As games on Northwestern men’s basketball’s 2016-17 non-conference schedule start to trickle out, our Austin Miller and Will Greer went back and forth discussing the schedule so far, what they’d still like to see, and the mindset of non-conference scheduling in men’s basketball.
Austin: Here’s what we know for sure so far: Northwestern will host Wake Forest as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, visit Butler as part of the Gavitt Games, host DePaul, and play two games against a combination of Colorado, Texas, and Notre Dame as part of the Legends Classic in Brooklyn. As well, there’s a rumored game against Dayton at the United Center as part of the schedule. It really looks like this year’s schedule is going to be a step up from last year’s, doesn’t it?
Will: It sure does, Austin. It would be pretty darn difficult for this year’s non-conference schedule to be worse than last year’s, but games against Notre Dame, who returns four of five starters from an Elite 8 team and Dayton, who will most likely be the preseason Atlantic 10 favorite, could give NU two non-conference games against top-25 RPI teams, which would be one more than they had all of last year. Butler, Texas and Colorado will all theoretically be in rebuilding mode but still represent three better-than-average college basketball programs. DePaul and Wake Forest will probably have RPIs above 100 but will still be good tests for Northwestern. Do the ‘Cats need to add another big time non-conference game to round out this schedule, Austin?
Austin: I don’t think they necessarily need another “big” game, as much as they need a slate of “not awful” games. Last season, NU’s non-conference schedule was full of RPI land-mines, teams that Northwestern gained absolutely nothing by beating. With 8 games already accounted for (Northwestern will host two teams of the Legends Classic’s choosing as part of the warm-up for the big show in Brooklyn), Northwestern controls the final 5 games on their schedule. Of those 5, it’s crucial that 3 or 4 of them are at least respectable squads. When calculating RPI, there is a MASSIVE difference between a team ranked in the top 175, and a team below 300. Northwestern should easily beat either of those teams, but the difference in how those teams rank in the RPI, and thus the effect it has on Northwestern’s RPI, is critical. With that in mind, who are some of the teams you’d like to see Northwestern schedule in those last 5 games Will?
Will: I couldn’t agree any more with you Austin. While it’s not great, I think it’s definitely okay to schedule one or maybe two games against 200+ RPI teams, especially at the very beginning of the season. Those games can serve as quasi-exhibition games and certainly boost confidence. But Northwestern has no business playing the Lamar’s of the college basketball world as it’s preparing for Big Ten play in December (Sorry, Cardinals). I don’t necessarily have specific teams in mind, but almost any team from the Atlantic 10 or Missouri Valley is such a significant step up from so many of the teams NU played last season. And if the ‘Cats do schedule games against teams from worse conferences, those games have to be against the top-tier teams in said conferences. For instance, when looking at the Horizon League, the difference between playing Green Bay (23-13, RPI of 115 last year) and UIC (5-25, RPI of 346 last year) is absolutely huge.
Austin: It takes research to put together a good non-conference schedule! We can’t just say, “Play Horizon League teams!” we have to qualify that by saying that even in that league, there are both good and bad opponents. Overall, I think we’re in agreement. Chris Collins and company are off to a great start, but these last 5 openings represent a chance for the Wildcats to schedule winnable games that won’t tank their computer numbers.