Selection Sunday has grown into an annual date of frustration for Northwestern basketball. In recent years, the Wildcats have toed the bubble cutline right up until the end, when the brackets come out and the field of 68 is set and the disappointment sets in. The truth is, Northwestern’s resumes were not of Tournament caliber. Their exclusion was not hard to predict. A new season brings newfound optimism, a strong sense of hope that March will bring the postseason destination NU has long sought, but never quite attained. The process to reaching that destination begins today, when the Wildcats begin their nonconference season against Texas Southern. Taking care of business against this SWAC foe won’t help Northwestern’s Tournament hopes. Other games on the non-league slate offer the chance to stamp the Wildcats’ ledger with high SOS (strength of schedule) victories and RPI-boosting data points, the type of stuff the selection committee drools over in their deliberation process. I’ve highlighted four games in Northwestern’s nonleague slate, each of which presents a unique challenge and, conversely, a unique opportunity for resume glitter. You may find yourself glued to NU’s football season, but make it a point of emphasis to steer your eyes towards the basketball court this Fall, because what happens now can make or break NU’s Tournament chances.
Maryland (November 27)
The NCAA’s decision last week to grant Xavier transfer Dez Wells eligibility breathes new levels of importance into this game. Why? With Wells on board, Maryland could challenge for an ACC title as early as this season. They were already a very sure bet to make the NCAA Tournament. Wells essentially seals that fate while raising the Terrapins’ talent ceiling and inserting them into the ACC title conversation. The news runs twofold for Northwestern. At its base, the decision means NU will have a much more difficult time beating Maryland. Wells, the A-10 freshman of the year last season, is a highly-skilled, highly-athletic perimeter force, a ferocious slasher built like an outside linebacker, prone to attacking the rim and finishing with impunity. The Wildcats will have trouble dealing with that kind of package. More broadly, Wells’ entry means a win over Maryland could end up looking like a very impressive feat come March. If NU can find a way to reign in Wells, and ultimately knock off the Terrapins, this very well could stand as the decisive chip on the Wildcats Tournament dossier. You can be forgiven for merely glossing over Northwestern’s basketball progress in the earliest part of the season. It’s hard to convince even the most passionate Wildcats fans to get excited about Texas Southern and Delaware State. The neglect ends with this game. This is a quality opponent, a perfect chance to notch a victory NU can hang its hat on.
@Baylor (December 4)
The most embarrassing result of NU’s 2011-12 season was the home loss to Baylor. The Bears walked into Welsh-Ryan arena and blitzed the Wildcats’ feeble frontcourt with vicious alley-oops and demoralizing shot blocks. Baylor proved it was a bona fide contender in the Big 12; it also proved Northwestern didn’t have nearly enough athletic potential to handle their NBA-laden roster. The outcome was never in doubt. The challenge gets tougher this time around, with Northwestern making the trip to Waco, where another loaded Baylor squad will be coming off an away date at Kentucky. With another highly-touted recruiting class waiting in the wings, including Isaiah Austin, 2012’s No. 1 center and No. 2 player overall, Scott Drew’s squad will bear striking resemblance to last year’s polished group. If the Bears fall at Rupp Arena – the likely outcome, given John Calipari’s unblemished home record since taking over in 2009 – they will do everything in their power to avoid dropping consecutive nonconference games. With a roster stuffed to the gills with future pros, Baylor will be ready to put the smackdown on the Wildcats. Barring an upset in Lexington, there will be some cathartic cleansing at work here. Baylor will come ready to exercise their frustration on Northwestern. Should the Wildcats pull off the upset, they will have earned a statement win to anchor their nonleague portion of their season body of work.
Butler (December 8)
The Tournament darlings of 2010-11 experienced natural regression last season. The signature Brad Stevens defense of recent vintage was back, but the offensive output didn’t match up. Of particular concern was three-point shooting, where Butler finished ranked 341st nationally percentage-wise. They addressed that problem in two ways. Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke is a lights-out long-range marksman, and is not afraid to fire away in copious quantities. Freshman Kellen Dunham is likewise a deadeye three-point gunner, and he too will play significant minutes this season. Throw in another strong defensive unit, plus returning Final Four vets Khyle Marshall, Chase Stigall and Andrew Smith, and the end result is an experienced team very much in line for an NCAA Tournament rebirth. Which is to say that beating Butler, while perhaps not quite as impressive as Maryland or Baylor, is a nice pelt for the nonconference ledger. The Bulldogs are bolting to the A-10 this season, a league that has long since outgrown the mid-major label, and one that could produce upwards of five Tournament bids this season. A victory over a potentially Tournament-bound Power Six-lite opponent could be just what the doctor ordered. Northwestern would do well to seize this opportunity.
Stanford (December 21)
There’s no question Stanford is trending upward under coach Johnny Dawkins. There are very high expectations for the Cardinal after last season’s strong finish and NIT Championship run. Returning guards Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright form one of the Pac-12’s best backcourt duos. Forward Josh Huestis should continue his development into a capable frontcourt threat. Swingman Anthony Brown came on strong in the postseason. These are all positive indicators for Stanford’s expected post-NIT Champion leap. It all looks very good on paper, but there are questions as to whether Stanford is ready to break into the upper echelon of the PAC-12 in 2012-13, or whether it is still a year or two away. I’m inclined to go with the latter. Stanford is improving, no doubt, and there is considerable momentum building in Palo Alto. It is not inconceivable the basketball program can soon match the consistent success generated by the football team. It just feels like we’re rallying around a process – the rise of Cardinal basketball – that’s not yet ready to coalesce. If I’m wrong, and if Stanford is indeed ready to get over the hump, Northwestern should spotlight this date as a prime opportunity to make one last statement before conference play. Even if Stanford doesn’t meet its lofty expectations, laying waste to a power-conference foe on your home floor counts as a bonus.