Northwestern announced it's 2014-15 non-conference men's basketball schedule in mid-June with few surprises and lots of mid-majors. It's highlighted by four games in The Cancun Challenge and match-ups with Georgia Tech and Butler in early December. Overall, the non-conference schedule is much easier than that of last year, but it won't be a cake walk for a Wildcat roster that includes five freshmen. Here are three things to like and three to dislike about Northwestern basketball's non-conference schedule for 2014-15:
Three things to like
1. Soft start: As Northwestern moved to 5-5 in conference by beating Minnesota early last February, faith in a postseason appearance began to blossom in Evanston. There was one thing holding Northwestern back though, their non-conference record. The 'Cats went 7-6 in the non-con, including losses to Stanford and Missouri, and Northwestern was the underdog in at least four games last fall. No team in this season's non-conference schedule has a significant edge on the 'Cats, and only two of them, Western Michigan and Northern Iowa, finished last season with a better RPI than NU. And Northwestern beat Western Michigan by 16 last year. There's potential for a ten-win non-conference, which would make getting to the postseason a whole lot easier.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Here’s your first look at Northwestern’s 2014-15 nonconference schedule: <a href="http://t.co/mekJGmijbB">http://t.co/mekJGmijbB</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/B1GCats?src=hash">#B1GCats</a> <a href="http://t.co/M0CtzlO774">pic.twitter.com/M0CtzlO774</a></p>— NU Men's Basketball (@NUMensBball) <a href="https://twitter.com/NUMensBball/statuses/478608470149980160">June 16, 2014</a></blockquote>
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2. The Cancun Challenge: This has to be the perfect fall tournament for Northwestern. November 20 and 22 the 'Cats will get games at home against North Florida and Elon, both very beatable opponents. Then, they will play in the Riviera division in Cancun, which includes games against Miami University of Ohio and either Northern Iowa or Virginia Tech. The Hokies were an atrocious 9-22 last season and Miami and Northern Iowa are average mid-majors, so the 'Cats certainly won't get blown out like they did by Missouri and UCLA in Las Vegas last season. Northwestern could even be considered the favorite to win the tournament. And it's in Cancun! It doesn't get much better than that.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Men's Cancun Challenge officials announce matchups and dates for 2014 tourney. Go here >> <a href="http://t.co/vHQXN3tICC">http://t.co/vHQXN3tICC</a></p>— Cancun Challenge (@CancunChallenge) <a href="https://twitter.com/CancunChallenge/statuses/489101822519296001">July 15, 2014</a></blockquote>
<script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>3. Home sweet home: Northwestern will play 9 of its 13 non-conference games at home, including the Big Ten/ACC Challenge match-up with Georgia Tech. Fans will have plenty of opportunities to see the fancy new scoreboards and hardwood in Welsh-Ryan Arena. A very young team will be able to find a comfort zone on its home floor and avoid distractions in travel. And of Northwestern's four road games, two are neutral site games in Cancun. The non-conference finishes on five home games, so the only negative is the 'Cats will be without a student section to aid their home court advantage in mid-late December.
Three things to dislike
1. No upset potential: The best team on Northwestern's non-conference schedule, based on last season's RPI, is Western Michigan. Yet, beating the Broncos does very little to boost a team's resume. Several years ago beating Butler would have been a big upset, but the Bulldogs were four games below .500 last season. The Cancun Challenge doesn't have any powerhouses, so Northwestern will not even have the opportunity to pull a big upset. Sure, the 'Cats will face plenty of tough opponents in conference play, but Collins should have scheduled at least one highly-ranked opponent in the fall. If they pull the upset, it sticks out on their tournament resume and boosts the team's confidence early in the year. If they lose, it's just one loss in a non-conference schedule that should otherwise mostly be smooth sailing.
2. Cruising into Big Ten play: Three of Northwestern's last five opponents in December weren't even in the top 300 in RPI last season, and Central Michigan was just outside at 292. It's good for the 'Cats to play some cupcakes and accrue wins, but playing them in late December doesn't prepare the 'Cats very well for conference play. The 'Cats beat Western Michigan, UIC and Mississippi Valley St. by a combined 73 points last year. Then, NU went into conference play and lost their first three games by an average of 25.3 points. Chris Collins may have to take it up a notch in practice around the new year to avoid another lousy start to Big Ten play.
3. Changes to Big Ten / ACC Challenge: Perhaps this isn't something to dislike but something that will take some getting used to. With the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, the Big Ten now has 14 teams, and the ACC has 15 schools after Notre Dame, Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville joined in the last two years. The challenge has more powerhouses now and will create some awesome match-ups, but the logistics are somewhat mangled. The perfect 12 v. 12 is gone, and one ACC team will miss the challenge each year. Maryland moves from the ACC to the Big Ten and will play for its old foes. Pitt, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Louisville still seem like Big East schools. Eventually, we will all get used to the changes and the Big Ten/ACC Challenge will be better than ever, but right now it's a bit confusing.