Not many people associate Northwestern athletics with excellence per se (except if we’re talking women’s lacrosse, iykyk). But this season’s edition of Northwestern men’s basketball is doing something very strange and unlike them: They’re winning.

Despite perenially being projected to finish near or at the bottom of the Big Ten, this year's Wildcats team has moxie and — on the heels of the five-game win streak — is playing themselves into this year's tournament. In the Week 16 AP Top 25 rankings, Northwestern sits happily at No. 21. So, how'd they get there?

This is all very unusual

In their school's history which spans more than spans decades and more than 2600 games, the Wildcats basketball program has one (1) NCAA tournament appearance. This was back in 2017, and they actually beat fellow nerd school Vanderbilt to advance to the round of 32. 

Schools like that aren't supposed to upset the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, but Northwestern did just that this month when they beat the Mighty Zach Edey's of Purdue. They've also played lockdown defense against more or less every tough opponent, holding Auburn to only 43 points in a game earlier this season.

That’s all to say, this is a program that (largely correctly) most people don’t think much of. But come March, those biases against historically weak programs can pay dividends for people in the know.

Chris Collins might be the most underrated coach in the nation

Sure, call it hyperbole, but given the history of the program and the competition they face, there’s a case to be made. Collins is in his 9th season with the Wildcats and now has them on the brink of their second NCAA tournament ever. I think credit is due to both Collins and the Northwestern athletic department for sticking together so long despite the (expected) lean years. 

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Wildcast turnaround this season is, unlike many other schools, they didn’t rely on the transfer portal for a quick fix. Northwestern’s top five scorers have all been in the program for several years, gradually improving to create the team you see today, which boasts the second-best record in the Big Ten and four wins over AP Top 25 teams.

Boo Buie might be the best player/name you haven’t heard of

Just try saying his name five times fast, you’ll already feel exhilarated. 

The senior is leading Northwestern in scoring and most recently created buzz for himself with this sweet game-winner against Indiana last week:

The diminutive senior from Albany came to Northwestern lightly recruited and has blossomed into one of the best players in the Big Ten. While the Wildcats win games with defense—they ranked 17th in the nation allowing just over 60 ppg—Buie provides them with a playmaker who can create his own shot when it's needed most. 

To win in March, you need someone with the confidence to take and make the last shot. That’s Boo. 

Northwestern has a huge game at Maryland this Sunday

This Sunday, the Wildcats hit the road to keep their win streak active against another compelling bubble team in Maryland. The winner of this game in all likelihood will stamp their ticket to March Madness. Watch No. 21 Northwestern take on unranked (but fringe!) Maryland Sunday, February 26 at 12 p.m. ET. The game will air on BTN.

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