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Take Two: Is Northwestern's non-conference schedule detrimental to NCAA Tournament hopes?

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NU's schedule is exceptionally weak. That'll mean lots of wins early, but could it be harmful come Selection Sunday?

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern men's basketball released its 2015-16 non-conference schedule Wednesday, and... well, it was chock-full of cupcakes. Rather than beef up what was already a weak non-conference slate last season, coach Chris Collins went in the other direction. From SIU-Edwardsville to Fairfield, from Mississippi Valley State to UMass-Lowell, he constructed arguably the worst non-conference schedule in college basketball.

So the question is this: With the NCAA Tournament selection committee's recent emphasis on strength of schedule, does Collins' decision to fill his schedule with low mid-majors hurt his team's chances to make the NCAA Tournament come March?

Henry Bushnell: Long story short, my answer is this: Yes. Absolutely.

But before getting to the question at hand, let's take a moment to consider how truly awful this non-conference schedule is. You'd honestly be hard-pressed to find an easier slate in major conference college basketball.

Not only did every opponent have a losing record last season, the average 2014-15 KenPom rating of Northwestern's 11 known non-conference opponents was 263. That's astonishingly low. The slate includes five teams that were in the bottom 50 of Division I — Mississippi Valley State (347), Chicago State (333), UMass-Lowell (311), Loyola (Md.) (310) and New Orleans (309) — and no team better than DePaul at 167.

Team 2014-15 KenPom rank 2014-15 record
Umass-Lowell 311 12 — 17
Fairfield 293 7 — 24
Columbia 175 13 — 15
New Orleans 309 11 — 18
Virginia Tech 184 11 — 22
SIU-Edwardsville 233 12 — 16
Chicago State 333 8 — 24
Mississippi Valley State 347 6 — 26
DePaul 167 12 — 20
Sacred Heart 231 15 — 17
Loyola 310 11 — 19

And while that excludes the potential opponents at the CBE Classic in Kansas City — North Carolina, Kansas State and Missouri — some of those teams might not help much either. Missouri finished last season ranked 214th nationally by KenPom, and Kansas State was 88th. If NU draws one of those two teams in the semifinal, loses, and then gets the other one in the third-place game (which might be the most likely scenario), this could wind up being one of the weakest non-conference slates of any team in recent memory.

And I think this is a big deal. Look back at the major conference bubble teams that have made the NCAA Tournament in recent years. Last year, UCLA was just one of multiple controversial selections. On Selection Sunday, the Bruins sat at 20-13 with ONE top-30 win, and an 11-7 mark in a WEAK Pac-12. But they got a bid in large part due to their scheduling. UCLA didn't beat anybody good out of conference, but it played four top-15 teams — North Carolina, Oklahoma, Gonzaga and Kentucky. And, also notable, its lesser games weren't all against the Mississippi Valley States of the college hoops world. Instead, the Bruins played some top-150 games like Coastal Carolina, Long Beach State, UAB and San Diego.

Another example is Indiana. On the surface, the Hoosiers might seem to be an example that backs up Northwestern's scheduling. Their non-conference slate was ranked 322nd by KenPom, and they went just 9-9 in the Big Ten and 20-13 overall. So how did they get in? Well, likely because even that 322nd-ranked schedule included home games against SMU and Pittsburgh, and neutral site contests against Louisville, Butler and Georgetown (Indiana went 3-2 in those games). Northwestern's schedule doesn't give it those opportunities.

On the other side, in 2013, Iowa went 21-12 and 9-9 in a brutally tough Big Ten, but its 338th-ranked non-conference schedule sent the Hawkeyes to the NIT. The counter-argument to Iowa is 2013 Ole Miss, who made the Tournament that year with a 332nd-ranked non-conference slate. But the Rebels won 26 games, and still only barely squeaked into the field as a 12-seed.

Is Northwestern going to win 26 games this year? Are the Wildcats even going to win 24? You can't answer with a definitive ‘no' before a ball has even been tipped, but it's extremely unlikely. First of all, do you really trust this team to roll through the cupcakes unblemished? I certainly don't. Last year, NU lost to Central Michigan, nearly lost to Elon and North Florida, and struggled with Houston Baptist. And secondly, even if NU were to go 12-1 in November and December, to get to 24 wins, the Wildcats would still have to go 12-6 in the Big Ten, which would be a huge jump from last year. And with this schedule, I think that's around what they'd need.

