College Basketball: This Is the Year for Northwestern to Go Dancing
There have been 78 renditions of the NCAA Tournament.
Northwestern has participated in exactly zero of them -- unless you count hosting the first-ever big dance back in 1939 as participating. The Wildcats are the lone team in a power conference never to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Coach Chris Collins is working to change all that. In his fourth season at the helm, he has the Wildcats poised to make their first March Madness appearance. Per our models, Northwestern has a 73.72% chance of making the NCAA Tournament, and we currently have them listed as a 7 seed.
Statistically, this year's team is the best squad in school history. Not only are they on pace to shatter the previous school record for wins, the Wildcats' efficiency metrics check out, too. They have all the makings of a legitimate NCAA Tournament team.
After all, snapping streaks is all the rage in the Chicago area these days.
What makes this year's group so good, and how has Collins built Northwestern into one of the better teams in the Big Ten?
Laying the Foundation
As it is with any college sport, recruiting is imperative in college hoops. It's the lifeblood of the sport.
Collins, a former Duke assistant, has done work on the recruiting trail, and he laid the groundwork for the program's resurgence with a monster -- by Northwestern standards -- class in 2014. That coup was headlined by Vic Law, a four-star recruit from Chicago, but it also contained Scottie Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh and Gavin Skelly -- four players who, as we'll see, are at the forefront of Northwestern's emergence.
When you win on the recruiting trail, you usually start winning games, and that's exactly what's happened for Collins. After a 14-19 campaign in his debut season, the Wildcats have increased their win total each year, culminating with a 16-4 start to this season.
Amazingly, Northwestern has never won more than 20 games in a season, but they should -- barring disaster -- fly past that mark this year.
And nothing about their statistical NCAA Tournament resume screams fluke. They already have four road wins in the Big Ten, matching their total from last season, and three of their four defeats -- to Butler, Notre Dame and Minnesota -- have come by a combined 10 points. The Gophers, Bulldogs and Fighting Irish all rank in the top 33 of our rankings.
The Wildcats' other loss was an 11-point defeat at Michigan State. Losing in East Lansing is rarely a black eye on a tourney resume, even if this year's Spartans aren't as strong as a typical Tom Izzo team.
On the Attack
Collins' teams in Evanston have traditionally played solid defense. Even in a 14-win effort in 2013-14, the Wildcats ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency, per KenPom's metrics.
It's been the constant improvement of the offense that's kept Northwestern on the up and up. Again, using KenPom's metrics, the Wildcats' offense has rated better each season under Collins.
This year, the offense checks in at 34th in the nation, the program's second-best offense in KenPom's database, which dates back to 2002.
The Wildcats' two highest-scoring seasons in school history -- according to Sports-Reference, whose team stats go back to 1994-95 -- have been the last two years. They're pouring in 75.5 points per game this season after scoring 72 points per night in 2015-16.
Going back to 2014 recruiting class of Law, McIntosh, Lindsey and Skelly, the foursome has been vital to this year's squad.
Lindsey has been a force for the Wildcats. His 3.1 win shares rank fourth in the Big Ten, and he's leading the team in points (16.3), steals (1.3) and three-pointers (2.2) per game. Law, after missing last year due to injury, is averaging 14.1 points and a team-best 5.8 boards while sinking 43.7% of his 3-point tries. McIntosh is dishing out 5.4 assists per contest, and he's hitting 90.4% from the free throw line in addition to averaging 12.6 points. Skelly is putting up per-game averages of 7.7 points, 4.8 boards and 1.8 blocks.
It's not all offense, though. Northwestern is limiting opponents to a 47.6% true shooting percentage, which ties for 10th in the nation.
The Wildcats are a well-rounded squad and one our rankings see as the Big Ten's fourth-best team. Over the past six seasons, on average, the Big Ten has put 6.67 teams into the NCAA Tourney. Even in what's been a down year for the conference, if Northwestern can lock up a top-five finish in the league, they'll have a hard time not getting an at-large bid.
The lackluster Big Ten does limit the Wildcats' chances for marquee wins outside of games against Purdue and Wisconsin, the only Big Ten teams in the top 25 of our ratings, but it also means Northwestern should be able to win more games -- like beating Ohio State in Columbus for the first time since 1977, which they did last weekend.
The Wildcats' next five games will be a telling stretch. Among that run, they'll host Indiana before traveling to Purdue and Wisconsin -- with home games against Nebraska and Illinois mixed in. If the Wildcats emerge from this stretch still near the top of the Big Ten standings, it'll all but cement a spot in the big dance.