Northwestern is off to a promising start, sitting at 10-1, with its lone loss a reasonably competitive game against North Carolina on a neutral court. They finish out the non-conference season with home games against Sacred Heart and Loyola Maryland, so they have a good chance of heading into the Big Ten season at 12-1. They sit at 55th in the T-Rank, 51st in Kenpom, and have been climbing in both.
The bad news is that their schedule has been really weak. They have just one win against a T-Rank top-100 team, a road win over Virginia Tech in the B1G/ACC challenge. That's a decent win, but not one that is going to knock the committee's socks off. Virginia Tech will probably be battling to finish top 10 in the ACC and projects to finish 5-13.
They also won their other true road game, at DePaul (T-Rank #188) in overtime. That's not a good win by any means, but it's the kind of game that even good teams can lose. It was important for Northwestern to avoid that bad loss.
Their only other remotely respectable non-con wins were a home game against Columbia (T-Rank #128, which they also won in overtime, and a close neutral-court win over Missouri (T-Rank #172). Again, nothing to write home about.
Because of this weak schedule, Northwestern is only 74th in the RPI. Worse, RPIForecast.com projects them to finish the regular season at 81st, and that with a projected conference record of 10-8. Once again, the reason for this is that Northwestern is blessed/cursed with a soft Big Ten schedule -- based on T-Rank, only Michigan St. has an easier slate (and that's because the Spartans don't have to play themselves).
The non-conference part of the schedule is by design: Chris Collins purposely set up the schedule so Northwestern could bank enough non-conference wins to give themselves a good chance of getting into the post-season. He's basically admitted as much:
"To me," coach Chris Collins told the Tribune, "this was the best (scheduling) philosophy for this team."
Some background: Collins' first team in 2013-14 doomed itself with a nonconference slate featuring Stanford, Illinois State, Missouri, UCLA, N.C. State and DePaul. Even after pulling off road victories against Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Wildcats finished 14-19. No postseason.
They went 9-4 last season in nonconference play and finished 15-17 — about three victories short of an NIT berth.
The NIT is not the goal, of course, but it would be a step forward. And Collins wants his players to have a winning season, at minimum.
"We're still a young program, in Year 3," he said. "We're in a great place with all the stuff behind the scenes: culture, attitude, practice habits, strength and conditioning. The next step is you learn how to win. A place like here is not a quick fix. It's development."So this year was essentially "NIT or bust" for the Wildcats. That's a perfectly rational and defensible strategy for this program.
What Collins likely did not anticipate, however, was that the Big Ten schedule would have so many wins there for the taking. At least two perennial powers (Wisconsin and Ohio State) look very beatable this year, and several other middling teams (Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska) look downright bad. That's why the computers (T-Rank, Sagarin, Kenpom) think Northwestern will probably win 9 or 10 B1G games, even though they're ranked around 50th in all of them.
This is not last year's Penn State, which lucked its way to a 12-1 record facing a slew of terrible teams. So despite the gaudy record, Penn State was 100th in the T-Rank and projected to win just six Big Ten games.
For the most part, Northwestern has looked like a solid high-major in its games against bad teams -- blowing out its sub-200 competition. (A seven-point win over Fairfield is the exception there.) And it has no bad losses. Thus, the respectable T-Rank / Kenpom / Sagarin ratings.
So, does Northwestern have a chance to make its first NCAA tournament? Yes. Like the Badgers, they'll have a good chance if they get at least 11 Big Ten wins. T-Rank gives them about a 16% chance of going 11-7 (or better) in the regular season, and a 17% of going 10-8. If they go 10-8, they'll certainly have to avoid a bad loss in the B1G tourney's first round. Let's say they've got only a ~50% chance of winning that game, leaving about 9% chance to get to 11 total B1G wins in that scenario.
Add it up, and it's about a 25% chance of getting to 11 wins. That seems about right. It's too bad, because with a decent non-conference schedule they would probably be a lock with 10 wins, which would get them close to 50/50.
It will make for an intriguing season for Northwestern fans, though. They're in it -- they just need a little bit of luck. Their first six B1G game include winnable road games at Nebraska and Minnesota, winnable home games against Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn St., and a big win opportunity at home versus Maryland. Probably need four wins to stay viable. Stay tuned!