EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern senior Michael Thompson was smiling when he was greeted by an old friend at Loyola Park on a recent evening.
"It looks like the NIT, huh?" the friend said.
Thompson's smile disappeared. He was noticeably agitated.
"No, we're going to the NCAA tournament," Thompson stated.
The NCAA tournament has been a goal for Thompson since first putting on a Northwestern uniform, and he isn't letting go of it until it's officially impossible. While time is running out and Northwestern is a long shot to win the Big Ten tournament, Thompson believes the Wildcats are capable of the improbable this week in Indianapolis.
"The thought of not making the NCAA tournament hasn't crossed my mind," Thompson said. "We still believe and still feel as if we have a chance. That's what this weekend is for, and we're excited about it.
"I'm excited for the opportunity. I know this is my last time going down to Conseco Fieldhouse for the Big Ten tournament. I just want to go out, try to win it all, give it my all and at same time lead my team and do the same things I've been doing the whole season."
Northwestern will need to do something it hasn't accomplished in years to win the conference's automatic bid. The Wildcats haven't won four Big Ten games in a row in Thompson's four seasons, and that's what is required to win it all.
Northwestern's longest conference winning streak this season was two games, which it accomplished twice. When Thompson was a sophomore, Northwestern won three consecutive Big Ten games.
The Wildcats have shown they can compete with the conference's best. They defeated Illinois and Michigan, fought on the road with Michigan State and Purdue and lost by one point to top-ranked Ohio State.
But what they've struggled to do is compete with those teams on a consistent basis. Despite winning seven conference games and being in some others, seven of their 11 conference losses were by double digits.
It's only fair to point out Northwestern's conference season was affected by injuries to their leading scorer John Shurna. He suffered a severe ankle sprain before the Big Ten schedule began, aggravated that ankle last month and also had a concussion.
Shurna was among the country's top scorers, averaging 24.4 points, before his initial ankle injury. Since then, he's had two games of more than 20 points and his average has dropped to 16.8 points.
"He had like the best start I've ever seen in a kid, and I've been coaching college for 30 years or something," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "He's still playing pretty well, but not at the same level. It'll take a long time for that [ankle] just to feel right."
Shurna has shown progress in the last few weeks. He's scored in double digits in his last five games and has connected on 15 3-pointers during that time.
Northwestern opens the Big Ten tournament with Minnesota on Thursday, and the winner will play Ohio State. The Wildcats and Minnesota met in the final game of the regular season, and Northwestern won 68-57 in Evanston. The Golden Gophers took the matchup in Minnesota in January.
Wildcats sophomore guard Alex Marcotullio had the best game of his career in the recent win over Minnesota. He scored 18 points, grabbed three rebounds, dished out two assists, had two steals and blocked on shot.
Marcotullio hopes to repeat the performance on Thursday. His numbers have been inconsistent this season, but he knows what he needs to do to play better.
"I think my defense is usually a thing that gets me going," Marcotullio said. "If I can make a few good defensive plays, my energy level picks up a little bit. I think getting going early is also effective if I hit a shot early or get a quick steal.
"I think there's both advantages and disadvantages to playing the same team and a team three times. You each know what each other is going to do. Your scouts get a little more in-depth with more games played. Both teams could come out with different things. You never know. That's the beauty of March."