John Shurna’s shot rims out. Robbie Hummel sinks the floater. Jared Sullinger lays it in over Jershon Cobb.
If you’re a Northwestern fan, you remember all too well.
Here we are again, entering the season’s final stretch as the Wildcats sit in the middle of the Big Ten. And despite no Drew Crawford, no Cobb, and definitely no more Shurna, Northwestern surprisingly approaches do-or-die territory once more.
This time, all roads run through Iowa City.
Northwestern fell to Iowa in January at Welsh-Ryan Arena, an ugly 70-50 contest after which the Wildcats’ postseason hopes seemed all but buried. In one of the least inspired performances of Northwestern’s campaign, the team was overwhelmed in every aspect of the game.
Surely, Bill Carmody and his team would love to get even with a win. But when the Wildcats travel to face the Hawkeyes Saturday, they’ll be playing for much more than revenge.
Unexpected wins at Illinois and over Minnesota at home last month marked a turning point for Northwestern, along with a visible change in attitude. With resilience, smart decision-making and veterans leading the way, the Wildcats showed they could hang with more talented opponents and earned two wins over ranked teams.
Last week’s 75-60 win over Purdue has the Wildcats sitting at 4-6 in the Big Ten, with eight games remaining on the docket before the conference tournament. Believe it or not, Northwestern still has an opportunity, however slim, to fight back onto the tournament bubble.
Let’s do some math. At the moment, six Big Ten teams appear to have locked down tournament spots. Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin sit in the top half of the standings, and logically don’t have need to enhance their résumés much further.
With the conference generally recognized as the toughest in the country, it’s not far fetched to think one more Big Ten team could lock down a seventh bid for the league. Another month of basketball can change a lot of things, and clearly the quality of the opposition is high each game. At the moment, Iowa, Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern sit in the middle-of-the-pack, with a chance to make that final bid a reality.
Although the first loss to Iowa hurts, splitting the series would go a long way to help Northwestern negate that blemish. A win would at the very least let the Wildcats control their fate and vault ahead of the Hawkeyes in the pecking order. And that’s a very reasonable starting point.
Rematches with Illinois and Purdue remain on the schedule, great chances for the Wildcats to finish 2-0 against both, and present the best credentials of the four teams. Given the difficulty of Northwestern’s remaining schedule—two games with Ohio State, Wisconsin at home and Michigan State in East Lansing—opportunities for quality wins lie ahead.
Now, let’s not kid ourselves: the odds remain slim. There is a lot of heavy lifting to be done, and Northwestern must play their best basketball the rest of the way to survive. A second loss to the Hawkeyes would surely drive a nail into the purple-and-white coffin for good.
So don’t get me wrong, Northwestern certainly can’t afford to look past Saturday’s game. But odds are they won’t, not with Reggie Hearn and Jared Swopshire playing the best basketball of their college careers. Certainly, with Carmody continuing to coach his team up, they know what’s at stake.
With a win, the script for the season flips. Just don’t act like you haven’t seen this one before.
Follow on Twitter: @Jeremy_Woo