Northwestern ventures into Big Ten play for the first time under Chris Collins tonight against Wisconsin (6 p.m. CT, ESPN2). Earlier today, I took a look at how NU compares to the rest of the conference based on KenPom statistics.
Now it’s time to take a look at Northwestern’s conference schedule, everything from tonight’s opener to the regular season finale at Purdue. First of all, their opponents: the Big Ten structures its schedule so that every team plays all 11 of the other conference members at least once, and plays 7 of the 11 twice, comprising an 18-game schedule. This year, Northwestern avoids second matchups with Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois and Penn State, which is neither a big advantage nor a big disadvantage.
But more important when dissecting a schedule is trying to discern its ebbs and flows. Stats can predict a lot, but they can’t account for the psychological ups and downs that invariably affect a team, especially during the marathon that is conference play. So here’s a look at NU’s schedule, divided into five distinct sections, and the various dynamics that go along with it.
Section 1: A Rude Awakening
The Big Ten has handed Chris Collins a brutal opening slate in his first season in the conference. A home date with Wisconsin – a team rated in the RPI top five who last year beat Northwestern 69-41 at Welsh-Ryan – is followed by trips to Michigan and Iowa. That all but ensures an 0-3 start.
The best chance for a win from the opening six games then presents itself in the form of a home date with in-state rivals Illinois. However, that game will come less than 72 hours after the game in Iowa City. Collins should be able to get his players motivated, especially if they see the opportunity for their first conference win, but the short turnaround and travel is something that Northwestern struggled with during non-conference play.
To close out the six game stretch, Northwestern hosts highly-ranked Michigan State and then travels to Assembly Hall to take on Indiana. For the Hoosiers, the game is wedged in between battles with Wisconsin and Michigan State, so there’s the chance of a let down, but it’d be tough to ask this NU team to win at Indiana.
Section 2: A Winnable Game!
And in fact, a game in which Northwestern might even be favored depending on what transpires between now and January 21st. NU welcomes an inexperienced Purdue squad to Welsh-Ryan, and if they are indeed carrying a 7-game losing into this game, you have to think that the Wildcats will sense the opportunity to snap that skid. If they do, they’ll likely play with energy and intensity, and first conference win for Collins could be on the cards.
Section 3: Back Down to Earth
After the Purdue game though, Northwestern faces another three game stretch akin to the one they opened conference play with. They play host to Iowa, then face a two game road swing through Madison and Minneapolis to take on Wisconsin and Minnesota. There’s not much here to suggest than any one of these three teams will be vulnerable.
Section 4: Night and Day, Home and Away
The four games that follow, and the success Northwestern has in two of them in particular, will largely depend on their responses to defeat. The Wildcats play two Big Ten heavyweights on the road, but in between, play two middle-of-the-pack teams at home. Will they become discouraged by losses to the heavyweights? Or will failure urge them to push for a win or two?
Coming off what will likely be three losses, Collins’ team will play Nebraska at home, the easiest game on paper that NU has the rest of the way. They then play at Michigan State, where a loss is more than probable. The defining game then might be home against Minnesota. The Gophers could be better than people expect, but they will be anything but fresh after a big Thursday night trip to Wisconsin. If Northwestern can rebound positively from the likely loss at MSU, the Minnesota game might be their best bet for an upset.
The penultimate section of the schedule than concludes at Ohio State, arguably the toughest game of all. KenPom currently give Northwestern a 4 percent chance to win at the Value City Arena, and even that might be generous.
Section 5: Relief, Opportunity
Northwestern will have endured a torrid month and a half when they finally reach the last four games of the regular season. But this is a portion of the schedule that Collins might be pleased with.
The four games – vs. Indiana, at Nebraska, vs. Penn State, at Purdue – aren’t ones in which the Wildcats should be overwhelmed, so it’ll be chance for Collins and his team to showcase evidence that progress has been made. Because in the end, that’s what this season is about: making progress. If Northwestern does show improvement in these last four games, optimism and self-confidence will be in abundance heading into the offseason and subsequently Collins’ second go-around.