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Northwestern basketball is ranked. What happens next?

If history is our guide...uh...

NCAA Basketball: Detroit at Northwestern
Chris Collins, reminding his players that the Itsy-Bitsy Spider does, in fact, go UP the waterspout.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

On the strength of their upset win over the then-#1 Purdue Boilermakers (2023-24 edition, not some scrubbish 2022-23 upset), the Northwestern Wildcats men’s basketball team is now ranked in the AP Poll Top 25.

Stop laughing. I know.

Really, it’s aided by losses suffered by teams above them—San Diego State lost to Grand Canyon and barely beat UC Irvine, Ole Miss narrowly beat UCF, and Texas A&M lost to Memphis—that Northwestern appears in the Top 25. Somehow, Colorado—who just beat still-#24 Miami by a bajillion—is still not ranked. No idea.

But Northwestern’s #25. And there should be consequences.

First, consequences for Purdue. You idiots. YOU DID THIS.

Second, for Northwestern. Because there always are.

The History of Northwestern Being Ranked

(Yes, it’s short enough that I can write an article about it.)

Don’t believe me? Just ask SportsReference’s history of Northwestern being ranked in the AP Poll.

Prior to today, it had happened 17 times.

Total.

Ever.

So few, in fact, that we can run you through each iteration!

(Week 1) January 24, 1955

On the strength of victories over Purdue and then-#19 Iowa, the ‘Cats—just 8-4 (3-1 B1G)—earned the #17 ranking. It was odd, given that they had lost consecutive games at Purdue and against Notre Dame on the weekends preceding the mini-run.

Following being ranked, Northwestern...

  • lost at Minnesota, 102-82
  • lost at Ohio State, 91-90

Northwestern finished 12-10 and did not compete in the postseason.

(Weeks 2-8) December 8, 1958 to January 19, 1959

This marks the only time Northwestern has been ranked more than three times in one season. Three players from this Wildcats team—household names like Joe Ruklick, Rick Mantis, and Willie Jones—played in the NBA. There were three Dicks—Becker, Berry, and Johnson! (DICK JOHNSON!)—on this team!

The ‘Cats entered the 1958-59 season ranked in part on the strength of Chuck Taylor All-American Ruklick, rising as high as sixth in the polls after a strong start to the season:

  • def. Western Michigan, 102-60
  • def. Maryland, 66-62
  • def. #11 Notre Dame (away), 68-63
  • def. Louisville (away), 73-68

After rising to 6th, their ranking fell following a 78-64 neutral-site loss to #10 North Carolina, then climbed back to 8th on January 6 following a string of impressive victories:

  • vs. #19 Washington, 75-69
  • vs. #5 West Virginia, 118-109 (2OT)
  • vs. Notre Dame, 102-67
  • vs. Iowa, 80-77

Following that #8 ranking, the collapse was on:

  • def. Michigan, 83-78
  • lost to Indiana, 76-69

Northwestern fell to 11th in the next poll. After a week off, they lost at Ohio State, 88-77, falling to 18th in the AP rankings on January 19. And then the wheels came off:

  • lost to Minnesota, 71-67
  • won at Iowa,99-96
  • lost at #8 Michigan State, 81-72

Even after winning its final three games on the road (@MN, @wi, @IL), Northwestern would not re-enter the polls, finishing 15-7 (8-6). You will be shocked to learn they did not compete in the postseason.

(Weeks 9-11) December 30, 1968, to January 13, 1969

This marks the last time the same Northwestern team was ranked in multiple calendar years and the same time one was ranked in more than two consecutive weeks.

Until 2017, this team’s predecessor—the 1967-68 Wildcats—were the last Northwestern men’s basketball team to finish the season with a winning record in conference play. They went 8-6 and finished fourth.

Behind G Dale Kelley and later San Diego Rockets draft pick Don Adams—you know, that Don Adams—averaging a double-double (15 points and 11 boards), the ‘Cats appeared in the first AP Poll (back then not until the last week of December!) on the strength of an 8-game winning streak after an opening loss at Stanford. With neutral-site wins over Florida and Boston College, they debuted at #19. A win the following weekend at Michigan State saw their ranking rise to #12 in the country.

And then it happened again:

  • lost vs. #4 Illinois, 82-77
  • lost at Indiana, 87-70
  • lost vs. Michigan State, 89-75

A 100-85 win over Michigan barely stanched the bleeding—the ‘Cats lost seven of eight ranked being ranked 12th on January 6.

Head coach Larry Glass retired midseason, “convinced that Northwestern’s stringent entrance requirements would keep him from ever getting over the hump.” He moved to Leland, MI, in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, bought a motel, and by the 1980s, had become a legend coaching girls’ high school basketball at a small high school.

Assistant coach Brad Snyder took the reins. The ‘Cats finished 14-10 (6-8) and did not make the postseason.

