By Kevin Sweeney
In anticipation of the 2019-20 season, Northwestern officially released its non-conference schedule to mixed reviews Tuesday morning. Initial reactions from both fans and media were mostly negative, especially in regards to a weak home slate that features just one high-major team (Providence).
Let’s break down the slate as a whole:
11/8 vs Merrimack: The Wildcats will open the season with the newest member of Division 1 making the trip to Evanston. Merrimack joins the NEC and begins the 4-year transition to full D1 status this year, coming off a 22-10 season in its final year in D2. The Warriors return four of their top five scorers from last season, including star guard Juvaris Hayes, an athletic point guard who is great at getting to the rim and is also a terrific defender. This should be a fairly easy win for the ‘Cats.
11/13 vs Providence: The best team the ‘Cats will face at home and perhaps overall during the non-conference, the Friars bring back tons of talent from last season’s NIT team and are expected to take major steps forward in 2019. Like Northwestern, point guard play doomed the Friars last season. Unlike Northwestern, Ed Cooley’s club has a clearer answer to that question entering this year with the addition of UMass grad transfer Luwane Pipkins paired with the continued development of sophomore David Duke. This game is part of the Gavitt Games and should be tight, but I’ll pencil this one in early for the Friars.
11/19 vs Radford: Mike Jones has built a consistent Big South power at Radford, winning 20 or more games in four of the last six seasons and claiming the conference’s regular season title in 2018-19. The Highlanders bring back star point guard Carlik Jones, a guy who could play at any level in the country with his ability to score the ball and create for others. Among the mid-majors coming to Welsh-Ryan Arena this fall, Radford profiles to be the toughest test. Still, it’s a game Northwestern should win.
11/22 vs Norfolk State: The Spartans lose a lot from the team that won the MEAC regular season title in 2018-19, but they have consistently been competitive in the MEAC despite roster turnover under Rob Jones. Steven Whitley and Saint Louis transfer Jermaine Bishop should form a strong backcourt that the ‘Cats will have to lock down to ensure no upsets happen on a sleepy Friday in Evanston. After all, the Spartans did beat Alabama last season.
11/25 vs Bradley (Fort Myers): Northwestern rarely gives top regional mid-majors the chance to take a crack at them, but tournament play will give the defending Missouri Valley Tournament champs in Bradley a crack at a B1G foe. This should prove to be a very difficult matchup– the Braves bring back two stars in Darrell Brown and Elijah Childs, add a good transfer in Danya Kingsby, and could see significant development from younger players like Ja’Shon Henry and Ari Boya. This will likely be a top-100 team nationally and a great test for Northwestern on a neutral court.
11/27 vs Pitt/Kansas State (Fort Myers): Depending on the result of the game against Bradley, this game will be either for the championship of the Fort Myers Tip-Off or for 3rd place. The o- ther purple Wildcats figure to take a step back from last year’s top-25 season given how much they graduate out of a long-tenured backcourt, but Bruce Weber teams are always strong on the defensive end and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them on the bubble come March. Meanwhile, at Pittsburgh Jeff Capel has gotten off to a good start in what was a full-scale rebuild when he took over. Landing star point guard Xavier Johnson in his first class was huge, and Johnson is likely the best player in this tournament. Still, both are winnable games for Northwestern.
12/3 at Boston College: Played as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the ‘Cats will head to Chestnut Hill in the “AJ Turner Bowl” (trademark pending) against a perennial ACC cellar-dweller. Losing star guard Ky Bowman early to the professional ranks certainly doesn’t help BC’s cause, though the hope is that grad transfer Derryck Thornton and the continued emergence of Wynston Tabbs can make the Eagles relevant. Road games are always difficult, so we’ll chalk this up as another 50/50 game.
12/15 vs SIU–Edwardsville: Northwestern returns from its break for final exams with a game against a team that is 31-88 in its last four seasons and has never had a winning season in its time as a D1 program. New coach Brian Barone has his hands full, and this should be a relatively easy win for the ‘Cats.
12/21 at DePaul: The crosstown rivalry continues with its second-ever meeting at Wintrust Arena in downtown Chicago, DePaul’s (relatively) new home. The Blue Demons add Kansas transfer Charlie Moore and an elite recruit in Romeo Weems to a returning group headlined by star big man Paul Reed. This is a tough, albeit winnable game on the road.
12/29 vs Hartford: Northwestern wraps up the non-conference slate with a visit from Hartford, a team whose top seven scorers were seniors last season. That makes projecting what this Hartford team will look like difficult, though it’s hard to imagine they can challenge the ‘Cats with so little experience. Grad transfers Traci Carter (La Salle via Marquette) and Malik Ellison (Pitt via St John’s) both should be formidable at the America East level, but this is one Northwestern should win and win big.
This is the right schedule for Northwestern to play, despite it lacking name brands in the non-conference schedule. Northwestern is in a rebuilding season with lots of young players, and getting a chance to gel against lower-level competition while still seeing four high-major tests (in addition to a strong Bradley club) is the right way to go. Anything worse than 6-4 would spell disaster, and anything better than 8-2 would be an incredibly positive outcome for a young group.