellers Penn State and Iowa. The slide has sent NU plummeting in the Big Ten standings and ravaged the Wildcats' RPI. But seriously, the glass is still half-full. And here's why...

Northwestern has hit the skids a bit as of late, losing three of four – two of which, of course, came to Big Ten cellar-dwellers Penn State and Iowa. The slide has sent NU plummeting in the Big Ten standings and ravaged the Wildcats' RPI.

That 10-1 start seems ages ago; after losing nine of 15 games, the Cats sit at 17-10 and just 6-9 in the Big Ten. Indeed, things look bleaker now than at any point this season.

But seriously, the glass is still half-full. And here's why:

This article from back on Jan. 5 looked at every No. 5-12 seed in the 2009 NCAA Tournament team that was from a Big Six conference. Some palpable patterns emerged, and there seem to be a few benchmarks that teams need to hit to get into the Big Dance – benchmarks that the Wildcats can still reach despite their recent struggles (which have sunken their RPI to a lowly No. 93, according to CBS Sports)

First off, it's pretty much out of the question to have a sub-.500 conference record and still get into the NCAA Tournament. Maryland was the only 2009 tourney squad that had a losing conference mark – the Terps were 7-9. Alas, they boasted wins over Michigan State, North Carolina and Wake Forest, each of which were top-four seeds in the Big Dance (and two of which made it to the title game).

So basically, unless you have multiple marquee wins, you have to get to .500. And Northwestern can still do that without anything usual happening. The Cats simply need to beat the conference's bottom three teams – Iowa, Penn State* and Indiana. Sure, two of those three – PSU and Indiana – are on the road. And sure, Iowa and Penn State already beat NU this season. But that's not an egregiously tall order: go 3-0 against the three worst teams in the conference, teams that are a combined 8-24 in the league. That would put the Cats at 21-10 – assuming a win over Chicago State on March 3 – and 9-9 in the conference.**

* Purple Reign pointed out in a Jan. 28 article that the Nittany Lions wouldn't be as much of a gimme as their 0-8 record indicated:

As easy as it is to chalk up PSU as a W, a closer look at the Nittany Lions' schedule shows that they've had some killer bad luck – and thus may not be as much of a pushover as their 8-12, 0-8 record suggests.

Penn State lost at Minnesota by five, at Illinois by one, at Iowa by three and at Wisconsin in overtime. If a couple of those decisions went the other way, maybe PSU would be 10-10 or 11-9 with a few conference wins. Plus PSU has the conference's leading scorer in Talor Battle, who is good for more than 19 per game. Northwestern is still a smart bet, but just saying…

After downing NU, Penn State went to Ann Arbor and beat Michigan. So while that loss doesn't look good, and while NU really should have won that game, it's not like the Cats lost to Texas-Pan American.

** Warning: Lose any of those three, and it will probably take a magical run in the Big Ten Tournament to make the cut. The Cats really do have to sweep those three. That's not an enviable position to be in, but it's not an impossible one either.

Winning those three brings us to another tell-tale benchmark: 20 wins. In 2009 only one Big Six conference team, Kansas State, had notched 20 wins heading into the conference and still failed to make the Big Dance; KSU ended the regular season at 21-10 and 9-7 in the Big 12. Maybe it's an ominous sign that KSU ended the 2009 regular season with the same record that Northwestern figures to in 2010. But it's definitely an encouraging sign that only one Big Six team entered their conference tourney with 20 wins and didn't go dancing.

Speaking of the conference tournament, that's another thing that could enhance NU's tourney chances. Right now it looks like the top five seeds in the tournament are secured (by Purdue, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Illinois, in some order). Those five teams get byes in the first round. Now, a bye is certainly nice in the game-every-day conference tourney layout. But for a team like NU that's simply trying to accumulate wins, that first round game will be a great chance to nab win No. 22. The Cats will play Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, Indiana or Penn State. (If they Tournament started today, NU would play Iowa.)

I don't want this to sound like overly optimistic drivel. Things are obviously stacked against the Cats, what with the back-to-back Big Ten road games to end the season and the absolute necessity that they win them. You never want to have must-wins on the road. But again, those must-wins are against teams having bad season – much worse seasons than NU. And despite the recent slide, the Cats could still sneak into the NCAA Tournament without having to do anything miraculous at the Big Ten Tournament.

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