Northwestern, a team historically worth little more than a chalk-up victory for Big Ten heavyweights, has proven itself to be worthy of the program’s first NCAA tournament berth, as the Wildcats start the back half of Big Ten play 7-2 against conference opponents, 18-4 overall, and ranked No. 25 in the nation.
The next four games will be an indicator of how much noise the Wildcats and their stingy defense can make once they’re there.
When Northwestern edged out Ohio State 74-72 in Columbus a week ago, it marked the the first time the Wildcats have downed the Buckeyes on the road since 1977. While the victory highlighted an impressive feat (Northwestern’s consistent sucking, not the victory—the Buckeyes are at the bottom of the trash heap this year), it still fell in line with the other five contests that make up the Wildcats’ current six-game winning streak, the program’s longest in conference play since 1933.
The remaining opposition during this streak consisted of the Buckeyes, Rutgers, Nebraska, and Iowa, all teams a March Madness squad should dismantle easily, which Northwestern did. Even Sunday night’s victory against Indiana—a middling 14-8 team that’s fallen far short of its top-15 preseason ranking—doesn’t carry the weight it would have in December.
This isn’t to delegitimize what the Wildcats have accomplished to this point: The consistent winning was enough to earn head coach Chris Collins and his program their first appearance in the top 25 since 2009. But the real litmus test is still ahead.
Now, the Wildcats will strap in and face the Big Ten’s trio of ranked teams over its next four games. The run starts with a road game against No. 23 Purdue on Wednesday; it continues with contests against unranked Illinois, No. 10 Wisconsin, and No. 17 Maryland. Fighting Illini aside, how Northwestern fairs over the next two weeks will serve as a fair barometer by which to measure the Wildcats’ bracket-busting abilities, as the three teams offer unique matchup looks for the team out of Evanston.
The Boilermakers, with hulking big men Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas, will test the one-on-one defensive abilities of Northwestern star forward Vic Law and center Dererk Pardon; the Badgers will force the backcourt to find an answer for guard Bronson Koenig without stretching its man defense and opening the door for Ethan Happ to work his game down low; and the Terrapins have junior Melo Trimble, who can be a bit of a handful for opposing guards.
Collins and his Wildcats are obviously not expected to come away 4-0, but they do possess the defensive tools to down all four teams. The question facing them now will likely be the same one facing them in a month and a half on Selection Sunday: Does Northwestern boast enough firepower on offense to hang with a true offensive giant?
For those unfamiliar with the Wildcats, Law, with his bunnies and knack for nabbing offensive boards, pairs with guard Scottie Lindsey to lead the way for Northwestern on offense. The duo combines for an average 29.9 points per game on 44.1 percent shooting, though Law is the clear No. 1 option out of sets.
The team doesn’t stretch the floor much in terms of shooters—Law plays well outside and shoots 43.2 percent from long range, but that’s best among starters. With nobody other than Lindsey and Law consistently capable of creating their own efficient shots, it comes as no surprise the Wildcats have topped 75 points just twice in conference play, once against Penn State and again versus Iowa. (Neither team ranks among the top 125 scoring defenses.) The Northwestern offense as a whole is capable, it just isn’t all that impressive outside of its versatile sophomore forward.
The part of the team that makes it look like a capable tournament squad, though, is its defense. The Wildcats play an aggressive man defense, constantly jumping help-side passing lanes for turnovers and the occasional transition buckets.
Lindsey, junior guard Bryant McIntosh, and stat-stuffing forward Sanjay Lumpkin are capable of defending a variety of backcourt types, making switches on off-ball screens a viable option for disrupting an opposing team’s set.
Even when it spreads itself thin for a corner shooter and challenges opposing players off the dribble or on the block, Northwestern’s lineup can hold its own. Law and Lindsey put this on display during a first-half series against Ohio State, as Law holds his own against shooting guard Kam Williams after his man sets an off-ball elbow screen and Lindsey turns the missed shot into a quick layup on the other end.
Behind some improved play from Lindsey and McIntosh and their standout defense, the Wildcats head into the roughest stretch of the season with a historic record, winning streak, and ranking. The hype has been justified through 22 games. Let’s see how the next four go.