Why You Should Root for Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament

The main question here isn’t why should you root for Northwestern, but why not? Chris Collins finally did it. Come Thursday March 16 the Wildcats will make their NCAA tournament debut against Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Northwestern

The Wildcats celebrate their first NCAA tournament bid (Photo/ USA Today)

Northwestern was the only team in a power five conference to never appear in the tournament before this past Sunday.

They had just seven winning seasons since the 2000-01 season. Their best finish in the Big Ten was tied for fifth in the 2003-2004 season. They also did not have a winning conference record since the 1967-68 season until this year.

The program is quickly turning around from the looks of things. The Wildcats finished 10-8 in Big Ten regular season play with a win over Michigan in the final seconds. They won two games in the Big Ten tournament against Rutgers and Maryland until they eventually fell to Wisconsin in semifinals.

Now Northwestern looks to make their mark on the NCAA tournament after drawing an eight seed.

Only three first-time tourney participants have made it to the sweet sixteen before being eliminated since 1985: Florida in 1987 (six seed), Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 (15 seed) and Cleveland State in 1986 (14 seed).

It’s been a while since a first-time tourney goer has been such a high seed. The last school to make the tournament for the first time and be better than a ten seed was UC Irvine in 1998 as a nine seed. The highest seed for a first timer since 1985 was the Florida team in 1987.

Northwestern is looking forward with a real chance to compete in the tournament despite being the last power five conference team to make the tournament.

The Wildcats face a ninth-seeded Vanderbilt team in the first round of the tournament. The Commodores snuck into the last-minute at-large bids with a win over Florida in the SEC conference tournament. Vanderbilt has 15 losses on the year, including their loss in the SEC tournament to Arkansas. Some may say the nine seed is generous.

Only 11 teams in the past 60 years with 14 losses have received an at large bid before this year. Vanderbilt tops that with its 15 losses.

The Wildcats not only have a real chance of beating Vanderbilt in the round of 64, but they also have a chance to win their second game in the round of 32 where they would most likely face Gonzaga. Many believe Gonzaga is the weakest of the four one seeds.

Northwestern

Northwestern students also celebrated Sunday with the Wildcats first bid to the NCAA tournament (Photo/Patrick Gorski- USA Today)

What is also interesting is that it would be hard to find a reason to root against them.

Most of the time when people root against a team, it might be for multiple reasons with the most popular probably being its a rival team. The team also may always be good, or maybe you just don’t like them. None of those apply to Northwestern.

You can’t say they have a true rival since they have never been good. There may be just a couple Big Ten teams. As stated before, they haven’t ever been good, so you can’t dislike them for that. The only other reason we can think of that a person may not like them is because they didn’t get accepted into the school. However, it is a pretty hard school to get into.

If you’re looking for a feel-good story, this would be the one. It is also a story that could very well last until the second weekend of the tournament. Perhaps you just want a random team to root for. Northwestern deserves your attention either way, because why not.

 

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

How SEC Basketball is on the Rise

SEC basketball is not held in high esteem, but it should be and will be soon. Right now when people hear the letters SEC they think two things: bone-crushing football and Kentucky basketball. There is not much thought given to the basketball league that has not finished higher than fifth in conference RPI since 2011-12.

However, conference RPI is not always the best indicator of league strength from top to bottom. The PAC-12 proved this in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The PAC-12 was second in conference RPI but went 2-5 in the round of 64. By percentage the AAC was the only conference worse in overall tournament record. This means that there is more to a conference’s power than the RPI. So even though the SEC is weak in that perspective, there are other things to rate them on.

The truth is that SEC basketball is subtly moving toward relevancy at more than a Big Blue Nation perspective. It will not happen overnight, but the tools are in place and all indications are that the SEC will have a heavy handed affect on March Madness for years to come.

