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How important is the Butler game?

It’s a great opportunity for the Wildcats but not necessarily a make-or-break.

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Washington at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern men’s basketball is off to a promising start to the season, but it’ll face its biggest challenge yet at Hinkle Fieldhouse, taking on the Butler Bulldogs. How Northwestern fares in this game could foretell the team’s performance for the remainder of the year.

The Wildcats’ non-conference schedule features few tough opponents, Butler among them. Chris Collins’s team faces just five teams (Butler, Texas, Notre Dame/Colorado, Wake Forest and Dayton) in Kenpom’s top 100. In order for Northwestern to even sniff the NIT, the team will need to take care of business, and then some. That means beating every team they’re supposed to beat and pulling out a couple impressive wins over the aforementioned teams.

Tonight’s game could be one of those surprise victories. The Bulldogs lost two of their top three scorers from last season, a sigh of relief for the Wildcats, who struggled to keep Eastern Washington off the scoreboard for much of Monday night’s win.

Northwestern should also come into the game feeling good about where its roster stands. Vic Law has been sensational, and Bryant McIntosh is settling into his role as the leader of the team. The Wildcats have assisted on over 60 percent of their field goals, a sign that they’re getting it done offensively as a group.

A win over Butler (19th in Kenpom) would be huge in more ways than one. First, it would boost the team’s confidence, which could be crucial once conference play begins. Last season, Northwestern didn’t get a signature win until January, when the team took down Wisconsin. Starting off the year with an early victory over the Bulldogs, who made the NCAA Tournament last March, would be a boon for team morale.

Second, it would give the Wildcats a much better chance of playing postseason basketball, provided they don’t slip up against any lowly opponents. When Chris Collins joined the program in 2013, he made it his goal to get Northwestern playing deep into March. Beating Butler would be a step towards that objective. The Bulldogs are the fourth-best team on Northwestern’s schedule, per Kenpom, behind just Wisconsin (8), Indiana (13) and Purdue (15). This is the best chance for Northwestern to pick up a high-quality win early in the season.

The Wildcats’ season doesn’t hinge on this game. A blowout loss would be discouraging, but sometimes those games can act as the foundation for a team to learn and improve. The Wildcats are significant underdogs (just a 21 percent winning percentage per Kenpom), but this is by no means an un-winnable game. If the Wildcats can hang in at Hinkle Fieldhouse — regardless of the final score — it will show this team’s postseason aspirations aren’t off base. And if the Wildcats can in fact win, those goals are all the more realistic and likely to be fulfilled.