This is an NIT schedule, plain and simple. Just ask noted NIT bracketologist and RPI guru John Templon:

After last season's Big Ten Tournament loss to Indiana, Chris Collins said the following:

"We've got to get to work. We've got to make a jump. It's time... we'll have a lot of key guys back, and it's time for us to make a jump."

Perhaps he meant it's time to make the NIT — which, to be fair, wouldn't be all that bad. But no... Collins knows the goal is the Tournament. Externally, the thought is that that's a real possibility this year, and surely internally, there is belief that it is more than just a possibility.

But with this schedule, Collins' statement should be questioned. When it comes to scheduling, it can't be time to make a run at the tournament while also still being time to groom a young team. Collins' philosophy here is puzzling at best, and at worst, it's simply a mistake.

Josh Rosenblat: It's March 13, 2016. Selection Sunday. Northwestern sits in its meeting room as CBS cameras set up around them. Firmly on the bubble after falling to Wisconsin on Friday of the Big Ten Tournament, Chris Collins calls assistant Brian James out of the lounge-chair-adorned meeting room and into his office.

"Man, should I be regretting not calling Mike Brey back when he called last April?" Collins asks his high school coach and mentor. "Was our 24-point win over New Orleans really worth it?"

"You know what," the stereotypical older, wiser assistant who always seems to thrive in helping big men develop post moves, begins, "come with me."

Without hesitation, Collins follows the perceptive James out of his office, down the stairs into the practice gym and out onto Welsh-Ryan Arena before climbing the bleachers into the N Club, which doubles as Collins' press conference space during the season. James stands behind the podium and directs Collins to sit in front of him and to his right.

James then begins...

Collins finally understands why he made the decision to turn the non-conference schedule into a slaughterhouse of low-major opponents.

Meanwhile on the selection show, Greg Gumbel is confused about the difference between RPI and BPI and CPR and Seth Davis is raving about 18-win Yale's opportunity for an at-large bid due to their "quality losses."

"Winning actual basketball games," James continues to his head coach, who had just completed his best season at Northwestern collecting 21 wins, "is the easiest way to make the tournament."

Nodding in agreement, Collins thinks back to his team's 12-1 start as they beat everyone on their schedule aside from powerhouse North Carolina, before scrapping to a .500 record (nine wins) in the Big Ten.

Sports information director Nick Brilowski bursts through the door, interrupting Collins reminiscing, pleading with him to come back to the meeting room as the selection is already halfway over. Having not yet been selected, Northwestern's chances at a tournament bid are dwindling.

Northwestern didn't make the tournament that day. Trust me. I've been to the future. But, be certain, it wasn't because Northwestern didn't lose to Notre Dame or a couple other high-quality teams in December. It would be because they didn't pick up that key road win at Iowa when they are up five with two minutes left or failed to close out Michigan at home. Those are going to be the make or break games for Northwestern and they'll have plenty of opportunities to grab some "good" wins in the Big Ten regular season.

So even if this non-conference schedule gets them to the NIT, isn't that progress? I don't quite see the downside. If we're being real, Northwestern doesn't have the roster, on paper, to make the NCAA Tournament. But this schedule is a much-needed crutch to A) make a serious move toward a serious postseason tournament and B) maybe begin to be mentioned as potential bubble team in December, January or even February.

Getting to 21 or 22 wins for a major conference program is the first step toward the NCAA Tournament, and this schedule will help Northwestern reach that first step. This schedule, no matter how boring or low-quality it may be, should give Collins his first winning record as a head coach and the Wildcats a legitimate shot at a 20-win season.

Just days ago, I thought there was no chance that Northwestern was even in the discussion for an NCAA Tournament berth. But with this cupcake of a schedule, Collins is supplying some hope or confidence of at least being in the conversation.

As you're watching Northwestern beat down in-state rival Chicago State, remember Brian James reciting Herm Edwards' famous words, which were obviously in reference to the value of RPI, SOS or any other acronym for that matter: "You play...to win...the game."