On the first day of March, it seems fitting to look into our crystal ball and see where local teams will end up come March Madness time. For the first time in years, the state 0f Illinois has two teams with solid chances to go dancing, in Northwestern and Illinois State. Not to mention our neighbors in Indiana, Notre Dame, who continue to succeed near the top of the AP rankings. Still, there’s a lot of basketball left to be played, so let’s try and forecast the exciting weeks ahead.
Having never made it to the tournament before, the urgency for the Wildcats to capitalize on their position this year is incredibly high. Ranked a few weeks ago, stumbles to Illinois and Indiana have pushed the Cats towards the bubble. Standing at 20-9 in a major conference is pretty encouraging, but recent struggles for them may convince voters to reject the Cats if they do not right the ship. Joe Lunardi of ESPN has Northwestern as a 10 seed, while CBS has them as an 8 seed.
What do they need to do?
1. The first order of business is to defeat Michigan tonight on their home floor. Northwestern needs to prove that they can defeat teams who are close to or behind them in the standings. They haven’t done that of late against Illinois and Indiana. Bringing down the Wolverines should restore confidence in the Cats, to the team and to the voters.
If they don’t win: To feel fairly safe come Selection Sunday, Northwestern would have to win two out of their next three games, against Purdue, and then in the tournament: a lower team, and then a team just above them.
2. Next, they need to put up a fight against Purdue. Purdue represents the group of major-conference teams that our slotted to be around a five seed. That’s awfully close to the six through eight seeds, which will probably house the opponent of the Cats in the first round. So, having a close game against the Boilermakers will show that Northwestern is worthy of playing in those close games.
If they don’t make it a close game: See number three.
3. Finally, they need to win, and then contend in the Big Ten Tournament. Their first game will almost surely be against a 10/11/14 seed. Similarly to the Michigan contest, a win would be sorely needed to affirm their superiority to close schools. Next, they’ll have to make their second match a close one, just like Purdue. Keep proving that you can contend with teams better than you, and voters will know you belong in the dance.
If they don’t do any of the above: It’s time to panic in Evanston. As shown in the past, recent performance does play a role in the decisions, so Northwestern may not break the long drought this season.
Illinois State Red Birds
Aside from an absolute drubbing at the hands of Wichita State last month, Illinois State has tore through the Missouri Valley Conference. Against conference opponents, they have posted a 17-1 record. Joe Lunardi is giving them the nod, as they barely make it in as an 11 seed, while Wichita State is an 8 seed, so Lunardi is essentially saying that even with a loss to the Shockers in the MVC tournament, the Redbirds are still a tournament team. However, it’s probably a bit more complicated, when also considering they make CBS’s bracket as a 12 seed, so they are really close to being left out.
What they need to do:
1. As a mid-major team, Illinois State will need to keep its pristine record against lower schools intact heading into Selection Sunday. A loss to any team that isn’t Wichita State will probably knock the Redbirds off the bracket. So, they’ll first need to win out until the conference finals that will presumably have them facing the Shockers.
2. Don’t get destroyed by Wichita State again. They lost by 41 points in their last match, and any output that even nears that will convince many voters that they don’t have what it takes to put up decent games in the tournament. A single-digit deficit would do the trick, and a loss by ten to twenty points may also be enough, considering the Shockers are a very good team. They’ve beaten them before, so this really shouldn’t be too tall a task for the Redbirds.
If they get crushed by Wichita State: It will be really, really close. I can’t even make a prediction in this circumstance, it’s totally dependent on other teams and voters.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Currently ranked, Notre Dame is looking at a four, five or six seed. They have an impressive 11-5 record in the tough ACC, and of their seven losses, only two of them have been by a deficit greater than seven. The important thing for them is to win at least two games in the ACC Tournament. This should ensure them a six seed or better, and probably a five.
Mike Brey has had great success in the past two tournaments, so there’s no telling how high Notre Dame can fly. The Irish certainly have the potential, as they’ve shown with wins over #8 Louisville and #15 Florida State.