Creating a balanced, manageable non-conference schedule may be one of the trickiest parts of being a major college basketball coach. If a team has postseason aspirations, the schedule must provide opportunities to rack up wins and to play tough competition in search of so-called "quality wins."
Last season, Chris Collins' first as a head coach, Northwestern was locked-in to playing some games--be it the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at NC State, playing at Stanford and in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational--that, he said, weren't in the best interest of his roster.
"I think scheduling is very important," Collins said. "You have to kind of realize where you are, what kind of team you have and kind of where you're headed. You have to kind of mix it up. The thing I've learned, being in the Big Ten for a year, how taxing the Big Ten season is. I felt like for us, going to the West Coast twice, that took a lot out of our guys I felt like for us, going to California to play Stanford, going to Vegas. Even though those were high-level games, it took a lot out of our guys physically, emotionally."
Now, heading into his second season, Collins has can be more flexible with his team's schedule. Northwestern will play more home games to allow a young team with five freshmen all hoping to contribute and will stay locally as opposed to traveling to both coasts on multiple occasions in the span of just a few weeks like it did in 2013.
|'13-'14||MILES TRAVELED||'14-'15||MILES TRAVELED|
|vs. Eastern Illinois||---||vs. Houston Baptist||---|
|at Stanford998||2,175||at Brown||998|
|vs. Illinois State||---||vs. North Florida||---|
|at UIC||20||vs. Elon||---|
|vs. IUPUI||---||vs. Miami (Ohio) (Cancun)||1,435|
|vs. Gardner-Webb||---||vs. Virginia Tech/Northern Iowa (Cancun)||---|
|vs. Missouri (Las Vegas)||1,758||vs. Georgia Tech||---|
|vs. UCLA (Las Vegas)||---||at Butler||205|
|at NC State||889||vs. Mississippi Valley State||---|
|vs. Western Michigan||---||vs. Central Michigan||---|
|vs. Mississippi Valley State||---||vs. Western Michigan||---|
|vs. Brown||---||vs. UIC||---|
|vs. DePaul||---||vs. Northern Kentucky||---|
Citing both the academic and athletic adjustments for the newcomers, Collins consciously scaled back travel although the team will take three real (UIC doesn't quite count) road trips in both seasons.
But not only does Northwestern's 2014 non-conference schedule allow for fewer miles traveled, it is also categorically easier. The four toughest games for Northwestern this season will most likely be at Brown, in Cancun for either Virginia Tech or Northern Iowa, home for Georgia Tech and at Butler. Those five teams finished 2013-14 at 15 games under .500. In contrast, Northwestern's four toughest games last season (at Stanford, vs. Missouri and UCLA in Las Vegas and at NC State) finished a combined 38 games over .500.
"To be honest with you," he said, "I thought last year we won enough in our conference to be a postseason team. You have seven Big Ten wins, you should be in something. We hurt ourselves in the non-conference. That first thirteen games, going 7-6, we had a very difficult schedule, that was part of it. We were on the road a lot. I thought it took us a while. We need to do a much better job this year of playing better in November and December. That's going to be our challenge so we can give ourselves a chance when we head into the Big Ten to vie for the postseason."
Collins has stated that the postseason is a goal for the program this season and the first step in making the postseason is to win as many basketball games as possible. Yes it seems simple, but Collins sees that wins now could be more valuable than losing on high-profile stages like last season.
Collins said he wants to grow the brand of the program so that Northwestern has something to offer other teams when they try to schedule non-conference games. Using neutral sites like the United Center, he said, could be huge in attracting quality competition.
"I'd like to get to a point where, as we get better, we could have some big time neutral-site games," he said. "Whether you play in the United Center or you play in Madison Square Garden, the Barclays Center, you're seeing a lot more teams doing those doubleheaders or one game. For us to do that, we have to raise the level of our program so that we can bring something to the table."
Collins understands the simplest way to "raise the level" of the program is, to say it plainly, by winning games. Last season, Northwestern wasn't in a position to do so against the level of competition the team faced. Now, with careful scheduling, Collins hopes a young Northwestern team should be able to grow and gain confidence throughout November and December as it heads into Big Ten play.