For the second time in two games, Northwestern faces a regular-season conference champion in the NIT. After disposing of MAC-champion Akron in the first round, the Wildcats are in Seattle to take on Washington, kings of the Pac-12 and the No. 1 seed in the region.
Northwestern is shooting for its third straight 20-win season and its second consecutive berth in the NIT quarterfinals. Last year, the Wildcats followed a similar path, beating top-seeded Boston College in the second round before losing to Washington State the last time they traveled to the Evergreen State.
The Huskies (22-10, 14-4 Pac-12) have had an up-and-down season under coach Lorenzo Romar. They were just 6-5 in non-conference play, but four of the five losses came to NCAA Tournament teams (Duke, Marquette, South Dakota State and Saint Louis). They won the Pac-12 title but then got bounced by ninth-seeded Oregon State in their first game of the conference tournament.
The Pac-12 had a notoriously down year as a whole and, as a result, the Huskies became the first "power conference" champion in history to be denied an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. The conference sent just two teams to the NCAA field of 68 -- tournament champion Cal and Colorado, both of whom have already been eliminated. It's also the first time that a Pac-12/Pac-10/Pacific Coast conference champ has been left out of the Big Dance since 1954.
Northwestern will be tested by an athletic and long Washington backcourt on Friday (9 p.m. CT, ESPNU). Point guard Abdul Gaddy (6.5 apg) is 6-foot-3 and freshman phenom Tony Wroten is a 6-foot-5 shooting guard who pulled the rare feat of being named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and a first-team all-conference selection. A dynamic slasher, Wroten led the Huskies in scoring (16.4 ppg) despite hitting just 17.6 percent of his three-pointers.
On the wings, Washington has Terrence Ross (15.5 ppg), a first-team all-conference selection, and C.J. Wilcox (14.0), an honorable mention pick. In the middle is 7-foot center Aziz N'Diaye (8.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg), who formed the Twin Towers at Lake Forest (Ill.) Academy with former NU center Kyle Rowley.
Northwestern is typically at a disadvantage in rebounding in just about every game it plays, but Washington may have a Grand Canyon-sized edge in this one. The Huskies average 39.9 rebounds per game -- 10 more than Northwestern -- and had the best rebounding margin (+4.9) in the Pac-12 this season.
The Huskies also have significantly more bite on their home floor at Alaska Airlines Arena. They are 16-2 there this season, with losses to only South Dakota State (don't laugh, the Jackrabbits gave Baylor a tough go in the first round of the NCAAs) and Cal.
The winner of Friday's contest will meet the winner of another Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup between Oregon and Iowa in the quarterfinals.