INDIANAPOLIS - If things didn't go right for Northwestern on Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, it could have been Michael Thompson's last game as a college basketball player.
"I never thought about that in my mind going into today," Thompson said.
Given the fact Thompson scored a Big Ten Tournament record 35 points in Northwestern's 75-65 victory over Minnesota in the first round, he probably didn't have time to think about much else.
Or maybe he recalled a conversation he had with head coach Bill Carmody, who sat down for a talk with the senior roughly four weeks ago.
One thing covered, among other topics, was that the chances of advancing to the NCAA Tournament seemed dim, leaving the Big Ten Tournament as the Wildcats' only doorway into a potential spot in the postseason.
"He just told me to stay focused and continue to play hard and see what happens," Thompson said. "We never stopped thinking that making it to the NCAA Tournament was possible. He told me to lead the team and play hard."
Carmody also remembered the conversation.
"(I) said, 'it doesn't look good unless we win the tournament for the NCAAs, but you've got to play (well),'" Carmody recalled. "'You're a senior and you play the way you know how and the way you've been taught and the way you've been brought up, and let that show on the court.'
"I think he's done a terrific job," Carmody continued. "A remarkable job in his own game and the way he's played in just bringing some of these other guys along.
The No. 8-seeded Wildcats took one big step forward toward earning that automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament with the win over the ailing Gophers, who's season will end having lost 10 of their last 11 games.
Northwestern - who committed only five turnovers the entire game - were backed by the senior known as "Juice," who shot 11-of-22 from the field before scoring a career high in points in addition to four assists and four rebounds.
Never accepting the fact that Northwestern's season could be over, Thompson said he was glad he could take it upon himself to lead the Wildcats, true to what he had spoken about with his coach.
"It's a big responsibility to try and lead the team but I am just going to keep doing the things I have been doing all season," he said. "It was definitely nice to get off to a good start both individually and as a team."
Playing two men short against Minnesota because of injuries to Mike Capocci (concussion) and JerShon Cobb (hip), Northwestern broke up a close game with a 13-1 run midway through the second half.
It was Alex Marcotullio who started the run with a 3-pointer and it ended with a layup from Marcotullio, giving Northwestern a 55-45 lead with 8:57 remaining in the game.
After at least solidifying its spot in the National Invitation Tournament - where various publications predicted Northwestern would be a six or seven seed in the 32-team field - the Wildcats now advance to face the top-seeded Buckeyes on Friday at Noon in the second round.
It will be the second time this season Northwestern will face off against Ohio State, the first time getting the Buckeyes on the ropes in Welsh-Ryan Arena before losing by just one point.
Carmody recalled his Wildcats controlling the tempo in the previous meeting against the Buckeyes, excelling due in large part to knocking down tough shots late in the shot clock.
"I suspect that (Ohio State will) try to up the tempo a little bit and try to take us out of our routines and stuff," Carmody said. "My thoughts on playing them? I saw the Wisconsin game, you know, a few days ago, so it's a little scary because they have so many different weapons."
John Shurna - who finished the season averaging roughly 17 points per game - missed the first meeting against Ohio State because of injury. The junior is looking forward to the test of playing the No. 1 Buckeyes tomorrow with the postseason on the line.
"It is exciting that we get to play the No. 1 team in the country and that's what you play for," Shurna said. "We played really well today and we gave them a close game last time so I am excited for it."
Despite the fact Thompson had the conversation with his head coach in regards to stepping up when his team needed him the most, the senior didn't feel the need to tell his team what's at stake.
"Our goal is still trying to make it to the NCAA Tournament," he said. "We didn't discuss what we have to do to get there. Everyone just knew."
Perhaps the toughest test of the tournament awaits tomorrow at noon.
Ari Wasserman is a staff writer for BuckeyeGrove.com. He can be reached at Ari@BuckeyeGrove.com.