It’s a big day for Northwestern men’s basketball, as the team’s non-conference schedule is set to be released at 11 AM central time. We’ll have the full list of games shortly thereafter, and plenty of analysis (both written and audio) of the slate in the coming days. As Wildcat fans get ready for this morning’s announcement, here’s a quick look back at what we know:
- Northwestern’s non-con schedule last year was brutally bad. Sure, the Wildcats went 12-1 over their non-con slate, and the only loss came against eventual national runner-up North Carolina, but NU’s non conference strength of scheduled ranked 323rd out of 351 D-1 teams. To put this ranking in perspective, the Wildcats’ average non-con opponent was, well, 30 slots WORSE than Rutgers. This non-con schedule couldn’t have helped the Wildcats RPI rating or their chance to earn an NIT bid. Along with better play, a more competitive non-conference schedule would play a huge role in helping NU reach the post-season in 2017.
- This year’s schedule is already better. Last year’s late featured four teams (North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Columbia, and Fairfield) that finished the season ranked in the RPI top 150. What we know of next year’s 13-game slate already includes five. Northwestern participated in the 2015 CBE Classic, which meant a near-certain loss against UNC and a must-win against Missouri. This year’s tournament of choice is the Legends Classic, a Brooklyn-hosted event that includes the Wildcats and three teams that made last year’s NCAA Tournament (Colorado, Texas, and Notre Dame). NU also gets a couple of tune-up games for the Legends Classic, and those contests should be easier than last year’s pre-CBE opponents (Columbia and Fairfield). After not being selected to participate in last year’s Big Ten/Big East challenge aka the Gavitt Games, Northwestern gets a third game against a 2016 tourney team as part of this year’s Gavitt Games slate. The Wildcats will travel to Butler for the second time in three seasons as part of the conference showdown. A United Center-hosted matchup with Dayton and an ACC/Big Ten challenge battle with Wake Forest should both also qualify as top-150 games.
- What we find out today is make-or-break. I’m not just saying this to keep you locked into today’s announcement, even though we likely already know the marquee names on the non-con schedule. Those home games against non-power-5 teams are where NCAA Tournament and NIT resumes are made, just ask Texas Tech. The Red Raiders finished with a 10-2 non-conference record (worse than Northwestern), but had themselves in much better position for a postseason berth after non-conference play. Why? Texas Tech’s non-con, under-the-radar opponents were all pretty solid teams from non-power-5 leagues, rather than mid-major cellar-dwellers. The Raiders hosted (and edged out) eventual NCAA Tournament participants Hawaii, Arkansas Little-Rock, and South Dakota state, who all finished with top-100 RPIs. These games were about as close as Northwestern’s early-November contests against Fairfield and Columbia, but the Red Raiders won all three, and the games proved invaluable come selection Sunday. In all, Texas Tech played eight of its 12 non-con games against RPI top-150 teams, which seems like a reasonable goal for the Wildcats. If Northwestern can add a couple more RPI top-150 mid-majors to the non-conference schedule today, the Wildcats could have an easier road to post-season play in 2017.