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Is Northwestern really an NCAA Tournament lock?

March 5, 2017 11:37 AM
Chris Collins is close to coaching Northwestern (21-9, 10-7 Big Ten) into the NCAA Tournament for the first time. @USA Today Sports Images

By Matt Youmans

VSiN senior editor

A perfect pass from Nathan Taphorn started it all.

Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers could not have thrown it any better. Of course, Taphorn is not an NFL quarterback. He’s a 6-foot-7 senior forward for Northwestern who averages 4.6 points and 0.7 assists. But this was one assist never to be forgotten.

With 1.7 seconds remaining, Taphorn threw a 90-foot bullet to Dererk Pardon, a 6-8 sophomore from Cleveland who made a LeBron James-like leaping catch. Pardon shook off a defender and beat the buzzer with a layup, lifting the Wildcats to a 67-65 victory over Michigan on Wednesday.

Pardon was mobbed in a wild on-court celebration. This was history. Northwestern was suddenly a lock to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance.

VSiN host Brent Musburger, who’s new to Twitter, got swept up in the excitement. “My Wildcats had it all the way,” he tweeted.

We all want to see the Wildcats in the tournament for the first time. Imagine the heat the selection committee would take next Sunday if that’s not the case and the CBS cameras show Chris Collins sitting in a room with his sad, stunned players.

Don’t sweat it. Northwestern is in the NCAA Tournament, win or lose today in its regular-season finale against Purdue at Welsh-Ryan Arena. By beating the 16th-ranked Boilermakers, the Wildcats could eliminate any shred of doubt.

Northwestern (21-9, 10-7 Big Ten) is 47th in the Ratings Percentage Index and 35th in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Its two nonconference losses were to NCAA Tournament teams — by two points at Butler and by four to Notre Dame on a neutral court. The Wildcats own quality victories over Wake Forest, Dayton, Wisconsin and, obviously, Michigan. The black eye on their resume is getting swept by Illinois, but most teams have a bad loss or two.

Collins, a former Duke player, has done an outstanding coaching job. Put him on the list of potential Mike Krzyzewski successors, whenever that time comes.

As for today’s game, it’s a riddle to handicap. Are the Wildcats due for a Senior Day letdown after celebrating the miracle against Michigan for the past three days?

Will the Boilermakers (24-6, 13-4) be flat after clinching the outright Big Ten championship? Purdue is the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament in Washington, D.C., and is only playing for a better NCAA seed at this point.

Sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan will be the league’s Player of the Year. The Boilermakers are 7-1 in their past eight games, including an 80-59 victory over Northwestern on Feb. 1.

The matchup definitely favors Purdue, which has more size, strength and perimeter shooters than Northwestern. Still, it’s a team playing on the road with little incentive to win.

I’ll go with the Wildcats as 4-point underdogs.

One more college basketball play today (home team in CAPS):

Minnesota (plus-7) over WISCONSIN: The Badgers have lost five of six, and Ethan Happ has been bricking free throws while mired in a mysterious slump. The Gophers are red hot on an eight-game win streak. Wisconsin will be focused to send four seniors — Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter — out with a win. Early sharp money showed on the favorite, but I’ll take the points with a ‘dog in much better current form.

Saturday: 2-1-2 against the spread

Season: 9-4-2

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