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Submitted by Richie Baccellieri on Thursday, January 26, 2017 at 1:58 PM

Northwestern basketball has been in existence since 1904 and they’ve never made the NCAA Tournament. This year’s Wildcats team has the look of one set to make history—they’re 16-4, projected as a 7-seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi if the bracket were released today and they’re even in the mix for the Big Ten championship.

More important for college basketball bettors, Northwestern has been a moneymaker. Their ATS record is a profitable 12-4-1, They’ve been especially tough to handle in Evanston where they’ve covered the number twelve times in fourteen games and they even offer the edge of being somewhat predictable—their games tend to go Under (10 of 17 times) thanks to their slow pace.

Betting markets change though and when Northwestern takes the floor tonight at home against Nebraska, the Wildcats will be a (-8.5) favorite. Is this team ready to take the next step?

It’s especially pertinent because Northwestern’s conference schedule to date hasn’t been particularly difficult. Their five league wins have come over Nebraska, Rutgers, Iowa, Ohio State and Penn State. Give the Wildcats full credit for taking care of business, especially with four of those games on the road. But also take note of how pedestrian the competition was.

The two Big Ten losses are enough to raise a modest eyebrow as well. Northwestern lost by double-digits at Michigan State in a year where they can’t be dismissed as easily as it might have in the past. The Wildcats also lost at home to Minnesota—the Gophers are good, but a team ready to reach the proverbial next level beats them in their own building.

That outlines the reason for caution, but let’s also point out that when you break down Northwestern’s personnel they have a lot of good pieces in place. Scottie Lindsey is the best player, averaging 16 points/4 rebounds/3 assists. Vic Law goes 6’7” at forward and along with his 14 points/6 rebounds, Law is the team’s best three-point shooter. Bryant McIntosh is the playmaker and another double-digit scorer.

What’s really impressive about this Northwestern team though is the number of quality rebounders. Derek Pardon, Gavin Skelly and Sanjay Lumpkin aren’t the focal points in the lineup, but they collectively grab 20 boards a night. Rebounding is something you can always depend on—it’s not subject to just going cold—which can explain why Northwestern has been able to handle the road in conference play.

There’s also areas I’d like to see fixed. McIntosh insists on shooting an average of four three-point shots per game, but he makes less than 30 percent. Between Law, Lindsey and sharpshooting role player Nathan Taphorn, there’s enough long-range shooters. McIntosh doesn’t need to shooting from downtown that often. Given how much Northwestern relies on offensive efficiency to win slower-paced games, it’s especially important that McIntosh rein it in.

We’re entering the era of expectations for Northwestern basketball starting tonight. A home game against a talented, but inconsistent Indiana team is on Sunday night. The Wildcats have to go to Purdue next Wednesday and not long after that are games with Wisconsin and Maryland. We can see this Northwestern team is different from its predecessors. Time to see how much different.  

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