Big Ten

With NCAA tournament on the horizon, Northwestern confident — even in loss — as postseason arrives

With NCAA tournament on the horizon, Northwestern confident — even in loss — as postseason arrives

EVANSTON — Northwestern will be in the field of 68 when the NCAA tournament bracket is announced on Selection Sunday.

That drama was put to an end in the most dramatic way possible in Wednesday night's win over Michigan, the Wildcats punching their NCAA tournament ticket with a last-second play for the ages, one the team edited into the top spot in its season-long countdown of the best moments in Welsh-Ryan Arena history on Sunday afternoon.

So no matter what happens in the Big Ten Tournament in Washington — where the Cats are the No. 6 seed — Chris Collins will be the first coach ever to take Northwestern to the Big Dance.

But there is that conference tournament to be played before the dancing shoes get all shined up for the Madness of March. And while there might not be anything for the Cats to lose in the nation's capital, there are things to be gained, chief among them a Big Ten championship.

It might have seemed unrealistic to think Northwestern could make a run at a conference-tournament title during a losing stretch that saw five defeats in seven games. But Sunday night at a rocking Welsh-Ryan, the Cats hung right with and were just barely edged by the Purdue Boilermakers, a team that heads to Washington as the favorite to win the championship, a trophy they can pair with their regular-season championship.

The Cats are just a week removed from a trip to Bloomington where they were beaten by a point in a heartbreaker against Indiana. Then came the epic win over Michigan and Sunday's strong effort against Purdue.

Though it hasn't been long, this Northwestern team is much different than it was just a week and a half ago, playing far better than it did in losses like the one at Illinois, where the Cats only mustered a season-low 50 points. Playing better and with a first-round bye to a late-Thursday game against the winner of the Wednesday-night bout between the Nos. 11 and 14 teams, there's reason to be optimistic and bullish on Northwestern's chances in D.C.

"I think we're confident," Collins said after Sunday's loss. "We're disappointed. We came here to win, not just to play close. Our guys believed we could win the game, and they showed it in their play. ... But I do think we're confident.

"I think we all feel like we're playing well again. We had a couple-week stretch where we weren't playing very well. We found a way to get a couple games during that stretch, but I didn't think we were playing very good basketball. I do think our level of play right now is in a good spot or else we wouldn't have played like that today and we wouldn't have beaten Michigan the other night and we wouldn't have had the lead at Indiana on the road.

"I like where we're at, I'm excited about where we're at. I feel like we're in a good place going into postseason, which is a good feeling as a coach."

Sunday was a far cry from perfect, of course, and the Cats are still trying to fully return Scottie Lindsey, whose illness-induced four-game absence threw a dream season into a couple weeks of disarray. Northwestern didn't shoot the ball very well against Purdue, just 37.9 percent from the field in the second half.

Bryant McIntosh was forced to do most of the heavy lifting with 25 points, while Lindsey and Vic Law scored a combined 12 points on 5-for-24 shooting. Lindsey is still working his way back from those three weeks without exercise, while Law has been extremely inconsistent: He scored a combined seven points in losses to Illinois and Indiana, then had 18 in the win over Michigan before his 2-for-13 shooting performance Sunday.

But Northwestern is at its best when its defense is playing well, and the Cats held the Boilers to just 42.3-percent shooting in the second half of Sunday's game. If not for the efforts of no-doubt Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan — he had 20 points and 14 rebounds, 11 and six of those in the second half — it could've been a much different result.

Remember, though, that Purdue is the league's top team, and Northwestern's losing to them by a mere four points in a nationally televised game with a raucous atmosphere is nothing to get overly upset about. The Cats were understandably disappointed, but they counted Sunday's game as a well-played one, giving them confidence heading toward the Big Ten Tournament.

"We viewed today as an amazing opportunity against a championship-level team," Collins said. "They're the champions of the conference for a reason: incredibly well coached, tough, the best player in the league. And for us to compete against them the way we did, to withstand their runs. We got down 59-50, we fought back. I was really proud of that."

So while all the attention will be paid to Northwestern for its first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, don't discount the tournament that comes before it. In addition to continuing their late-season momentum toward the Big Dance, a few wins in Washington could dramatically change the Cats' seed, meaning a more favorable opponent, perhaps, in the first or second round.

A team that's done no looking ahead all season long likely won't be thinking about that when it hits the floor late Thursday night — it's a 9 p.m. start locally — but these games are important if for nothing more than the Cats wanting to head into the NCAA tournament a week from now playing as well as they are heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

"We don't tak anything for granted. We don't look at it like our ticket's punched until we see it on Sunday," McIntosh said. "Right now we just have to focus and go try to win a Big Ten championship. We get another crack at it, and this time it will be decided in a week rather than multiple months (in the regular season). It'll be a tremendous opportunity for us, and that's what our focus is right now.

"It's going to be a fun stretch coming up. It's almost a new season. You start 0-0."

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?