Where it starts: Coaching

John Calipari is the best recruiter in the SEC and one of the best in the nation. (Photo courtesy of espn.com)

Coaches control everything. They are in charge of the program’s recruiting success or failure, in game management and tactics of their teams and the integrity of their programs. The SEC is exemplary in this category starting at the top. John Calipari is the best coach in the SEC, no argument there. While before it seemed he was the only one that mattered, he is no longer the only relevant coach in the conference. Other coaches with storied careers are beginning to make waves.

Ben Howland was the architect behind the three straight UCLA Final Four appearances. After a brief hiatus from basketball, he carries a 413-225 career record into his second season at Mississippi State. Bruce Pearl (257-139) finds himself in a similar situation. The difference is that his was more than just a brief hiatus, and he went from one SEC school to another. After three years off, the coach that formerly led the Tennessee Vols to the Elite Eight. Furthermore, there is Rick Barnes (619-333) who now coaches at Pearl’s former school. He once led Texas to 14 straight NCAA tournaments, including a Final Four, two Elite Eight appearances and two Sweet Sixteens.

There is more to add to the list including Frank Martin at South Carolina, Billy Kennedy at Texas A&M and Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss, among other notable names. In reality, had Billy Donovan not left for the Oklahoma City Thunder and the ACC not have four of the greatest coaches in the game (Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams and Rick Patino), the SEC would be have the best coaching arsenal in the NCAA. Regardless, there is an overabundance of elite coaches and that is where growth begins.

Where it leads: The Recruits

High profile coaches bring in high profile recruits. High profile recruits lead to better classes. Better classes lead to better teams. It is a very linear and logical progression. Year in and year out big programs replace their losses without skipping a beat. Thankfully the best example, Kentucky, is in the SEC. They are proof that this strategy can and does work. The SEC has not always been the most prolific in this category, but that is changing.

Obviously the main source of recruits is Kentucky and this year is no exception. They have been top two in recruiting every year since 2009. The program has been keeping the SEC afloat in the pool of relevancy for quite a while. However, there are indications that other schools will join the party.

Surely no one has already forgotten the mania that was Ben Simmons nine month vacation at LSU. Last year the Tigers also grabbed Antonio Blankley, another top 25 recruit. Malik Newman, even though he has now transferred to Kansas, was a great grab by Mississippi State as part of a stellar 2015 class.

The 2016 class was no exception for Kentucky, but there are other SEC schools rising. Mississippi State had a second straight top 25 class with Ben Howland at the helm. Also in the top 50 are Texas A&M, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee. Alabama even squeezed in aftergrabbing two 4-stars thanks to Avery Johnson.

In addition Bruce Pearl was able to elevate his 2016 class by getting to work as soon as his show-cause ban lifted. Auburn ranks 25th this year, but it is the 2017 class that should have everyone murmuring about SEC basketball. The Auburn Tigers currently hold the top spot. Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M made the top 25 while LSU is sitting pretty at 26.

The way the conference is headed right now, players will continue to flock to these schools.  The coaches that everyone want to play for are there.  They can help develop young men into NBA stars. The only thing that remains is seeing if success will be found. While not every coach in the SEC is grabbing top 100 prospects left and right, their resumes make it much easier to get any players that they may desire.

Where it ends: Results Tested and Made in March

NCAA Tournament success is the paramount of all measurements. Even just an appearance or several straight appearances can lead to a school being viewed in a more positive light. Now, the SEC has not had the most amazing tournament record over the past decade, but there are some positives to look at.

In 2015 there were five bids by SEC teams. That is a stark improvement from the three per year of the past several seasons. The horizon brings a few more bright hopes. Currently, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has four squads in the 2017 NCAA Tournament (Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida and Texas A&M). That is not very many, but he has Mississippi State in the first four out.

The Aggies may have found some stability for their program. (Photo courtesy of ncaa.com)

Texas A&M also looks to be on its way to being a tournament regular, and had they not met a talented Oklahoma team last year, they may have been the Final Four participant from the region. Additionally, there are some teams not there who could find a way to sneak in. LSU, Auburn and Arkansas all could find themselves with a bid.  If any of those teams, plus Mississippi State find their way in, then the SEC could put six schools in for the first time since 2008.

