After his team lost a crazy, 72-70 overtime game to Michigan in this March's Big Ten Tournament, Chris Collins felt bitter. Northwestern's season was over. Tre Demps and Alex Olah's careers were over. His voice had devolved into an raspy croak from impassioned screaming. And according to his postgame press conference, all that was partly due to the lack of objective officiating that played a key role in Northwestern's defeat.
Ever the cautious diplomat, Collins danced around directly criticizing the referees, who missed a travel on Michigan's Duncan Robinson that, if called, would have given the Wildcats a chance to avoid overtime and advance to the next round. While he was more colorful and pointed on the court after the game, Collins toned it down and used more veiled shots when talking to the media.
"I thought we deserved to win the game," Collins said afterwards. "I guess sometimes other things come into factor (sic)." He added that "we don't have that brand name on our chest, but, you know what, we play good basketball. We're a good team now...hopefully one day we'll be viewed as such."
It's clear that Collins felt that his team, which hung with Michigan all day and was a few breaks away from facing No. 1 seed Indiana, didn't get the benefit of the doubt from the officials because of Northwestern's "underdog" status in the Big Ten. Michigan, on the other hand, is more recognizable and certainly one of the "brand names" Collins is referring to.
While not calling the travel on Robinson simply because of Michigan's stature is questionable, Northwestern's place in the conference as one of the lesser programs on a national level is assured.
By the way, did you know Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament?
That inescapable fact plays a role in the "us against the world" ethic that Chris Collins has held since coming to Evanston, which is the fault of no one currently associated with the team. But, as our own Ben Goren wrote yesterday after the Wildcats' underwhelming 2016-17 nonconference schedule was released -- if you're a Chicago-based Houston Baptist or New Orleans fan, you're in luck yet again -- the program is doing itself no favors with yet another weak slate of opponents.
There are many factors that play into how Northwestern is viewed nationally, many of them not under the control of the athletic department or even Chris Collins and his staff. However, one that happens to be is the strength of the Wildcats; nonconference schedule.
As Ben wrote, Northwestern's inclusion in the Legends Classic, Gavitt Games and even ACC/Big Ten Challenge gives the Wildcats multiple games against good competition, much of which will be involved in the NCAA Tournament come March. The problem is the rest of the schedule.
Playing teams like New Orleans, Chicago State, Houston Baptist, Bryant and Mississippi Valley State -- all teams that finished the 2015-16 season with KenPom ratings of 250 or worse -- does absolutely nothing to help Northwestern's eventual case for a postseason tournament. The Wildcats are expected to beat these teams easily and anything less serves as an additional blemish on the resume for a team without any margin of error.
On the other hand, the argument could be made in favor of these "cupcake" games if the rest of the nonconference slate is filled with competitive opponents. Clearly, that cannot be said for Northwestern's schedule, which currently has a maximum of three foes on it that finished in the top 100 of the KenPom rankings from last season.
Take Tulane, for example, which is one a few programs that has already released its full nonconference schedule for the upcoming season. The Green Wave, of the American Athletic Conference, also has five scheduled games against 250+ KenPom (including New Orleans) teams. But, Tulane -- under new head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr., a former NBA coach -- will play North Carolina on a neutral site (Smoothie King Center in New Orleans) as well as host St. John's, face Georgia Tech on the road and participate in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, which counts Oklahoma and Xavier as fellow entries.
Both Northwestern and Tulane has the same amount of really bad opponents on their respective schedules, but Tulane also has the 2016 National Runner-Up, another ACC team, a Big East team that underperformed last season and a tournament which guarantees multiple Power Conference matchups. Northwestern, a member of the Big Ten and not the AAC, has Butler, one of Notre Dame/Texas/Colorado and Dayton.
There's no reason for Northwestern's nonconference schedule to be lighter than that of Tulane's or any other non-Power Five school. Northwestern has the support of a major conference, the resources to travel anywhere, the ability to use the United Center as a nearby neutral site and the money to pay for legitimate competition.
At this point, as Chris Collins heads into his fourth season with the Wildcats, he should only be looking internally, and not externally, for why his team isn't getting the "brand name" recognition he laments it hasn't. Brand name schools don't play Houston Baptist and Mississippi Valley State at home. They enter as many preseason tournaments with legitimate competition as possible, utilize neutral sites to attract top teams and pay a premium for winnable yet impressive home contests.
If Northwestern wants to maintain its status as the outsider looking in at the rest of the Big Ten, then hosting New Orleans and Chicago State is fine. But if the program wants to vault itself to the next level, that cannot keep happening.