Is this the year? As Chris Collins heads into his third season at the helm of Northwestern's basketball program, that is the question many are asking. And for the first time since Collins took the job, an affirmative answer won't draw accusations of insanity, even if a first ever Tournament bid is still improbable. Northwestern has its most talented roster yet under Collins, and the Wildcats seemingly have the potential to make a run at the Big Dance.
But that potential just made Northwestern's June release of its 2015-16 non-conference schedule all the more befuddling. The Wildcats will play a plethora of low mid-majors, five of which were among the bottom 50 teams in Division I a year ago, per Ken Pomeroy's rankings. In fact, the average 2014-15 KenPom ranking of NU's non-preseason tournament opponents is 263. So understandably, questions were asked of Collins and his immediate NCAA Tournament ambitions.
Speaking on the subject at Big Ten Media Day last Thursday, Chris Collins had a two-part explanation for the soft slate: There's a method to what many see as the madness. And that method isn't totally in Collins' or Northwestern's control.
"When I looked at it, I knew we were going to be away from home for four games," Collins said. "I knew we had the tournament where Carolina was going to be as good as any. And if you play Kansas State or Missouri in Kansas City, that's a road game. And then we're at Virginia Tech... And we have a home-and-home every year with DePaul, so I knew we were going to be on the road there. So with the remaining nine games, I felt like it was important — first of all, we needed to play at home — and we need to put ourselves in a position to play [games] that we would have a chance to win."
More on Northwestern's schedule
Take Two: Northwestern's non-conference schedule
After the schedule was released over the summer, Henry Bushnell and Josh Rosenblat discussed if it was detrimental to Northwestern's hope to end its NCAA Tournament drought
More on Northwestern's schedule
"And the other thing is," Collins continued, "when you look at our league — last year, we played four games against Final Four teams. If you want to be a Tournament team, and a postseason team, you're going to have to go .500 or better in your league, and that means you're going to have some real résumé wins, because there aren't any cupcakes in the Big Ten. So if you're going to win nine or 10 games in your league, that means you're going to beat some really good teams."
Unlike football, Collins explains, basketball scheduling is a year-to-year operation, and games don't need to be agreed upon years in advance. That allows programs to choose opponents based on their own personnel, aspirations and perceived strength for the coming season. Collins convenes every year with athletic director Jim Phillips, director of basketball operations Chris Lauten, and deputy director of athletics for external affairs Mike Polisky to craft a schedule that will fit his team.
"You try to look at, ‘Where are we at as a team? What are we trying to accomplish? What kind of schedule do we want? Do we want to play a lot of home games? Do we want to get on the road? How do we want to position our games?'" Collins said. "And then once you get that gameplan, you start making the calls and seeing where you can fit other teams."
Many factors go into the decision-making process. One factor, Collins acknowledged, is projected RPI, and presumably other similar projections. He and his scheduling staff also analyze potential opponents' styles of play, they look at the school's location, and they consider other factors that might predict a team's strength.
They also put an emphasis on the ebbs and flows of the schedule.
"You look at where [a game] is placed," Collins said. "You know certain areas where it's going to be harder for your guys to play. Like the game right after final exams is a tough game. So you've got to be strategic. The game right before Christmas, the game after Christmas. There are certain areas where you've got to be strategic with scheduling, because you know there's going to be a tendency to maybe not be at your best."
In 2015-16, Northwestern plays Chicago State at home in its first game after fall quarter final exams. It plays Sacred Heart and Loyola (Md.) on either side of Christmas. No three games are more representative of NU's non-conference slate.
However, Collins said that even if he and his staff had wanted to schedule stronger opponents, they might not have been able to.
"Everybody is scheduling," he explained. "Everybody is trying to call and get games. And a lot of them are guarantee games where people are outbidding [each other or us]. So it's competition amongst schools to find the right places... It's not an easy proposition. There's a lot that goes into it."
Collins cut himself off before saying that the "outbidding" was a reference to what he's experienced at Northwestern. But it's reasonable to expect that he finds things difficult when it comes to mid-major guaranteed payouts, especially given the fact that Northwestern is — or was, at least — reportedly cheap on these payouts for football games.
Collins admitted that sometimes he, Phillips, Lauten and Polisky find it difficult to compete with bigger schools. "Maybe they'll pay more," he speculated, feigning ignorance. "I don't know." Collins also said some mid-majors would rather play name schools like Michigan State or Wisconsin, which could potentially give them small recruiting boosts.
Collins added that it's getting more and more difficult logistically to fit everything into a month-and-a-half.
"It's harder now," he said, "because our non-conference is so condensed, because you've got holidays, you've got finals week where you don't play any games, and now the Big Ten schedule just keeps starting earlier and earlier. So you've got to pack 13 games into a small window, and you've got to deal with other schools' schedules too."
Collins noted that in future years, his program will have even less flexibility. Some years, Northwestern will have seven of thirteen non-conference games already set. The Gavitt Games (Big Ten vs. Big East series) and Big Ten/ACC Challenge are two. Up to four more come via a preseason tournament. And an annual series with DePaul could continue through the 2019-20 season.
But Collins says the sweet, elegantly-iced cupcake-filled schedule will at some point become a thing of the past. "Look, as we get better, as we raise the profile, we already have things in motion," he said. "Eventually I'd love to be able to play games in the United Center. Every year now, you see the tournaments we're in, that's only going to get better... So as we move forward, and as we get better, then you schedule accordingly."
But Collins stands by this year's philosophy, in part based on his vision for the present and future of the program.
"As much as we want to focus on the now, my goal is to have a program that's long-standing," he said. "We have high aspirations, we have goals, we'd love to be a team that makes noise this year. But it's also about continuing to move upwards."