By Will Greer
There’s an old adage in sports that says the only way to get better is by consistently playing against better competition. For Chris Collins’ 2015 bunch, that consistent competition won’t come until Big Ten conference play begins in late December.
The ‘Cats are in year three of a gradual rebuilding process, and coach Collins certainly wants to build, not destroy, his team’s confidence heading into Big Ten play. But Northwestern’s strength of competition in the season’s first two months is lackluster.
One team on the out-of-conference schedule (North Carolina) played in college basketball’s overly inclusive postseason last year. That’s because the Heels were the only team on the slate to have finished above .500.
In fact, the twelve teams on Northwestern’s out-of-conference schedule combined to go 144-230 last year. That’s a winning percentage of .385.
You might counter that stat by saying that record isn’t a great “strength of opponent” indicator. So let’s look at last season’s final NCAA.com RPI rankings, which factor in each team’s record as well as strength of schedule.
Northwestern’s 12 non-conference opponents averaged an RPI ranking of just over 250. And if you take out North Carolina’s ranking of nine, the 11 remaining teams averaged a ranking of 272. Furthermore, four out of the 12 teams (New Orleans, Mississippi Valley State, Chicago State and Fairfield) finished in the 300s. There are 351 D1 men’s basketball teams.
If we’ve learned anything from the selection committee over the last few years, it’s that strength of schedule in non-conference play has been rewarded time after time.
You don’t have to look any further than two fairly controversial field inclusions from last year: Indiana and UCLA. The Hoosiers and Bruins had less-than-impressive overall and conference records, but they challenged themselves out-of-conference, playing three or four big time games against teams like Kentucky, Louisville and Gonzaga, just to name a few.
Furthermore, their non-power conference games weren’t against some of D1’s worst competition. Some of the Hoosiers’ and Bruins’ opponents, Long Beach State, UNC Greensboro and Eastern Washington, may not sound sexy, but they are significantly stronger than any of Northwestern’s non-power conference competition this year.
For a Northwestern team that aspires to receive the first NCAA tournament bid in program history, the non-conference schedule will severely hurt come Selection Sunday. The ‘Cats will be penalized for playing very few quality games and a ton of extra-iced cupcakes.
And while a weak out-of-conference slate hurts the team’s perception from the outside, it could also end up hurting the team itself. Bad mistakes often go unpunished by weaker teams and can be reinforced. And one loss against a bad team could hurt the ‘Cats’ confidence more than several losses against strong competition.
NCAA tournament talk isn’t out of the question for this year’s edition of Northwestern men’s basketball, but the team is going to have to play nearly perfect early season basketball, improve against weak competition and pull some serious upsets in conference play if the ‘Cats are going to dance in March.