Simple press releases are boring to look at, everybody knows it. Northwestern avoided that problem earlier this week by releasing its nonconference basketball schedule not with some sterilized news brief, but a video interview featuring running commentary from coach Chris Collins and assistants Tavaras Hardy and Patrick Baldwin. Together the three coaches added terse but insightful analysis about each upcoming game, even the putatively pushover pastry fluff early in the schedule, and in the end what you got was a visually engaging product far more interesting than anything the great sports communication staff over at NUSports.com could have whipped up on Microsoft word.
We also have our own thoughts on the nonconference schedule, and for today’s debate topic, we’re ready to expand those thoughts into a (hopefully) coherent long form description of our “favorite” contest and why. If this concept sounds murky and indistinct, that’s because it is. On May 24, more than five months away from opening tip, precise analysis about the upcoming season is almost impossible. This is a reflection of our early thoughts on the nonconference schedule, and the most personally appealing games listed on it, and nothing else. Agree? Disagree? Think this is a dumb debate topic in the first place? Let us know in the comments section.
At Stanford (November 14)
No one is exactly sure what Northwestern’s first Chris Collins-coached team will look like, but we’d all like to find out as soon as possible, and the Wildcats’ game at Stanford on November 14 allows for that opportunity in just the first week of season. I don’t expect their tune-up game against Eastern Illinois five days earlier to offer any real adversity, or even an equally talented band of opposition. Northwestern should win, and win convincingly.
Because it will be difficult to glean any important observational analysis from the Eastern game – without requisitely challenging opposition, everything (from numbers to minutes totals to playing time splits) needs to be taken with a fat grain of salt – the Stanford can be viewed as Northwestern’s first “real” game. Heading to Palo Alto to take on a mostly intact Cardinal team would be difficult at any point of the upcoming season. In early November, at a time when the Wildcats are still just feeling themselves and their new coach out, still just figuring out how to make all the pieces fit comfortably and efficiently in a philosophically new system, Northwestern’s could face just as many challenges internally as from the Cardinal itself.
If they do settle on manageable lineup constructions and quickly define each player’s responsibilities and strengths and weaknesses, the Wildcats should be ready to compete with an NCAA-Tournament-aspiring roster on its home floor. A loss won’t be crippling for Northwestern’s Tournament prospects, or even its early-season morale. Stanford is a solid team that returns almost every player of note from last season’s NIT outfit, including athletic big man Dwight Powell and versatile backcourt duo Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, and surviving on the road in nonconference play this early in the season is difficult for even the most veteran, seasoned, time-tested clubs.
Winning a game like this is a lot to ask of any team. I don’t expect Northwestern to beat the Cardinal on its home floor, just to challenge and scrap and compete and flash the intense work ethic and new tactical structure Collins hopes to implement in his first year as Northwestern’s head coach. I want to see what this team will look like with a different offensive philosophy, and a coach who has spent the last 13 years learning under arguably the most versatile cross-competition hoops coach of all time. I want to see how prepared the Wildcats will be just one week into the regular season. I want to see what Drew Crawford looks like one year removed from shoulder surgery against a tough defense game-planned to shut him down, and how much JerShon Cobb’s offensive game has progressed in the span of one full year off the court.
I want to see this Northwestern team come together right away, in the second week of November, and give a Tournament-hopeful bunch like Stanford everything they could ask for and more in their own gym. The untold benefits of sealing a big nonconference road win, the early confidence boost of seeing a new coach’s tactical and motivational wisdom come together at this early date, could propel Northwestern to the type of RPI-boosting out-of-league portfolio it has desperately lacked in recent bubble-mired Selection Sunday disappointments. Win or not, the game, its location, and the opponent involved will offer an entertaining Thursday night viewing diversion from our football-enthralled mid-Fall attention spans.
Intensely competitive nonconference basketball is something I’ll never turn down, and if it involves the team I spend countless hours writing about and analyzing each and every year, I’m going to dig into the matchup a little deeper than usual. Northwestern-Stanford is a fun and relatively even-matched fixture, and it has the potential to awaken the Wildcats and Big Ten hoops world to what Collins’ first Wildcats team can and can’t accomplish against a good opponent.
- Chris Johnson
Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29)
The schedule for the Las Vegas Invitational hasn't officially been announced yet, so Northwestern will technically be playing two out of the following three teams — UCLA, Missouri and Nevada — in Sin City. However, unless the Missouri athletic department was severely misinformed, it looks like the Wildcats will draw UCLA and Missouri.
Selfishly, I like the Las Vegas Invite because it's about
100 1,000 times more interesting than having to write about the South Padre Invitational or even the Charleston Classic. It's absolutely amazing to me that NU couldn't schedule a better tournament than the South Padre Invitational last year, especially considering they figured to have JerShon Cobb and a healthy Drew Crawford when the tournament was scheduled. But that's irrelevant now, and the Wildcats will finally play in a tournament that will be shown on a TV station people have actually heard of.
Competition-wise, most people would say this is a mixed blessing for NU. I tend to disagree — it's a major blessing. Considering the quality of the competition, it's entirely possible that the Wildcats will go 0-2, but this is a much better situation than last year's tournament. Last year, what did NU have to gain? The Cats won the South Padre Island Invitational, but going 2-0 and TCU and Illinois State meant absolutely nothing. It did nothing for their RPI, and had they not narrowly escaped Illinois State, their slim margin of error to make the NCAA Tournament would have gotten even slimmer. This year's NU team isn't widely considered an NCAA Tournament contender, but to even get on the radar, the Wildcats have to pick up some quality non-conference wins. They have two chances in Las Vegas, which is two more chances than they would have had playing on South Padre Island, in Charleston or in any other semi-exotic place with a tournament played on channel 864. Some people will argue that it would have been better to ensure two wins, but to me, risking 0-2 for the chance at a big win seems well worth it for NU.
I've touched on this a bit already, but this is a huge step up in exposure for a program that is always looking for some time in the national spotlight. For one, the Las Vegas Invitational is broadcast on ESPN2, while the South Padre Island Invitational was broadcast on CBS Sports Network (an obscure channel, not CBS). But the exposure of playing some big name teams is also important. UCLA, especially, carries weight nationally, so if the Wildcats can hang with the Bruins, get the nation to turn on their TVs for the second half of a close game and pull out a win, NU will get more exposure this offseason than it ever could have hoped for last year. That scenario may be a longshot, but it's good for that opportunity to be there, and regardless, the exposure will be better than last year.
- Kevin Trahan