Must win, can't watch
NU's historic bid hinges on beating Michigan, but one alum is too nervous to tune in
It doesn't sound like the most promising information, to hear that king bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has your school as one of the last four in the tournament field, a 12th seed, facing another 12th-seeded team in a play-in game. But as a Northwestern alum, I'll presume to speak for everybody else in Wildcat nation and tell you we'll take it.
When there's a legitimate chance to participate in the NCAA men's basketball tournament for the very first time, you'll cling to whatever lifeline is thrown. To that end, Michigan's visit to Evanston on Tuesday amounts to a play-in game for the Wildcats, who with a couple of weeks left before the tournament are in must-win territory.
Look, for the purposes of this discussion I'm not first and foremost an ESPN.com columnist; I'm a Northwestern alum, a lunatic fan who flew to Chicago from Los Angeles in December thinking we had a chance to beat then-undefeated Baylor, only to watch us lose 69-41 (Hey, all true fans are delusional). I'd give a year off my life (hopefully No. 94, since I already offered up a year if it'll help the Cubs reach the World Series) to see our men's basketball team play in the NCAA tournament. For a change, it's not out of the question, though it rides largely on our ability to beat Michigan on Tuesday night.
Look, even without my bias I can build a damn good case for Northwestern earning an at-large bid. We're ranked ninth -- okay, in some surveys 10th -- nationally in strength of schedule. We're playing in unarguably the toughest conference in the country this year, the Big Ten. We will have played eight ranked teams by the time the season ends, and our RPI has been hanging around the low 40s ... 43 or 41 at this minute, depending on which ranking you consult. We've got some nice wins, at Georgia Tech, against Tulsa and LSU and, of course, Michigan State. So all this bodes well for beating a ranked Michigan team Tuesday night in Evanston.
Surely, somebody will call and tell me about it because I cannot watch. I'd like to simply click on the Big Ten Network, but I can't. It's too excruciating. I never understood people being fans of a team and being too scared to watch the games. But as it's turned out, half the Northwestern basketball games this year are like the 2003 Cubs postseason. I've had one heart attack; I don't need to wake up in a hospital asking the final score of the Northwestern-Michigan game.
Have you seen any of these things? Jan. 4, Northwestern is 12-3 with all three losses (Baylor, Creighton and Ohio State) coming against ranked opponents. ... We lose an eminently winnable game to Illinois, 57-56 in Evanston. One week later, the very next game, we drop one in OT at Michigan, 66-64. And so it has gone. Jan. 28 in Evanston, Robbie Hummel, who has been essentially a rumor the last two seasons, throws in a shot in the final seconds and we lose to Purdue, 58-56. And then at Indiana, against the 18th-ranked Hoosiers, we lost 71-66 in what essentially was a one-possession game.
If we simply go 2-2 in those games -- say, we beat Illinois and Purdue at home and still lose the ones at Ann Arbor and Bloomington -- we're 8-6 in the Big Ten right this second, and a win at home against Michigan would make it nine league wins and pretty much wrap up a spot with three more Big Ten games to play. It's agonizing. Literally, two well-timed foul shots and we wouldn't even be talking about being subjected to a play-in game. But hey, nobody said Dancing for the first time was going to be easy.
It's already been a historic month for Northwestern basketball, what with John Shurna breaking Bill McKinney's 35-year-old record for most career points. So maybe the history breaking is meant to continue. It can't just be Shurna, though; we've got one of our more talented rosters. Drew Crawford and freshman Dave Sobolewski and JerShon Cobb are going to have to play like they feel they belong in the tournament over these next four games. Beating Michigan at home Tuesday is a must. So, probably, is a road game at Penn State. Coach Bill Carmody has gone on record as saying that he thought his team had to win four of five beginning last Saturday against Minnesota.
Okay, Northwestern took care of the Gophers Saturday, which means we're still looking for three out of four. Yes, that's doable, beating Michigan at home, Penn State and Iowa on the road (while losing to Ohio State at home). But I think the Big Ten is so much better than the other conferences this season, even the Big East, that a conference record of 8-10 could still land Northwestern in the tournament for the first time.
Thing is, nothing's a given. A couple of years ago two wins over a completely awful Penn State team might have gotten us in the tournament, and we were swept by the Nittany Lions. There's no gimme in these final four games. While simply being in the conference helps this season, in areas like strength of schedule and strength of league, it works against now when desperate for a couple of Ws.
The magical thing about college basketball is that just about every single season some team, some player comes out of nowhere, if only for two or three weeks, to do something previously unimaginable. Nobody is more overdue than the men's basketball team from Northwestern.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.