There are a lot of factors that make a team an NCAA Tournament team. Northwestern's 2016 team didn't check enough of the requisite boxes to be considered a contender for the Big Dance.
Most importantly, the Wildcats just didn't have the requisite talent to make the Tournament. That aspect is largely undebatable. But the second issue, something that Chris Collins and Jim Phillips could have rectified whether or not Vic Law's shoulder was healthy, was its non-conference schedule.
When it was announced in its entirety last June, it immediately appeared to be loaded with cupcakes and completely against the selection committee's trend of siding with teams that challenged themselves outside of conference play.
Chris Collins, when asked repeatedly about the schedule in the run-up to the season, maintained he wanted his team to rack up as many wins as possible before Big Ten play. They did, going 12-1 with the lone loss coming to eventual national runner-up North Carolina. But those 12 wins (and subsequent 8 during the conference slate) made for a resume far below that of a Tournament team and was the likeliest culprit of knocking them out of the NIT, a more suitable goal for the program last season.
While it remains unclear whether Collins and Athletic Director Jim Phillips regret their non-conference scheduling or are poised to change their strategy for the 2016-17 season, it's an interesting thought experiment to put yourself in their shoes.
There are a variety of factors Collins and Phillips must consider when crafting a schedule, including money and politics. Because we do not know how much Northwestern can or will pay teams to come to Evanston to play it, those monetary factors are taken out. The resulting schedule takes into account what Northwestern's "goal" should be next season and its best chance of satisfying that goal with a competitive non-conference slate.
Establishing a goal
Realistically, Northwestern won't be an NCAA Tournament team next season, barring some unforeseen development. A goal of the NIT, like this season, is probably closer to the high end of the team's potential season-ending outcomes.
But what many (including myself) considered to be a "NIT schedule" in 2015-16 probably cost Northwestern as its season ended in early March. So, the necessary approach has to come from a mindset of making an NCAA Tournament-type schedule, even if the program knows that the NCAA Tournament might not be a realistic goal. What that means, then, is balancing Northwestern's need to win close to 20 games again next season to reach meaningful postseason play while also ramping up the overall level of its non-conference opponents.
The "set" games
Northwestern will most likely play 13 non-conference games, with eight of them somewhat "set."
Legends Classic home games (2)
Legends Classic tournament games (2)
ACC/Big Ten Challenge
Let's start with Northwestern's preseason tournament, whose teams have already been announced. The tournament, like many other Thanksgiving tournaments, have two home games against non-Power 5 teams and two games at a larger, neutral location. Northwestern will play two of Eastern Washington, Bryant, Louisiana Monroe and Seattle at home. On average, those teams finished 2016 with a KenPom ranking of about 240. Unfortunately, Northwestern can't control these games and the Wildcats actually lucked out this year having Fairfield (which finished this season ranked 205 in KenPom) and Columbia (which finished 110).
In a perfect world, the Wildcats would want No. 121 Louisiana Monroe and No. 196 Eastern Washington to come to Evanston. Seattle would be next best as it finished the year at 299. A matchup with Bryant, the eight worst team in KenPom's rankings, wouldn't, it's fairly safe to say, do much for Northwestern's resume. None of these teams figure to be resume builders, but avoiding a bottom 50 team would be a nice gift.
Next on the list is the Gavitt Games. This is sort of like a Big Ten-Big East Challenge, but not every team plays every year. Last year was the first year of the games and the Wildcats were left out. Each Big Ten will participate a minimum of four times during the eight year deal, so there's a decent chance Northwestern gets the nod this season.
The group of five teams I selected as potential opponents for Northwestern based on their finishes in the Big East includes Georgetown, Marquette, Creighton, Providence and Butler. Those teams finished at an average position of 53.6 in KenPom this season. This game provides Northwestern with a winnable game against what could be a historically top-notch program. Ideally, Northwestern would get this as a pre-Thanksgiving road game. Without it on the road, Northwestern probably won't get another true road game during the rest of its non-conference slate. A win there would give Northwestern an early top-50 road win heading into the Legends Classic in Brooklyn.
