By Will Greer (@willy_nillie)

Northwestern women’s basketball will begin its deceivingly tough non-conference schedule on Sunday when it hosts Howard at Welsh-Ryan Arena. While the Bison are arguably the weakest opponent on the Wildcats’ slate, Joe McKeown’s squad will certainly be challenged before Big Ten conference play rolls around on New Year’s Eve in Happy Valley.

Six of the 12 teams on the non-conference schedule played in the postseason last year, and four teams finished with a top-100 RPI ranking. The average RPI of non-conference opponents from the end of last season is just under 189 (compared to 250 for men’s basketball) and last season’s combined winning percentage for non-conference opponents is .489 (compared to .325 for men’s basketball).

To better analyze the non-conference slate, we’ve broken up the schedule into three categories, based off of opponents’ performance from last season and preseason media polls for this season.

Tough tests

There are two games on the non-conference schedule that have to be circled by McKeown, including an early December trip to Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina and a pre-Christmas home tilt with DePaul just 17 days later.

The Tar Heels were an impressive 26-9 last year and advanced to the Sweet 16 before being ousted by South Carolina, 67-65. North Carolina is ranked No. 22 in the preseason AP Top 25 and is predicted to finish seventh in a loaded ACC by a panel of coaches and media.

DePaul boasted a 27-8 record en route to a Big East Tournament Championship. The Blue Demons were ousted by eventual runner-up Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern’s neighbor from just 11 miles down the road is just two spots away from the preseason AP Top 25 and was picked by Big East coaches to repeat as conference champions.

A win against either North Carolina or DePaul would be big for Northwestern and would qualify as a high quality non-conference victory.

Trap games

Although not boasting the allure of the tough tests mentioned above, there is certainly a challenging second tier of games on this schedule. East Carolina, Creighton, Western Michigan and Eastern Washington all finished with respectable RPI’s last season (all below 125).

All four teams played in the WNIT a season ago and are picked to finish in the top-six of their respective conferences.

Three of these four games will be played over Thanksgiving weekend in the Lone Star Showcase, providing the Wildcats with three interesting early season tests. Western Michigan visits Evanston on November 22 in the lone “trap game” not to be played in Texas.

Cupcakes

Like any normal Big Ten non-conference schedule, Northwestern has plenty of cupcakes on the schedule, providing the Wildcats with an opportunity to work on weaknesses and give younger players a chance to acclimate to Division 1 basketball before Big Ten play starts.

Six games on the non-conference slate are against teams whose RPI at the end of last season was above 230, including Idaho State, Milwaukee, Loyola (IL), Alcorn State, Howard and UMKC. Additionally, four of these six teams had an RPI above 300 (Loyola, Alcorn State, Howard and UMKC).

Northwestern should have no problem defeating this half of its non-conference schedule and should take advantage of these games by building confidence and ironing out wrinkles from practice.

The Wildcats should have no problem winning nine or ten games heading into Big Ten play on December 31. Games against North Carolina and DePaul will provide opportunities for an NCAA Tournament résumé boost, games against a strong second tier of teams will provide deceivingly strong non-conference tests and games against cupcakes will boost the record and confidence of Joe McKeown’s preseason No. 19 squad.

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