by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Northwestern released it's 2012-2013 non-conference basketball schedule this afternoon, and really, it's typical of the program's recent non-conference scheduling — maybe a little bit tougher than last season.
Mixed in with the cupcakes — Fairleigh Dickinson, Texas Southern, Texas State and Brown, to name a few — are some quality opponents. The Wildcats travel to Baylor to play the away half of their home-and-home series and they also have home games against Stanford, Butler and Maryland, the latter as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
Those last four games could hold the key to NU's postseason plans come March.
Over the last few years, while NU has been on the fringe of making the NCAA Tournament, its rallying cry is that it hasn't had any bad losses. However, the selection committee's choices made it clear that avoiding bad losses wasn't nearly as big of a deal as NU made it. Coach Bill Carmody reflected on that after the season and said that criteria could change scheduling — in other words, that the schedule would get tougher.
"It's like bad losses didn’t seem to hurt teams as much as good wins helped them," he said. "Some teams had some really bad losses, but they were in December so it didn’t seem to matter as much. We’ll definitely look at all the aspects of it, the scheduling."
There wasn't tons Carmody could do to make this season's schedule tougher, but it certainly is a little more rigorous. Now, the challenge will be to grab some marquee wins — that group consists of Maryland, Baylor, Butler and Stanford — in addition to just beating up on the cupcakes.
People will try to put a number on what NU's record needs to be, and really, that's not realistic. Record doesn't matter as much as where the wins come from and how good the conference is — it figures to be very good. However, anything below a 2-2 record against those four teams puts the Cats in a big hole before Big Ten play starts. Let's break down the possibilities:
The only game on there that NU won't be given much of a chance to win is the Baylor game. It won't be the beatdown it was in 2011 because NU will have players inside to defend against the Bears' athleticism. However, it's on the road and Baylor is a talented team, so it makes sense that the Cats would be the underdogs.
The three biggest games, by far, are the match-ups against Maryland, Butler and Stanford, and realistically, NU will have to go 2-1 in those games. If the frontcourt gets itself together, there's a possibility of 3-0, but 2-1 seems like the most realistic goal. Here's a quick summary of each opponent:
Maryland: The Terrapins lost their leading scorer (and the ACC's leading scorer) from last year, Terrell Stoglin, to suspension — he consequently declared for the NBA Draft — and that could hamper their potential for an NCAA Tournament run after a 17-15 season in coach Mark Turgeon's first season. They'll need a breakout season from sophomore center Alex Len and some guards to step up if they want to make the Big Dance.
Butler: This isn't the same Butler team that made consecutive National Championship Game appearances. The Bulldogs struggled to a CBI berth last season and aren't a sure-fire shot for the NCAA Tournament this year, their first year in the Atlantic 10. However, Brad Stevens' team always presents a challenge — they beat Purdue last year — and this team will be better than last year's. Center Andre Smith and forward Khyle Marshall, Butler's leading scorers from last year, could give NU's new frontcourt fits.
Stanford: The Cardinal are likely the best team of this trio and ended last season on the uptick with an NIT Championship. Guard Chasson Randle — a Rock Island, Illinois, native — returns from an under-the-radar freshman campaign in which he led Stanford with 13.6 points per game. He'll be aided by junior forward Josh Huestis, who is expected to play a bigger role.
Obviously none of those games are gimmes, but none of them are out of reach. Despite the graduation of John Shurna, this team will be better than last year and much better-equiped to handle teams with good frontcourts. The addition of Jared Swopshire was huge for NU and forward Nikola Cerina is eligible, which will help provide more experience. It's still unclear whether 7-2 freshman center Chier Ajou will be cleared to play by the NCAA, but his counterpart at center, 7-0 freshman Alex Olah, looked good in the limited practice he has had so far and he'll provide an inside presence that the Cats didn't have last year.
This year, NU won't have to live and die by the three since it has an inside presence, and that will lead to a lot more consistency once the season gets rolling. The question remains whether the Cats can put everything together in that frontcourt to develop consistency by the time these games roll around. If they do, they have the potential to win all three.
I'm not ready to make any predictions since we don't know how this team will gel yet, but 2-2 in those four games is certainly possible. If NU can achieve that, an NCAA Tournament berth will be in reach by the time Big Ten play starts.