The program will take another step up next season in its preseason tournament as it joins Colorado, Notre Dame and Texas at the Legends Classic. The lone team to not make the 2016 NCAA Tournament, an 0-2 finish for Northwestern will be expected with a single win seeming a bit optimistic.
Texas seems like the team that Northwestern would fair worse against based on returning talent and style, with Notre Dame and Colorado following the Longhorns in that order. Again, there will be two more opportunities to win against top 50 teams, but an 0-3 stretch over the Thanksgiving period could spell major trouble for Northwestern's postseason hopes.
The week after, the Wildcats will again face another major conference opponent in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Northwestern will probably have this game at home after playing last year at Virginia Tech. The Wildcats would be best suited to play one of Clemson (48 in KenPom), Pitt (43, but with a new head coach) or Florida State (50).
Next, Northwestern has been reported to be in talks with Dayton to play the strong mid-major program at the United Center, according to Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune. This is a really intriguing game for Collins and his team because it takes a game that might have been against a team like Chicago State this season and makes it infinitely more valuable from a postseason perspective. The semi-home game at the United Center though may backfire, though, as it's hard to see the Wildcats and Flyers selling out even half of a 20,000-plus seat arena.
The last set game will be the continuation of the series against DePaul. It's a nice annual game and I really have no problem with Northwestern's decision to enter into a long-term agreement with the local school.
These five non-set games will be important for Collins and Phillips to fill intelligently. Realistically, the Wildcats cannot afford to lose any of these games. But, to be blunt, the program can't line up the same lowly opponents it did last year. It has to find a middle ground, especially with these games coming at home.
First, let's start with the post-Thanksgiving, pre-ACC/Big Ten Challenge opponent. Last year, Northwestern took on New Orleans, which finished at No. 319 in KenPom. This year, the Wildcats should fill that spot with a top-250 team. Think Gardner Webb, an always sexy pick.
Following that, there are three December games that Northwestern can get creative with before inevitably finishing the non-conference slate with a confidence-booster against some really, really bad team (like SIU Edwardsville). Those three games should all be against top 200 teams, with one of them, being on the edge of the top 100. The best opponent could be some team like Illinois State, a local team with ties to Collins family that Northwestern actually lost to two years ago. For the other two games, Collins could drop a bit farther down the rankings list for a Western Kentucky and a Wright State, for example.
These games are critical for flawed but still relied upon measurements like RPI and the boost in ratings will be welcome for Northwestern come next year.
The full (projected) schedule
|Fri., Nov. 11||299||Seattle||Home||Pre-Tournament|
|Mon., Nov. 14||121||Louisiana Monroe||Home||Pre-Tournament|
|Fri., Nov. 18||37||Creighton||Away||Gavitt Games|
|Mon., Nov. 21||44.67 (avg.)||Notre Dame/Texas/Colorado||Brooklyn||Legends Classic|
|Tues., Nov. 22||44.67 (avg.)||Notre Dame/Texas/Colorado||Brooklyn||Legends Classic|
|Sat., Nov. 26||225||Gardner Webb||Home|
|Tues., Nov. 29||48||Clemson||Home||ACC/Big Ten Challenge|
|Sat., Dec. 3||161||Western Kentucky||Home|
|Sun., Dec. 11||59||Dayton||Semi-Home|
|Tues., Dec. 13||116||Illinois State||Home|
|Sat., Dec. 17||190||DePaul||Home||Series|
|Tues., Dec. 20||135||Wright State||Home|
|Tues., Dec. 27||321||SIU Edwardsville||Home|
*ranking at the end of the 2015-16 season
Yes, while I was the one who played God with this schedule, I think it ends up being a pretty good one for Northwestern. It has all the elements the program could reasonably hope for like games against marquee teams and also a slate of very winnable home games. When compared to last season's schedule, there's no contest in terms of the respect it will be given. When taken further and compared to the schedules of non-conference schedules of 2016 NCAA Tournament teams Colorado, Michigan, USC and Oregon State, for example, it actually projects to be a better slate on paper.