Through two games, Northwestern basketball is in a much better position than Northwestern football was after their first two contests.
That's not saying much, as the football team was 0-2 last year with both losses coming in front of the home crowd at Ryan Field. But the basketball team is 2-0 and fresh off a comfortable win against a decent Brown team on the road. There's reason for 'Cats fans to be cautiously optimistic about this season.
Let's be completely honest here, though: Northwestern is going to be the heavy underdog in most Big Ten games they play. According to Kenpom.com, Northwestern only has better than 50/50 odds in three conference games, when they'll host Purdue, Illinois, and Penn St. While it's more likely than not that Northwestern will win more than three conference games, it's hard to envision any wins coming easy. That's why this year's non-conference schedule is so vitally important to NU's chances of playing postseason basketball. And the good news is, the non-conference schedule is there for the taking.
NU is already 2-0, and their next three contests are all against teams not ranked in KenPom's top 200 teams. Then, a matchup with either Virginia Tech or Northern Iowa as part of the Cancun Classic. Both Northern Iowa and Virginia Tech are 2-0, but Northwestern will be able to win a game against either of those teams if they play up to their capabilities.
Next, 'Cats then play host to Georgia Tech, a program with a rich history but one that's in a place of uncertainty- they went 16-17 last year and 6-12 and will be without three of their top four scorers from last year (Daniel Miller, Robert Carter, and Trae Golden).
The toughest game on Northwestern's schedule is a trip to Butler, Indiana to take on the mid-major power Butler Bulldogs. That might be the only game Northwestern is more likely to lose than win, as Butler is always well-coached and has great student support, meaning the environment will be hostile. After the Butler trip is a five game home-stand during which the 'Cats play Mississippi Valley State, Central Michigan, Western Michigan, UIC, and Northern Kentucky. All games Northwestern will be expecting to win.
It's tough to expect any college team to win all games they're favored to, as it's important to remember that these are kids we're talking about and weird stuff happens in college sports. But Northwestern simply can't afford to enter Big Ten play with more than two losses if they want a shot at the NCAA Tournament, or the more attainable possibility, the NIT. In an ideal world, NU would enter non-conference play 12-1, but I've been let down too many times by Northwestern sports to even fathom that possibility.
So, in summary, entering Big Ten conference play with a 11-2 record would be a success. I'd probably even settle for 10-3, as long as the offense is flowing better than it did last year and the freshmen are starting to look more and more comfortable.
That's going to be a crucial aspect of non-conference play; this team is going to rely on freshman heavily, and it's during the non-conference season that they can afford to get their feet wet. Because Lord knows you don't want rattled freshman in a road game against Wisconsin. Or Michigan. Or Nebraska. Or Michigan State...