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Does Northwestern deserve first NCAA Tournament bid?

NU’s John Shurn(left) Drew Crawford are crestfallen after 75-73 loss Wednesday Ohio State. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

NU’s John Shurna (left) and Drew Crawford are crestfallen after the 75-73 loss Wednesday to Ohio State. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: May 9, 2012 10:19AM

Jim Phillips takes most losses hard, so I felt like a sadist calling him the morning after Northwestern’s painful 75-73 loss to Ohio State.

Coming up agonizingly short on a chance to upset the No. 10 Buckeyes would be a crusher for NU’s athletic director. I knew this. I could pull the wings off a live horsefly or I could call Phillips.

I picked up the phone.

“I didn’t sleep a minute last night,’’ he said, the memory of Wednesday’s loss still jabbing him in the ribs. “I tortured myself by watching the game again [on tape], trying to see the flow of it and what happened. Cruel. Cruel.’’

He wasn’t alone in his misery.

“I didn’t get any sleep last night at all,’’ said guard Alex Marcotullio, whose three-pointer had tied the game at 73 with 7.7 seconds left. “I was tossing and turning all night thinking about what we could have done or what I could have done differently to change the outcome.’’

A victory over Ohio State would have shored up the Wildcats’ case for the first NCAA tournament bid in school history. But a close loss to the Buckeyes? Who really knows what it means? Who knows anything about where Northwestern sits with the tournament selection committee? The best answer probably would be: nobody.

I’m still having trouble with the Wildcats’ 17-12 overall record and their 7-10 record in the Big Ten. It’s … how to put it … unwelcoming. If the idea is to make the selection committee look at you with basketball lust in its eye, what would the Wildcats’ record say? It would say NU has a nice personality.

But there’s a lot more to making the NCAA tournament than a team’s record. The Big Ten is considered the toughest conference in the country, and Northwestern’s schedule is rated as the 10th-most difficult among 344 Division I programs. The loss to Ohio State dropped the Wildcats’ RPI from 44 to 50.

The good news is that they don’t have any “bad’’ losses — defined as losses to teams ranked outside the top 100. They’re 12-0 in that category. They’ve had a number of close losses to quality opponents.

The bad news is that they’re 2-10 against top-50 teams, with only one victory against a top-10 program, Michigan State. They’ve lost big in four games — at home against Baylor and at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Does any of that say “NCAA tournament team’’? I don’t know. I know a good story when I see one, and the Wildcats making the tournament for the first time would be a great story. But beyond that? I just don’t know.

“I don’t know if we know much more than we knew a week ago, other than we’re in consideration and a lot will be determined as we finish the year,’’ Phillips said.

The Cats end their regular season Saturday at Iowa, and it won’t be easy. A loss there would make them 7-11 in the league, meaning they likely would need a deep run in the Big Ten tournament to get into the Big Dance. A victory over the Hawkeyes would help NU’s cause but not decide anything definitively.

“I know the committee will give us every consideration,’’ Phillips said. “If we get in, we’ll be thrilled. If we don’t, it won’t be because of some injustice by the committee. I just don’t believe that. I don’t believe that intellectually in my experience, and I don’t believe it emotionally.’’

It would’ve been nice if the Cats had made this easy with a .500 record or above in the conference and with 20 victories or more overall to this point. Instead, they’ve made it like protracted childbirth. Maybe that’s the way it was meant to be, the way it should be, for Northwestern. Nothing has ever come easy. Why should it now?

The first NCAA tournament title game took place in 1939 at Northwestern’s gym but without Northwestern’s team. A fitting start.

“We’re doing it not only for ourselves and the program, but for the rest of the university and the rest of the alumni that have come through this wonderful place,’’ Marcotullio said.

Phillips doesn’t want the players to carry the weight of NU’s past everywhere they go but knows they do. Several more victories would lessen the load considerably.

“It’s a story to be continued,’’ he said. “I really believe that the last chapter hasn’t been written yet on this particular season.’’

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