A first-ever NCAA tournament invitation is tantalizingly close and Northwestern could further cement its post-season credentials when it hosts No. 23 Maryland on Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
It's also arguably the most important week of the season for the Terrapins (21-4, 9-3), who also have Wisconsin looming on Sunday in Madison.
Northwestern gave Maryland some help as with a 66-59 victory over then-No. 7 Wisconsin last Sunday.
It was a signature victory for the Wildcats (19-6, 8-4), who entered that game mired in a two-game losing streak and without leading scorer Scottie Lindsey (15.4 points) for the third straight game.
But Bryant McIntosh stepped into the breach with a game-high 25 points plus seven assists while the Wildcat defense repeatedly double-teamed and limited Badger big man Ethan Happ to 9 points.
"A lot of teams can feel sorry for themselves when they have their leading scorer out and things look like they're falling apart," McIntosh said.
The Wildcats, who received some poll attention this week but remained out of the Top 25, will apparently be without Lindsey again on Wednesday as continues to battle mononucleosis.
Lindsey had scored in double figures in all 22 games he's appeared in, all starts. The Wildcats are otherwise healthy heading into the game.
Maryland, meanwhile, is coming off its most productive offensive outing since late December with last Sunday's 86-77 victory over Ohio State. Four Terrapins score in double figures including a game-high 19 from Anthony Cowan.
"Offensively we were terrific," said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. "We shared the ball nicely, had nine assists to eight turnovers and scored 86 points. We (also) did a lot of great things offensively. First half we were great defensively but we weren't any good in the second half defensively."
Melo Trimble, named last week to the John R. Wooden Award list, is averaging a team-high 16.6 points per game. Justin Jackson has a 11.1 average while Cowan scores at a 10.6 clip.
Northwestern is second in the Big Ten in fewest average points allowed (64.4 per game) and leads the league in defensive field goal percentage (.389).
They limited the Badgers to 38 percent shooting from the field (19-of-50).
"I thought our defense was the story of the game," said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. "(And) certainly Bryant's play was magnificent."
The Wildcats will need another exceptional defensive effort against a Terrapins team that average 75.6 points, good for fourth in the league and also with designs on the NCAA tournament.
Maryland, which reached the NCAA Sweet 16 last year, broke its own two-game losing streak with last Saturday's 86-77 victory over Ohio State.
Northwestern, which had a school record 20-win season in 2015-16 but failed to qualify for the NCAA or NIT tournaments, continues Big Ten play at home on Saturday against Rutgers.
Northwestern faces Maryland, hoping to inch closer to tourney