Northwestern's chances of making their first NCAA Tournament appearance are dependent on their ability to win the games they should win, and that means heading into Big Ten play 12-1. The Wildcats' non-conference schedule provided little margin of error, with one marquee matchup against North Carolina, a couple of tests in Missouri and Virginia Tech, and the rest being games Northwestern should be able to handle. With a 7-1 record, Chris Collins' team might be proving that scheduling soft out of conference was the correct move. That is, if Northwestern can finish out of conference play 12-1.
Well, it is essential they do so. It hasn't been pretty at several points, but Northwestern survived Fairfield by five, Columbia by three in overtime, Missouri by five, and Virginia Tech by two in overtime. The Wildcats have done what fellow Big Ten teams Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Illinois all failed to do, and that's avoid the malicious "bad-loss", the loss that will doom teams come Selection Sunday. In the Wildcats' 7-1 start, they've surprisingly drawn favorable computer rankings, and even two AP votes in back-to-back weeks. Chris Collins' team comes in at 40 in RPI, quite the turn-around from 124 last year. KenPom shows a much improved Northwestern team as well, ranking them at 62. They were 118th last year. There's no reason this talented Northwestern team cannot win their last five out-of-conference games against supposedly lesser opponents ahead of Big Ten play.
The first game is a visit from Chicago State. Since putting up a fight in a three-point loss to Illinois, the Cougars have lost four consecutive, including a blowout against DePaul. KenPom has them at 339 out of 351 Division I teams, and their RPI is 335. Northwestern will be favored by a big margin in this game, and expect a convincing win. Even without Vic Law, the Wildcats have too much depth and talent for Chicago State to keep this game within single digits.
Mississippi Valley State visits Welsh-Ryan next, and if KenPom looked at Chicago St. unfavorably, it is absolutely disgusted with MVSU. The Delta Devils come in at 347 per KenPom with an RPI of 337, and for good reason. They're 0-10 and only four of those losses are by single digits; Northwestern should win this easily.
This next matchup is the biggest remaining out of conference game for Northwestern: the renowned battle for the city of Chicago against DePaul (4-3). The Blue Demons are very comparable to Virginia Tech according to KenPom, and are ranked 133, one below the Hokies. More accurately however, DePaul's RPI is 208, more representative of a team that has fallen to Penn State, South Carolina, and Florida State. DePaul actually won the last matchup against Northwestern two years ago, but both teams are very different. Chris Collins has shown growth and improvement since his first season two years ago and DePaul coach Dave Leitao is his first year with the program. I like Northwestern here.
The fourth matchup is a visit from Sacred Heart, and should play out very similarly to the first two games. The Pioneers are 1-6 to start the season, and rank 255 in KenPom with an RPI of 298. Without going too in depth, they rely on their star sophomore point guard Cane Broome to play nearly the entire game, and while he's performed exceptionally-- to the tune of 19 points per game-- Northwestern will just have to shut him down. Past opponents have been able to contain him and force other players to step up, which simply hasn't happened in their six losses. Look for Sanjay Lumpkin and other defenders to get the call against the talented ball-handler.
The final team that will stand in the way of Northwestern possibly finishing their next five games 5-0 is Loyola Maryland. The 1-7 Greyhounds have earned a KenPom ranking of 252 with an RPI of 314. In other words, this isn't a very good team. They have four players averaging double digits and actually kept it close with Kansas in the first half, but Loyola just doesn't have the talent to hang with quality opponents for forty minutes.
It's crucial that Northwestern finishes 12-1 out of conference to begin Big Ten play. With March basketball on their mind, a loss to any of the next five opponents could very well doom the Wildcats' résumé. Northwestern always seems to slip up once or twice in non-conference play; they fell to Central Michigan last year, DePaul and Illinois State the year before, and UIC three years ago. I could continue, but these losses have seemingly hung over Northwestern's head going into Big Ten play. This year has a differently feeling to it, and with Northwestern set on playing in March and off to a 7-1 start, these next five games hold significant importance. If they continue to play the way they have the first eight games, the Wildcats will finish this next stretch of games with five wins.