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February 12, 2008

Will the Cats go 0-18?

There are several profound questions going around the sports world these days. Did Roger Clemens take performance-enhancing drugs? How will Shaquille O'Neal fit in with the Phoenix Suns? Will the Northwestern Wildcats go 0-18 in the Big Ten this season?

Okay, the last question hasn't quite captured the attention of the nation and very few people outside of the WildcatReport Basketball Board have given the question any thought at all. But the fact remains that Northwestern could be looking at a bagel for its 2007-08 season.

Saturday's 70-55 drubbing at Michigan State left the Wildcats with an 0-10 record in Big Ten play. With just eight games left on the conference schedule, the opportunities to register a W are as scarce as Big Ten BCS bowl wins.

Taking a look at the remaining slate, games against Indiana, Purdue (twice) and Wisconsin are losses that haven't happened yet. Those three teams are a combined 58-12 overall and 28-4 in conference, so winning one of those looks about as likely as Britney Spears doing a public service announcement for the California Department of Child and Family Services.

Ohio State comes to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday, but the Buckeyes are 7-4 in Big Ten play and have already beaten the Wildcats by 11 at home. You have to chalk that one up as an L, as well.

That leaves just three games the Cats have a realistic shot at winning - against Iowa twice and Michigan, teams with losing conference and overall records. Northwestern plays at Iowa on Feb. 19, at Michigan on Feb. 26, and at home against Iowa on March 5.

The Hawkeyes looked to be a likely potential upset victim earlier in the season, but they have been better than expected in the Big Ten with a 4-8 record that includes home wins over Michigan State and Ohio State. So, winning at Iowa City seems to be a stretch and the Wildcats have only a slightly better chance in Evanston, where they are just 5-6 overall and 0-4 in the Big Ten.

Michigan is adjusting to new coach John Bielein's style of play and is just 6-17 overall - worse than NU's 7-14 mark - and 2-9 in the league. But the problem is that one of those two Big Ten victories came on the Wildcats' home court, where the Wolverines soundly thumped NU by 10 on Jan. 12.

Of course, Northwestern could get hot and surprise either of those two teams. The Wildcats may not be very talented and they've shown precious little improvement, but they have continued to play hard for head coach Bill Carmody despite the fact that the season has turned into one long trip to the dentist.

If Kevin Coble, Craig Moore and Michael Thompson get hot on the same night, the Wildcats could put up enough points to offset their suspect defense and atrocious rebounding and pull the upset. You just wouldn't want to wager more than lunch money on it.

A good barometer of a team's relative strength in college basketball is the RPI, or ratings percentage index, which uses a team's and its opponents' winning percentages to determine its rankings.

The Wildcats' current RPI ranking is 205th in the country, right behind Hartford and Colgate and above only one major-conference school: Oregon St. (238th). The next lowest-ranked Big Ten team is Michigan at 170th. Iowa ranks 144th, seventh in the conference.

The Wildcats have not beaten any teams ranked in the top 100 in RPI this season and are just 1-6 against teams ranked between 100 and 200, thanks to a win over No. 145 Western Michigan in early December. NU dominates teams ranked below 200, though, posting a perfect 5-0 record.

Going 0-for-the-Big Ten is a rare occurrence, but it won't surprise any observers that the Wildcats have done it before, in 1990-91 under coach Bill Foster. That team finished with a 5-23 overall record.

NU also went winless in the conference as recently as 1999-2000, when coach Kevin O'Neill's final squad finished 0-16 and 5-25 overall. That team came within 10 points of a Big Ten foe four times all season.

Of course, that's considerably better than this Wildcat outfit, which has come within 10 points of a league opponent just once in 10 tries, in the aforementioned loss to Michigan.


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