Playing for their lives

Just a few weeks ago Northwestern was flirting with making its first-ever NCAA Tournament. Now, the Wildcats will need to win a game or two in this week's Big Ten Tournament to even make the NIT.
That's what happens when you lose four games you had penciled in as wins over the last four weeks of the regular season. The Wildcats lost to Penn State (twice), Iowa and Indiana during that eight-game stretch, teams that occupy the last three spots in the Big Ten standings and were a combined 11-43 in league play.
Northwestern (19-12, 7-11) will at least get a chance to avenge the loss to Indiana (10-20, 4-14) in Thursday's first round (4 p.m., ESPN2). Coach Bill Carmody shouldn't have to spend too much time at the white board preparing for this one -- the two teams played just last Saturday, when Indiana came away with an 88-80 overtime win in Bloomington.
Carmody should take his dry-erase marker and write "guard No. 1" at the top of that board in the locker room at Conseco Fieldhouse. If Northwestern learned one thing in that disappointing loss, it's to find Jordan Hulls when he's hanging around the three-point line. The freshman guard dropped a career-high 24 points on the Wildcats on, count them, eight three-pointers. He missed only four shots from beyond the arc all day.
Big Ten scoring champion John Shurna tied a career high with 31 points for the Wildcats against IU, and Michael Thompson added 25. But it wasn't enough because of Northwestern's defense, which hasn't done a very good job guarding Hulls or anyone else down the stretch.
Northwestern's opponents have topped the 70-point mark in six of its last seven conference games. Penn State, especially, ran through the Wildcats' 2-3 and 1-3-1 zones like John Mayer goes through girlfriends. The Nittany Lions, who averaged 65.3 points per game on the year, hung 81 and 79 on the Wildcats in their 11- and 19-point victories, shooting a combined 57 percent.
Carmody talked about his teams' lack of defense in a chat on Wednesday on
"We're giving up more points," he wrote. "People talk about us not scoring, but I found out we led the Big Ten in scoring… That's something we need to concentrate in the spring and individual workouts. We have some weapons offensively, but we have to guard."
Northwestern guarded Indiana just fine on Feb. 7, when they beat the Hoosiers 78-61 in Evanston with all five starters scoring in double figures. That's when the Wildcats were still on the NCAA Tournament bubble and fans were busy calculating RPI rankings.
Three nights later they got buried at Iowa, the first loss in that fateful, 3-5 finish that popped NU's tournament bubble -- all over their faces.
A win over Indiana on Thursday would probably enable Northwestern to avoid the ignominy of having the athletic department pony up $60,000 for an invitation to the CBI tournament, or playing in that other even smaller-time tournament. It will also give the Wildcats a school-record 20th win.
Northwestern wouldn't have imagined in mid-February that it would be playing for an NIT bid in the Big Ten Tournament. Then again, it wouldn't have thought it in mid-November, either, when the Wildcats learned that they would be without leading scorer Kevin Coble and Jeff Ryan for the season.
It's all a matter of perspective.