On the heels of its first NCAA tournament berth, Northwestern will try to continue its momentum from last season that took the ‘Cats from bubble team to lock by the end of the Big Ten Tournament. Last year, Northwestern managed to overcome both a strong Big Ten conference and a difficult non-conference slate that included Texas, Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Dayton and Butler. The Cats’ 3-2 record against those teams strengthened their résumé and led to their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance – this year, the team’s non-conference success will be a key factor in their chances to go dancing back-to-back.
Four of last year’s non-conference opponents qualified for at-large bids into the NCAA tournament, and this year’s opponents have a similar pedigree. According to KenPom, Oklahoma (21), Georgia Tech (44) and Creighton (45) have the highest ratings of any non-conference team Northwestern (18) will play, with a possible game against Texas Tech (33) planned depending on how things shake out in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tip-Off.
Northwestern begins the year with three home games against Loyola (Md.), St. Peters and Creighton. After what should be easy contests against Loyola and St. Peter’s, the contest against the Blue Jays projects to be a tough match-up. Even though Creighton lost key starters Justin Patton and Maurice Watson, Jr., they bring back reigning Big East defensive player of the year in guard Khyri Thomas, a three-year starter and heart of the Blue Jay roster.
The Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tip-Off follows this slate of home games. The tournament features games against La Salle and either Boston College or Texas Tech. Of the three teams NU could face, Texas Tech has the most impressive roster with five returning seniors including preseason all-Big 12 forward and potential NBA player Zach Smith. The match should provide another solid benchmark for the ‘Cats, who should be favored to win all of their non-conference games.
A particularly tough stretch begins when Northwestern plays at Georgia Tech before opening up Big Ten play against Illinois and No. 20 Purdue in the opening week of December. Purdue will be the first challenging Big Ten opponent Northwestern will face, even with the departure of Big Ten Player of the year Caleb Swanigan. The Boilermakers can shoot well from deep (which is how they beat NU last year), and center Isaac Haas anchors an experienced team looking to bounce back from a tournament blowout loss to Kansas.
The match-up against Oklahoma is the last non-conference challenge for the ‘Cats: the Sooners welcome five star guard Trae Young to join their young squad that hopes to rebound from an 11-20 finish last year. With a strong performance, Northwestern will be poised to join the upper echelon of Big Ten teams once full-time conference play starts.
The ‘Cats open full-time conference play with winnable games against bottom feeders Nebraska and Penn State before welcoming No. 15 Minnesota to Allstate Arena. Led by preseason all-Big Ten point guard Nate Mason and key bigs in Big Ten defensive player of the year Reggie Lynch and double-double machine Jordan Murphy, they’ll contend for the conference crown after earning a No. 5 seed in last year’s Big Dance. If the ‘Cats win this contest, they have a strong shot of going to Minnesota for a rematch on Jan. 23 with a 7-1 Big Ten record.
In the end, though, Northwestern’s season will be decided on how they perform in February. A brutal nine-game stretch features seven games against KenPom top 50 teams in Michigan, Wisconsin, Maryland and No. 2 Michigan State.
In particular, the Spartans appear to be the class of the Big Ten. Returning sophomore star Miles Bridges declined being a possible lottery pick to join forces once more with point guard Cassius Winston and center Nick Ward, as well as five-star small forward Jaren Jackson to form the most potent unit in the Big Ten. Bridges, who averaged 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds last season, leads a squad that brings back its top four scorers and possesses the versatility and athleticism to challenge for a national championship.
Wisconsin and Michigan also return key veterans Ethan Happ and Moritz Wagner, respectively, who helped guide the teams to deep runs last March. If the ‘Cats can get through to the Big Ten tournament above .500 in the conference, chances are they should hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
Check out the Wildcats’ full schedule here.