With 14 of Northwestern’s 30 regular season games completed, the goal of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament is still looming over the team's head. The Wildcats are 11-3 thus far, having won each of their games against unranked opponents. All three losses came against ranked opponents, two of which were top 10 teams. Playing in the Big Ten, arguably the best basketball conference in the country, the Wildcats have a tough road ahead, with six of their last 16 games coming against ranked opponents. The ‘Cats will need to finish 9-7 over that stretch to have a serious shot at their first NCAA tournament berth. With senior forward John Shurna and junior guard Drew Crawford leading the way, the ‘Cats have a legitimate chance–if they can pull out close victories in the physical and frenetic Big Ten. A look back at the season so far:
After an easy season-opening victory over lowly University of Texas-Pan American, the ‘Cats traveled to South Carolina to play in the Charleston Classic tournament. Shurna played perhaps the best game of his career in the opener against LSU, scoring 37 points and tallying seven rebounds and four assists in leading the ‘Cats to an 88-82 victory over the Tigers.
The next day, Northwestern took on a gritty Tulsa team that kept the game close throughout. Led by Crawford’s 28 points, including five three-pointers, the ‘Cats pulled out a 69-65 win that sent them into the tournament final against Seton Hall of the Big East. In that match-up, the combination of Crawford (27 points, six rebounds) and Shurna (19 points, seven rebounds, four blocks) proved too much for the Pirates as both played all 40 minutes and propelled the ‘Cats to the tournament title. Crawford’s huge scoring numbers earned him the tournament’s MVP award.
The ‘Cats finished the month of November unscathed with a shaky 63-58 victory at home over Stony Brook and a 16-point win over ACC opponent Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
December brought the first true tests of the year for Northwestern as they played their toughest non-conference games of the season against No. 8 Baylor and No. 21 Creighton. Two days after an easy win over Mississippi Valley State, the ‘Cats played host to undefeated Baylor at an electric Welsh-Ryan Arena. That initial excitement quickly waned, however, as the deep Bears team held the ‘Cats to just 21 first-half points. It was more of the same in the second half as the Bears held the ‘Cats to a horrific 24 percent shooting from the field and 15 percent from three-point territory (4-26) en route to a 69-41 victory. Shurna struggled all game long, only managing three rebounds while shooting 4-19 from the field and missing all seven of his three-point attempts.
The ‘Cats had an 11-day break to recover from the Baylor blowout before winning three games in four days against weak opponents: Texas Southern, Central Connecticut State and Eastern Illinois.
Next up for Northwestern was No. 21 Creighton, perhaps the top mid-major team in the nation. Led by Division I’s second-leading scorer, sophomore forward Doug McDermott, Creighton pulled out a close victory over the ‘Cats in Omaha, 87-79. McDermott, son of Creighton head coach Greg McDermott, had 27 points, while Crawford had an outstanding game for the ‘Cats, scoring 34 points while missing just four shots.
After the tough loss, the ‘Cats headed to Columbus to take on No. 2 Ohio State. In the first conference match-up for both teams, the Buckeyes dominated for most of the game and won 87-54. OSU senior guard William Buford had 28 points and nine rebounds, while star sophomore forward Jared Sullinger put up 17 points and pulled down 14 rebounds.
Following the blowout against Ohio State, Northwestern returned home for a New Year’s Day game against Penn State–a game the 'Cats had to win to keep their Big Dance dreams alive. Though Penn State led by three points at halftime, Crawford and freshman point guard Dave Sobolewski led Northwestern in a strong second half as the ‘Cats closed out the Nittany Lions in a decisive 68-56 victory. Crawford surpassed 1,000 career points in the game, finishing with 21 while Sobolewski netted a career-high 20 points.
The win against Penn State gave the ‘Cats their first conference victory and pushed their record to 11-3. Now, the ‘Cats have to prepare for three straight games next week, all against ranked teams: No. 13 Michigan, No. 11 Michigan State and No. 19 Wisconsin. If they can pull off an upset in one of those games, the Wildcats will be in a great position as the season winds down and maybe, just maybe, the 'Cats will find themselves dancing in March.