After setting a school record for regular-season wins last season but failing to be selected for the NIT, let alone the NCAA Tournament, Northwestern’s men’s basketball team had one thing to blame: its non-conference schedule.
By RPI, the Wildcats ranked 334th in non-conference strength of schedule. There are 351 teams in Division I.
NU’s problem was clear going into the season: the Cats lacked opportunities for signature victories (outside of a non-conference tournament matchup in Kansas City with eventual national runner-up North Carolina), leaving a 20-win NU sitting at home in March.
Non-conference scheduling is an ongoing process — last season’s finalized non-conference slate was officially announced on June 24 — but news of the higher-profile games on the docket for the Cats has been trickling out. And if those games are any indication, coach Chris Collins might finally have the resume-boosting opponents out of conference to push NU into the first postseason appearance of his tenure.
The Cats have been announced as a participant in the Legends Classic, a four-team non-conference tournament in Brooklyn that will also feature three NCAA Tournament teams from last season: Texas, Colorado and Notre Dame, who made the Elite Eight. NU will play two of the three schools as a part of the tournament, with exact matchups to be announced at a later date.
Additionally, the Cats are reportedly slated to travel to Butler as part of the Gavitt Games, a series pitting Big Ten and Big East opponents against each other, and will take on Dayton in the United Center on December 17, according to a report from CBSSports’ Jon Rothstein. Both teams were selected for the NCAA Tournament last season.
Although much is still up in the air, NU is in line to take on at least four NCAA Tournament teams from 2016. But how does this compare with past non-conference schedules under Collins, based on performance in the previous season?
Top four opponents, by KenPom rankings from prior season: North Carolina (No. 11), DePaul (No. 167), Columbia (No. 175), Virginia Tech (No. 184)
NCAA Tournament qualifiers from prior season: 1 (North Carolina)
The game against North Carolina was a big opportunity for NU to break out, but ended in a predictable defeat. Columbia was a trendy choice in the Ivy League before the season, and a road win at Virginia Tech looked better for the Cats as the Hokies snagged a spot in the NIT. But any schedule with DePaul as its second-best team from the prior season has limited upside.
Top four opponents, by KenPom rankings from prior season: Northern Iowa (No. 94), Butler (No. 104), Georgia Tech (No. 109), Western Michigan (No. 127)
NCAA Tournament qualifiers from prior season: 1 (Western Michigan)
Northern Iowa and Butler turned out to be two of the better teams in the country in 2014-2015, but weren’t as impressive the season before they appeared on NU’s schedule. The sole NCAA Tournament team on the non-conference docket going into the year was MAC champion Western Michigan. Overall, this year’s non-conference schedule ended up having several solid chances at signature wins, but it wasn’t as obvious before the season.
Top four opponents, by KenPom rankings from prior season: Missouri (No. 31), North Carolina State (No. 34), Stanford (No. 44), UCLA (No. 45)
NCAA Tournament qualifiers from prior season: 3 (Missouri, North Carolina State, UCLA)
Collins’ first year as coach featured what appeared to be a tremendously difficult non-conference schedule at the top, with the Cats taking on NC State and Stanford on the road and Missouri and UCLA at a neutral site. Unfortunately for NU, the team wasn’t up for the challenge; the Cats lost all four of these games by a combined 61 points.
From what we know now, the Cats’ 2016-2017 non-conference schedule is shaping up similarly to their schedule for 2013-2014, where NU played a host of quality teams from the previous season.
But Collins’ first squad serves as a reminder that scheduling big games is not the same as winning them, as the Cats went 14-19 that season. With four NCAA Tournament qualifiers scheduled and the potential for another solid non-conference opponent out of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, NU will certainly have the chances for a signature win that it lacked last year. But to return to the postseason, the Cats will need to win some of those games, a feat easier said than done.