(Week 12) December 28, 2009

Young MNW was just a wide-eyed frosh done with his first quarter of a Northwestern education. John Shurna and Michael “Juice” Thompson inspired him. Luka Mirkovic infuriated him. Bill Carmody showed him the way.

Those ‘Cats had started the year 10-1, with a 67-54 loss to then-#11 Butler their only blemish. They’d beaten #23 Notre Dame and Iowa State in a neutral-site tournament at UIC, proving incontrovertibly that they were Chicago’s Big Ten Team.

Following their debut in the rankings on December 28, 2009—their first ranking in over 40 years—Northwestern promptly lost, 89-83, at Illinois, and 91-70 at #11 Michigan State.

At 19-14 (7-11 B1G), Northwestern appeared in the NIT for the second straight season, losing to Rhode Island in the first round.

(Week 13) January 30, 2017

Ah, finally. The Year.

After an uneven non-conference season marred by close losses at Butler and to Notre Dame on a neutral site, the ‘Cats rattled off 9 wins in a soft non-conference slate, then six straight against also-rans like Nebraska, Rutgers, Iowa, and Indiana between January 8 and 29. That earned them a #25 ranking on January 30.

AND THEN?

  • lost at #23 Purdue, 80-59
  • lost to Illinois, 68-61

However, an upset at then-#7 wisconsin and full-court Hail Mary victory over Michigan, followed by a Big Ten Tournament win over #25 Maryland, did enough for the ‘Cats. They appeared in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in history, beating Vanderbilt before losing to Gonzaga on a bullshit non-call for goaltending that I’m totally over, thanks.

(Weeks 14-15) Preseason to November 11, 2017

Fresh off the momentum of their NCAA Tournament appearance, Northwestern entered the 2017-18 season ranked 19th. With contributors like Scottie Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh, and NBA-bound Vic Law returning, the ‘Cats were bound for great things.

Except, with planned renovations to Welsh-Ryan Arena, Northwestern played its 2017-18 season at Rosemont’s Allstate Arena, believing it could keep winning and capture the elusive suburban fan, at long last.

While Northwestern definitely succeeded in the latter and now every young boy in Schaumburg dreams of growing up a Wildcat, they were less successful in the former. After shaky wins over Dr. Loyola and Saint Peter, the ‘Cats dropped a home shootout to Creighton and then got boatraced by Texas Tech in the championship of the Hall of Fame Classic in Connecticut. They would not appear again in the rankings, finishing 15-17 (6-12 B1G) and missing the postseason.

(Week 16) December 28, 2020

Name an athletic program that was more dominant in COVID-addled 2020 than Northwestern.

Outside a narrow 71-70 home loss to a dogshit Pitt team, Northwestern had romped through its opening slate, toppling #4 Michigan State, 79-65, in a Boo Buie classic, then going into Assembly Hall and beating Indiana, capped off with a 71-70 home win over then-#23 Ohio State.

Despite a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Football Championship Game, the world looked to be Northwestern’s oyster. Hell, even a December 29 loss at #10 Iowa, 87-72, was explainable.

And then.

OHHHHHH, and then:

  1. That was a brutal Big Ten conference and brutal Big Ten slate.
  2. Holy shit were some of those games not even close.

The calendar turned to 2021 and Northwestern faded into the mist just like any of the lessons of COVID, losing 13 straight before a brief dead-cat bounce and a listless 51-46 loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament.

They did not participate in the postseason.

(Week 17) February 20, 2023

In a season that we’ve learned was, in fact, The Year, Northwestern was a middling Big Ten team that found its footing at the best possible time—the ‘Cats shocked then-#1 Purdue, 64-58, and followed it up with a 64-62 win over then-#14 Indiana, climbing to 21st in the polls after an 80-60 victory over hapless Iowa.

Of course, here were the next three games after being ranked:

  • lost at Illinois, 66-62
  • lost at Maryland, 75-59
  • lost to Penn fucking State, 68-65

Northwestern went to Rutgers and won a slapfight, 65-53, clinching their postseason spot despite a 67-65 loss to Penn fucking State in the Big Ten tournament. They heroically dispatched Boise State, 75-67, before losing to UCLA, 68-63, in the Round of 32. They remain .500—2-2—in NCAA Tournament history.

Northwestern’s Record When Ranked

In the games where Northwestern men’s basketball was ranked, in the games before the next AP Poll, the ‘Cats have gone...

  • 1954-55: 0-2
  • 1958-59: 8-4
  • 1968-69: 1-3
  • 2009-10: 0-2
  • 2016-17: 0-1
  • 2017-18: 3-2
  • 2020-21: 0-2
  • 2022-23: 0-2
  • TOTAL: 12-16

In the modern era of college basketball (using the three-point shot, here), Northwestern is 3-7 as a ranked team.

So what?

Do with this information what you will.