Northwestern’s NCAA bubble pops … again

INDIANAPOLIS — Whether the first day at the Big Ten tournament truly went according to script depends on how you feel about the team that came here with the most to gain and lose this weekend, the perpetually just-falling-short Northwestern Wildcats.

Northwestern’s game Thursday night with Minnesota went to overtime. From there, it went like it always seems to for the Wildcats.

Minnesota pulled away and won 75-68. A bunch of near misses added up to a huge swing and miss for Northwestern, which now looks like it will remain the only Big Ten team never to reach the NCAA tournament. Instead of moving on to play Michigan on Friday night, the seventh-seeded Wildcats will go home at 18-13 and can expect to hear their name called Sunday night only when the NIT announces its participants.

Northwestern is still an NCAA bubble team, but it’s on the wrong side. Its 1-10 record vs. top-50 RPI teams is downright dreadful, and even with this year’s bubble perceived as soft and the computer rankings touting the Big Ten as the nation’s best conference, no team with an 8-10 conference record makes a favorable impression by losing before its conference tournament quarterfinals.

“It’s based on a body of work,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. “We’ll put our resume out there and see where it goes.”

The answer is, probably not far enough to push the Wildcats into the First Four — and the missed opportunities to either extend the lead or put this Big Ten first-round game away will continue to haunt Northwestern.  

Minnesota coach Tubby Smith went out of his way after the game to say Northwestern was deserving of a tournament berth, and Carmody said he’d stressed to his players this week that this wasn’t an elimination game. He’s right in the sense that Northwestern still probably would have needed to beat Michigan on Friday to feel any level of safe this weekend.

Instead, it will feel every level of sick over another must-have game getting away. Being able to say it lost five conference games by five points or less won’t help with the tournament committee. The Wildcats beat Michigan State in January but needed another signature win, and it just never came.

“From the start of February, the end of January, it’s been like that,” Northwestern senior and Big Ten leading scorer John Shurna said. “I don’t think we felt pressure. Minnesota played better tonight. You have to give them credit.”

Another chance is gone. Even dressing in all white, from head to toe, for Thursday’s game couldn’t keep Northwestern from again being a bridesmaid.

Minnesota isn’t an NCAA tournament team. Michigan is, and it’s one of three teams that shared the regular-season conference crown. Michigan and Northwestern played twice this season. Both went to overtime. Both were won by Michigan.

Overtime again was cruel to the Wildcats on Thursday, but it was their own doing. Shurna didn’t get a shot in the extra five minutes. In the final five minutes of regulation, Minnesota played from behind and struggled to get good looks at the basket but Northwestern couldn’t put it out of reach. Freshman point guard Dave Sobolewski missed a desperation runner at the regulation buzzer. The Wildcats missed one free throw in the first 40 minutes, and then missed three in overtime.

“This team is tough, we fight through adversity,” Northwestern sophomore JerShon Cobb said. “But sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way.”

The other three games on the first day of the Big Ten tournament at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse provided little in the way of surprise. Illinois came in needing a miracle to make the NCAA tournament — and a similar miracle to save Bruce Weber’s job — and blew a second-half lead in a 64-61 loss to Iowa. Indiana gradually pulled away from Penn State in the second game, and Purdue handled Nebraska in the nightcap.

That leaves Minnesota playing second-seeded Michigan as Friday’s lone outlier, the No. 10 seed grateful for one more chance. Indiana-Wisconsin is the biggest game of the day in terms of NCAA tournament implications, though Purdue could strengthen its seeding case by beating Ohio State. Northwestern will return to Evanston, Ill., and to a weekend of scoreboard watching, hoping like crazy that no off-the-radar teams steal bids by winning off-the-radar conferences and that other bubble teams go down, the sooner the better.

Carmody said he’d scheduled a practice for Sunday but didn’t know what he’d say to the team in the meantime. He’d been planning on sticking around Indianapolis for another night — or two, or three. Now, he has plenty of time to think about what Sunday will be like.

“I’ve got a long bus ride home to figure that out,” Carmody said.

Maybe the longest yet.