The Northwestern Wildcats basketball program has existed since 1901. In 1931 and 1939, they were the regular conference champions. According to the Helms Foundation (which, starting in 1939, was a panel of voters who declared one team a national champion each year based on their record as far back as 1901), they were they were the National Champions in 1931. The NCAA Tournament began in 1939. Since its existence, the Wildcats are the only major conference team to have never appeared in a single tournament game. The Northwestern Wildcats consistently rank among the bottom half of the Big Ten. They've had a total of two finishes above fourth place since World War II and none since 1968. They've played in the NIT six times, including 2009-2011. Last January, Drew Crawford stated that a fan came up to him and said, "You've gotta make the tournament this year." Crawford's response: "Yeah, haven't heard that before."
The strangest thing about Northwestern is that I can never remember them having a really bad team. Let's take a look at their last three seasons, the seasons when they went to the NIT. They've ended each season with winning records and yet still placed 9th, 7th, or 8th, respectively, in the Big Ten. All three years they unexpectedly knocked off at least one top team in the Big Ten (#7 Michigan State, #6 Purdue, and unranked-but-tournament-bound Michigan and Illinois). They have good players: seven players on their current roster are shooting higher than 40%, senior John Shurna, averaging 19.4 ppg and 6.0 rpg, is one of 50 seniors selected John R. Wooden Award and is currently a possibility for the Naismith College Player of the Year Award. The Big Ten has named him one of the top 10 players on the conference. Fellow senior Luka Mirkovic is a 6'11'' center averaging 8.3 ppg and junior Drew Crawford, the team's second highest scorer with 18.1 ppg and 5.0 rpg, scored 34 points in Northwestern's loss to Creighton earlier this week. If star forward Kevin Coble had remained on the team for his senior season last year, Northwestern more-than-likely would have made the NCAA Tournament last year. But, as has often been the case for the Wildcats, fate intervened and it was simply not meant to be. Their non-conference schedule is always challenging and they perform well enough to leave the season with a winning record overall. So far this season, they're ranked 8th in apg, 89th in ppg, and 93rd field goal percentage. So why doesn't Northwestern make the tournament? Because they're a member of the Big Ten Conference.
The truth of the matter is, if Northwestern played in a different conference, they would have a much greater possibility of making the tournament. The Big Ten is consistently good, sending at least four teams to the tournament a year. Last year, six of the eleven schools (55%) made it. Take a look at the Tennessee Volunteers of the 2010-2011 season. They're members of the SEC, which sent five of their twelve teams (41%) to the tournament last season, and finished conference play 8-8, 19-14 before the tournament started, a .58 winning percentage and in 7th place. They entered the tournament as a #9 seed and lost to Michigan, who Northwestern beat earlier that year. Northwestern, on the other hand, finished conference play 7-11, 18-13 overall before entering the NIT, with a total winning percentage of .58. They placed 8th out of 12. The real difference between the two teams is conference play and it wasn't even that much of a difference. Because of the way the SEC is set up, Northwestern plays more games and therefore has more opportunities to lose and they're playing more teams that will eventually go to the NCAA Tournament themselves. In another conference, a team with Northwestern's record can and does go on to play in March. In the Big Ten, that's harder to do. Northwestern isn't a bad team; they're just always in a bad situation.
If Northwestern wants to make the tournament this year, they can't play average; their 'average' is what it would take for many teams to make the tournament, but not the Wildcats. They're playing in a league that currently has five ranked teams. If they want to make the tournament, the Wildcats can't just pull of one upset this season; they need to finish with a .500 or above record in the conference (to go along with their 10-2 non-conference record) and they need some wins over some ranked teams. The way for them to accomplish that is to finish games; Northwestern has always been an entertaining team to watch because, during the first half of every game they play against a ranked opponent, they stay close and make you think they can win. Then, in the second half, they either fail to make the appropriate adjustments or they run out of energy (or both) and lose. If they can play the second half like they play the first half, they can win. They can start that tonight by pulling an upset at #2 Ohio State.
Earlier this week, the selections for the Pro Bowl were announcers. The Pro Bowl is the all-star game of the NFL, pitting the best of the NFC against the best of the AFC. #24 Darrelle Revis was one of those selected for the AFC defensive team. He plays cornerback for the New York Jets and has made 51 tackles and 4 interceptions this season.
The Sports Nerd