 

The most exciting thing about the SEC right now is the potential. There are potential tournament regulars outside of just Kentucky now. SEC basketball is no longer a joke.

SEC 2016-2017 Preview

After an entertaining SEC Media Week, I am doing a quick preview of one of the strongest conferences in the land.

Courtesy of Getty Images

Courtesy of Getty Images

SEC Player of the Year: LSU’s Running Back Leonard Fournette

For me it is a two horse race for the POTY for the SEC. It will be either be LSU’s running back Leonard Fournette or Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly. I think I am leaning closer to Fournette. He is just one of the unicorns of College Football. He is so powerful and so strong, and he can catch the ball out of the backfield. He does it all for the Tigers on the offensive side of the ball.

Last year, Fournette accounted for the 45% of the offensive touchdowns, which lead the nation. I think Fournette will comeback this season on mission to prove he should have been in New York last year. Fournette will easily have 2000+ yards on the ground and about 300+ yards receiving. With dual threat quarterback Brandon Harris improving from last year to spring ball and throughout the summer it will make the defense have to defend more than Fournette.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

SEC East Champion: Tennessee Volunteers

The SEC East is pretty much Tennessee’s to lose. The Vols are really only competing with Georgia and Florida for the crown in the East and that is not saying too much. This is because of all the turnover that UGA will have this year. And because Florida will have to play a new quarterback since former starting quarterback Will Grier is no longer there. Second year Coach McElwain has a great core of receivers for whoever the quarterback is but, I would not count on a new starter to take any team to Atlanta for a SEC Championship Game.

Tennessee is just the strongest team in one of the weakest divisions in College Football. South Carolina has a new coach, and possibly a new quarterback that has never played a down of college football.  Vanderbilt is still climbing out of the basement of the SEC, but they do return a good defense. I think this year will be the year we look at as Vandy’s take off year. They will probably still miss a bowl game but the nation will know that Vandy is finally playing football again.

Do you see where I am going with this? Tennessee is the only logical choice to win the division. They have one of the best backfields in the league with quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd. On the defensive side they return seven starters from their stalwart defense of a year ago. Tennessee should run away with the East crown, but it is the SEC East. Anything can and will happen.

Courtesy of AP

Courtesy of AP

SEC West Champion: LSU Tigers

On this side of the conference, we have one of the strongest division in College Football. My big favorites for the West are LSU, Bama and Ole Miss. All of those teams have great reasons why they can win the Division.

LSU with their tandem of Brandon Harris and one of the greatest running backs in school history, Leonard Fournette. Alabama still has Nick Saban, so it does not matter who their quarterback is because most of their quarterbacks are just game managers anyways. Ole Miss has the best quarterback in the conference with Chad Kelly. He is also the only quarterback in the conference with a win against the reigning National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide.

I think the division will be decided on Novemeber 5th when Alabama comes to LSU to play them under the lights of Death Valley. Whoever wins that game most likely wins the division. I think it will be LSU. We all should know that Saban has not found a way to stop a true dual threat quarterback. Until he shows that he can I will always pick the dual threat quarterback against Coach Saban. And LSU also plays Ole Miss at home this year but, they play Arkansas and Texas A&M on the road this year. Both teams look to be very dangerous this year and could spoil some teams National Championship aspirations.

SEC Champion: LSU Tigers

Les Miles has to do this year. After everything that has happened this summer in Baton Rouge, that area needs something to bring them together. Just like how Clemson did something wonderful for the state of South Carolina after the summer they had last year. Not only that, but, Les Miles need this to get the LSU fans off of his back. Last year they wanted him fired and a SEC Championship will be a great rebuttal to those fans. Miles has a great team coming into this season and he needs to strike now before they miss their opportunity with Brandon Harris and Leonard Fournette.

 

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