It's tough to mention "Northwestern" and "postseason play" in the same sentence without acknowledging the ugliest of facts: Northwestern is the only program in the Power 5 conferences to have never earned a berth into the NCAA Tournament. The common belief among 'Cats hoops fans is that Coach Chris Collins will change that shortly, but if we're being completely honest, it's probably not going to be this year that it happens. The Big Ten is simply too tough.
NU should head into conference play with two losses or less. They'll be favorites in their first five games, but the next three games present steeper competition: either Virginia Tech or Northern Iowa in the Puerto Vallarta Challenge (how nice does Mexico in December sound on this chilly day in Evanston?), a home contest against a Georgia Tech team that was bad last year and lost its two best players but is still one of the better teams on the schedule and a trip to perennial mid-major power Butler. Then, more winnable games, one of which Northwestern will probably lose because these are kids and that type of thing happens in college sports. But still, Northwestern should — and will — enter Big Ten play with a solid record and hopefully a good amount of confidence, because they'll surely need it.
The Big Ten is the best basketball conference from top to bottom (ACC a bit more top-heavy) in the country this year, and the powers that be did Northwestern zero favors in terms of scheduling. There's really no easy schedules this year in the Big Ten, but a peek at Northwestern's shows you just how tough it will be for this young team to win games in conference play.
Take a look at the three games Northwestern will play in a one-week span in February: On Tuesday, Feb. 3, the 'Cats will travel to Nebraska's sparkling new stadium to play a team that had tremendous success last year and is ranked No. 21 in the preseason AP poll. Then, that Saturday, they'll travel to Wisconsin to play the preseason No. 3 team in the country (though the 'Cats did win their last year!!!). They'll then have to make the trek home and waste no time getting ready for Michigan State, who'll they play at Welsh Ryan on Tuesday, Feb. 10
It's not realistic to expect Northwestern, despite its improvements last year and the influx of talented freshmen, to win any of these games.
That being said, the NCAA tournament isn't the only postseason tournament. And Northwestern is a defense-first team, which means they'll keep the scoring down and give themselves a chance to win a lot of games where they're outmatched talent-wise. This team showed the ability to beat better teams last year, and there's no reason to think they won't do the same this year. They're also a better basketball team- the loss of Drew Crawford will sting, but Alex Olah has developed nicely, Jershon Cobb is healthy, and all signs point to freshmen Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law being excellent contributors for this Northwestern team.
If Northwestern can add, say, six conference wins to a solid non-conference record (this is absolutely vital to Northwestern having any chance to play in the postseason), it's not at all out of the question for them to play postseason basketball. The most likely option is probably the College Basketball Invitational, but depending on the number of and quality of wins that Northwestern is able to notch in Big Ten play, it's feasible to think that the 'Cats have a chance to play in the NIT tournament come springtime.
And that would be another huge step in the journey for Chris Collins.