Football season is here, even if it isn’t actually here. The opening of preseason camps, and corresponding rise in anticipation, has drowned out every other sports-related interest one might otherwise have this time of year. College basketball has been muzzled by football’s monopolistic fall chokehold on the national sports consciousness, at least temporarily, and though November season tip-off creeps closer and closer, Couch-affixed TV Saturdays and tailgates and bowl games are the only things on any college sports fan’s mind right now.
This particular sentiment encapsulates a sizable majority of the Northwestern fan base. Wildcat fans are more excited about football than basketball, and why blame them? There is a ton of momentum surrounding the football program right now; the basketball team is coming off a 4-14 season. But before you put on your hoops blinders for the next three months, and focus every non-working hour of your life on Wildcats football, here’s a refresher on three basketball contests you should be mindful of as the Wildcats approach nonconference play.
Football is great, but you won’t want to miss any of these games.
Thursday, November 14: at Stanford
Two days before the Wildcats host Michigan in a critical Legends home game, the hoops squad embarks on a west coast trip to finish up a home-and-home it began last season in agonizing fashion. Northwestern erased an 18-point first-half deficit and pushed Stanford to the wire at Welsh Ryan Arena, eventually losing by two and missing a huge opportunity to notch a solid nonconference win. It was Northwestern’s last chance to beef up its nonconference portfolio following missed opportunities against Maryland and Butler, and without lead guard Drew Crawford, who announced he would sit out the season earlier that month, the Wildcats were outdone on their home floor.
This season, the Cardinal will be better. If it isn't, coach Johnny Dawkins will almost certainly be let go at the end of the season. The backcourt of Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright return, and frontcourt duo Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell (a potential first-round pick) can bang in the post with the best of the Pac 12. This is a deep, solid team with NCAA Tournament entry as its modest baseline. The ceiling is a Pac 12 championship, and it’s not totally unrealistic. Stanford is one of several improved Pac-12 squads that should hover around the top-25 at various points this season, and losing a manageable nonconference game at home could be a huge setback at a juncture when it hopes to be building momentum in advance of Pac-12 play. The Cardinal should, and probably will, complete a sweep of this home-and-home series.
This game will be new coach Chris Collins’ first true road test, and even if the Wildcats don’t pull the upset, it will be interesting to see how they respond to the rigors of a tough cross-country voyage against a team with legitimate designs on a conference title.
Friday, November 19: UCLA
The Las Vegas Invitational has a weird set-up this season. Because Missouri and UCLA are scheduled to play one another during the regular season, they can’t play during this Tournament. That’s why the schedule is already locked in. Northwestern will play two games in Vegas – one against Missouri and one against UCLA. The first one could be interesting, and the Tigers – even after losing the lion’s share of last season’s uptempo-facilitating nucleus – are a difficult draw. UCLA is more intriguing for reasons obvious and not.
For starters, it’s UCLA. That name still resonates for some, maybe less so for those not familiar with the program’s rich basketball history. For all the unseemly and scurrilous details emanating out of Westwood over the final years of Ben Howland’s tenure – none more revealing than George Dohrmann’s bombshell report -- UCLA remains one of the most revered entities in college hoops, a blueblood in every sense of the word. With Howland out, and Steve Alford in, the Bruins will be a different team, but based on the rocky nature of the early part of Alford’s tenure – which included a bungled press conference where Alford was clearly unprepared to answer questions about his handling of a sexual assault case at one of his previous coaching stops, and athletic director Dan Guerrero compounding the embarrassment by telling reporters he consulted Alford about the scandal before Alford admitted to never having discussed the situation with Guerrero -- it’s tough to tell whether the change will produce desired results; which, in Westwood, equates to nothing less than a Final Four.
This team doesn’t have the talent to go that far, though a couple of returning sophomores (Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams) and two fifth-year big men (David and Travis Wear) give Alford the natural talent and athleticism to notch a Tournament birth at worst, and a Pac-12-contending run at best, in his first year as the Bruins’ head coach. Freshmen Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford should contribute right away, and wing Norman Powell is another capable perimeter piece to throw at opposing defenses. UCLA won’t return to its Howland-guided Final Four-stacking ways in 2013-14, but it will, needless to say, be one of the toughest games Northwestern plays before Big Ten play.
Wednesday, Dec. 4: at NC State
In a college hoops nonconference world flooded with groan-inducing exempt Tournaments and small-conference filler, there are some events that break the mold – that truly make an effort to produce quality hoop waged between some of the nation’s best teams. The Big Ten-ACC challenge meets most any college basketball fan’s idea of an exciting preseason competition, and like all the years before it – even when the ACC would predictably dominate challenges – this year’s competition won’t disappoint.
Even mundane contests between mid-to-low-tier conference opponents, games like Northwestern v. NC State, are interesting in their own unique way. NC State was one of the sport’s biggest disappointments last season, so losing the bulk of 2012-13’s scoring output – including guards Lorenzo Brown and Rodney Purvis and forwards C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell – could yield surprisingly positive results. More realistic is that Mark Gottfried’s team, recent recruiting surge aside, will backslide into the middle tier of a brutal ACC, which welcomes Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame this season.
This team could struggle to make the NCAA Tournament, and a win in its B1G-ACC challenge game could well be the data point pushing them through the at-large barrier. The same could be said for Northwestern, which makes this game between two fringe Tournament outfits a sneakily important early-season fixture. The Wildcats failed to nail down any nonconference victories of note last season. Getting this one – or any of the others listed above – would be a positive step, and an encouraging way to finish off the meaty part of a nonconference schedule that softens into cupcakes and RPI-killing guarantee wins the rest of the way.