Posted by MATT JONES
With one late free throw, Luka Mirkovic dramatically changed the postseason prospects of two teams and ensured a tense finish to the season for the Big Ten's Illinois contingent. After blowing a late 12 point second half lead, Northwestern saw its NCAA Tournament dreams kept alive by Mirkovic's late rebound and free throw, which put the Wildcats up 4, before a meaningless Illini three-pointer at the buzzer ended the game 71-70. Northwestern came into the game with its season effectively on the line, and pulled out a huge victory over its in-state rival, led by Mychal Thompson, who scored 22 points, including 5 crucial three-pointers.
With the victory, Bill Carmody's team now moves to its easiest stretch of the Big Ten schedule with a fighting chance to get enough victories to make a claim for its first ever NCAA Tournament berth. The Wildcats stand 14-8 overall and only 4-7 in conference, but play Penn State twice, Michigan, Indiana and Iowa over their next five games. All five are winnable opportunities and a Northwestern team that gets those victories and claims a 19-8 overall record, while being 9-7 in conference, could go into its last two game stretch against Wisconsin and Minnesota needing only to pull off one upset in order to get to 20 wins and a likely NCAA berth. Amazingly, thus far this season all of Northwestern's conference losses have been to ranked teams, meaning if the Wildcats can take care of business against the unranked group to finish the season, its resume would be much stronger than some of the other bubble contenders before the Selection Committee.
On the other end of the spectrum is Bruce Weber's Illinois team, which came into Evanston on Saturday ranked No. 24 in America and on very few bubble lists. But upon closer reflection after the loss, the Illini's resume is much weaker than it might seem initially. Illinois is 15-8, but only 5-5 in conference, with two games against Purdue and matchups with Ohio State, Minnesota and Michigan State still to come. The Illini have only two victories over ranked opponents and the best non-conference win it claims is against fellow bubble team Gonzaga. It is very plausible that Illinois will need to beat Minnesota on the road Tuesday night in order to ensure a winning Big Ten record, a feat that now also might be required to grab an NCAA berth, considering the weak out of conference resume thus far accumulated.
Had the outcome in Evanston on Saturday been reversed, Northwestern would almost surely be eliminated from any NCAA Tournament consideration and Illinois would be likely one good quality win from having no real worries on Selection Sunday. But now, both teams are firmly in the bubble mix, with Northwestern at the bottom of the list of bubble teams but with an easy finishing schedule, while Illinois is at the top of the list, but with a killer final stretch. Neither team's fate was ensured by the 71-70 final, but both teams may look back and point to it as the key determining factor as to whether they were a part of the final Field of 68.