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The NCAA Tournament’s Worst Losses: No. 8 Northwestern

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Illinois showed the world how to make the Wildcats’ first Big Dance a brief one.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Northwestern vs Wisconsin Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern basketball has a lot of things going for it. A solid track record that features wins over six other NCAA Tournament teams. A strong inside-out game anchored by guards Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey. An academic track record that certainly won’t be mentioned ad infinitum on Thursday’s TBS broadcast.

Also, as a team making its first tournament appearance in program history, the Wildcats already feel like they’ve locked in Cinderella status. Northwestern will have the weird, un-quantifiable asset of March mojo on its side when it faces a streaking Vanderbilt team in the first round of the Big Dance. No scouting report can accurately account for what that will do to a team.

But hell, let’s try anyway.

The Wildcats had played their way to the brink of the bubble in the past, but prior pushes proved pathetic in the face of Big Ten swoons. It looked like 2017 would bring more of the same after the team’s six game winning streak in January dissolved into a 2-5 February record. NU got back on track with an energizing buzzer-beating win over eventual conference tournament champion Michigan, but is also just 5-7 in its last dozen games.

Vanderbilt is moving in an opposite direction. The Commodores were 12-13 on Valentine’s Day after a 20-point depantsing at the hands of an eight-win Missouri team. Five quality wins later, they’re a nine-seed in the NCAA Tournament and playing with as much confidence as anyone in the country.

Vandy will try to push that momentum through whatever intangible Northwestern will use to power a talented and balanced ballclub. What’s Bryce Drew’s path to victory look like? It turns out he could learn a thing or two from Illinois.

Northwestern (23-11, 10-8 Big Ten, ranked No. 38 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings)

Worst Loss: A 66-50 road loss to Illinois (No. 64 RPI, No. 65 KenPom)
Other Losses: at Butler, vs. Purdue, at Purdue, vs. Minnesota, vs. Notre Dame, vs. Maryland, vs. Wisconsin, vs. Illinois, at Indiana

The Wildcats’ road to their first-ever NCAAT was paved in part by the team’s ability to avoid bad losses. Northwestern lost 11 games this winter, but none came against any teams outside the RPI’s top 80. None were more embarrassing than a season sweep at the hands of an Illini team that couldn’t figure out either Rutgers or Penn State in 2016-17.

Northwestern lost both ends of their home-and-home against Illinois, but a 16-point beating back on February 21st stands out as the program’s worst loss in an otherwise impressive season.

Point of Emphasis: No one gets off the hook. Illinois badgered guards McIntosh and Lindsey all evening, forcing the team’s most effective scorers into a 7-28 shooting funk. Physical backcourt defense got the Illini in a measure of foul trouble, but paid off as NU’s drained guards made just one of their 13 field goal attempts in the final 20 minutes.

Vanderbilt’s backcourt defense has improved steadily throughout the season, but a lack of depth could prevent the team from following Illinois’ lead. There are only seven players in Bryce Drew’s circle of trust, and the foul risk that comes with playing physical defense — especially with a guard lineup with average athleticism — could be too big a gamble for the ‘Dores.

Keys to the Game:

  • Force mistakes. Northwestern’s shot selection took a turn for the worse as frustrations — and Illinois’ lead -- mounted. The Wildcats have upperclassmen in some key positions, but also rely on young players like Vic Law, Dererk Pardon, and Isiah Brown in a big way. Combine that with postseason jitters -- perhaps the one that turned a rematch against a Wisconsin team they’d beaten in Madison into a slaughter in the Big Ten Tournament — and you’ve got reason to believe some mistakes are bound to happen. An opportunistic Vandy defense could be the beneficiary of those lapses.
  • Protect the ball. Illinois committed only eight turnovers in its blowout win, a number that belies Northwestern’s typical inability to create mistakes. The Wildcats forced only 11.9 turnovers per game this winter, a number that ranked 272nd nationally. However, any game tape coach Chris Collins digs up is going to showcase Vandy’s struggles against the full-court press. NU won’t be able to harass the ‘Dores like South Carolina or Florida have, but they can still be dangerous.
  • Take advantage of your advantage in the paint. Illinois dared Northwestern to win with its backcourt, leaving only nine of its 56 shots for players 6’7 or taller. That trend suggests Vandy can leave 7’1 Luke Kornet on an island in the paint while working aggressively to stop the ball on the wings. Pardon is an efficient big man, but he’s the team’s fourth option. Asking him to go one-on-one against a veteran shot blocker like Kornet for an extended period is unlikely to pay dividends for the ‘Cats.