WNUR 4-on-4: Northwestern Men’s Basketball Schedule

Alex Olah resurfaced with a double-double against Michigan, and he's one of Ari and Ryan's

Alex Olah works in the post against Georgia Tech in NU’s 2014 Big Ten ACC Challenge game. Photo credit: Nam Y. Huh, AP.

Northwestern announced its schedule yesterday, and it’s one that sets up for a lot of wins but against lesser competition.  Our Will Greer, Ari Ross, Ryan Fish, and Ben Goren give their takes on what the schedule means for NU basketball.

1) What are your initial reactions to the schedule? What does this mean for NU’s postseason hopes?

Will Greer: Where’s the marquee non-conference home game? Scratch that, where is even the just average home game? It doesn’t exist. This non-conference schedule gives Northwestern absolutely no margin for error before Big Ten play begins, and furthermore presents only two opportunities (both at the CBE Classic) to win a high-quality non-conference game.

Ari Ross: Northwestern’s non-conference schedule is weak, really weak. We don’t know who they’re going to play in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic, but besides that, there’s not a single team in the Top 100 RPI from last year. It’s a weak slate, but also a relatively easy slate. And with an easy slate Northwestern could rack up a bunch of wins, but in terms of their hopes for the NCAA Tournament, their schedule is going to look very weak in comparison to other power conference teams. If they lose more than 1-2 non-conference games, their tournament hopes are probably shot.

Ryan Fish: I, like many, was honestly surprised at how weak the schedule is. While a weaker schedule made some sense a season ago when considering the team’s youth, the fact that the schedule is even weaker this year doesn’t bode well for a team now seeking a run at the NCAA Tournament. I like the matchups in the CBE Classic, which should provide a reasonable challenge for NU. That being said, wins against teams with such low RPI’s along with the risk of a bad loss early in the season can both tank a tournament résumé in a hurry.

Ben Goren: Well I wasn’t hyped, that’s for sure.  It’s an NIT schedule.  With this slate, it’s hard to envision Northwestern falling short of 20 wins on the season.  The issue is who those wins are going to be.  Nobody on their non-conference schedule builds a resume except for North Carolina, and it wouldn’t surprise me if NU avoided playing them.  The selection committee is going to look at Northwestern’s schedule and see a team that shirked away from playing legitimate competition.  Strength of schedule is important.  Really important.  Ask UCLA last year, who didn’t beat anybody but played a brutal non-con slate and made the tourney.  Or ask 2009 Penn State who won 22 games on the year but missed the NCAA because they didn’t play anyone.  I don’t want to say that this season is DOA, but NU is going to have to place in the top 5 or 6 in the Big Ten to make the NCAA Tournament with this schedule.

2) Are there any home games that you’re looking forward to?

Will Greer: An intriguing non-conference home game does not exist on this schedule. Northwestern doesn’t play a non-conference opponent at home that finished .500 or better last season. The Wildcats’ schedule isn’t loaded with with mid-majors; it’s loaded with some of Division 1’s worst competition.

Ari Ross: The two games that I might be mildly interested in, DePaul and Virginia Tech, are on the road. There’s not a single marquee non-conference game at Home. SIUE? Colombia? New Orleans? Mississippi Valley State again? Northwestern is going to have a tough time selling fans and students to come to that.

Ryan Fish: Watching the team’s season-opener against the mighty River Hawks of U-Mass-Lowell is something that I’m looking forward to, if for no other reason but to see the team’s new talent and chemistry in real game action for the first time. Beyond that, it doesn’t look like Welsh-Ryan Arena will be seeing a lot of riveting non-conference action in 2015.

Ben Goren: Low key, I’m borderline excited for Northwestern-Fairfield.  Fairfield is an awful no good team who were barely ranked in the top 300 by KenPom, but guess who was a special advisor to the team there last year?  BILL CARMODY! BILL CARMODY IS (kinda sorta by extension) COMING BACK TO WELSH-RYAN WHICH MEANS I’M FREAKING TURNT TO 11 LE’GO.

3) Does the benefit of winning 11 or 12 games outweigh the risk of losing to a resume-killingly bad team?

Will Greer: Absolutely not. If the selection committee has been clear about anything in recent years, it’s that teams are to schedule strong, NCAA Tournament-quality competition in the non-conference. Racking up wins against meaningless competition in the non-conference season means nothing to the committee and could jeopardize Northwestern’s chances of getting to the Big Dance.

Ari Ross: Time and time again I think we’ve seen that the selection committee values strength of schedule. Bad losses are really bad and losses to decent or good teams aren’t as bad. Northwestern scheduled a bunch of cupcakes and it could come back to haunt them either way. If they lose, they’re out, and if they win them all, their non-conference is still too weak to get them in the tournament. I’d much rather have Northwestern schedule a few tough opponents. Close losses to tough opponents look better than blowout wins to weak opponents.

Ryan Fish: Not necessarily. As we saw with this team last year, games that were thought to be easy wins (Elon, Western Michigan) turned into nail-biters. While this year’s team should be more mature and polished, they’re still vulnerable. Plus, the strength of those 11 or 12 wins would still come into serious question for any postseason committee.

Ben Goren: First of all, I agree with Ryan that it might be a mistake to put 11 wins down in pen.  Northwestern had to grind out games against Elon and North Florida, took 30 minutes to put away Houston Baptist, darn near lost to Rutgers, and lost to Western Michigan.  Assuming they’ll win every game against lesser competition is a mistake.  But to answer whether wins outweigh potential terrible losses, it depends on NU’s goal.  As a fan, I’d be happy with the NIT.  If postseason is the goal, this slate is fine.  If the NCAA Tournament is the goal, padding stats with 11 gimme wins does not outweigh the low strength of schedule NU will be bringing to the selection committee.

4) Does this slate get the team, and specifically the freshmen, ready for big ten play?

Will Greer: Like last season, the freshmen on this team will be thrown into the Big Ten fire come January. This schedule not only includes many games against weak competition but also features the slate’s two toughest games in November. If this team is going to have success, its younger players are going to have to learn as they go in conference play.

Ari Ross: Absolutely not. They’ll be able to try some things out that maybe they wouldn’t have been able to do against a higher level of competition, but get them ready for Big Ten play? Facing probable No. 1 overall Maryland pales in comparison to Chicago State or Sacred Heart. Northwestern won’t have played a single opponent, outside of the CBE HOF Classic, of similar stature to those they’ll face in the Big Ten.

Ryan Fish: I personally think that a slightly more challenging non-conference schedule would have benefitted the team more. A win-heavy non-conference slate would obviously bring confidence to the team and to the freshmen. At the same time, the younger ‘Cats might have a tougher time adjusting to a stacked Big Ten come January. The question, then, is how fairly can we judge the freshmen’s contributions in non-conference play, and what kind of a drop off can we expect from them when Big Ten play begins?

Ben Goren: Yes and no.  NU didn’t play anyone on the level of the top of the conference last season and Bryant McIntosh still had a great year.  There are Big Ten teams who would struggle with this competition.  Penn State and Rutgers would maybe win 7 games against these teams.  But there is going to be an alarming jump in quality when NU goes from Chicago State to Indiana, and I’m not sure they’re going to be ready for it.  It took Vic Law a while to get his feet under him in Big Ten play next year.  Don’t be surprised if Aaron Falzon and Jordan Ash experience the same thing.


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