Yesterday morning, Northwestern’s conference opponents for the upcoming season were released. We now know which teams Northwestern will play at home and which ones they’ll travel to face, but the dates of the games have not been released yet. In his initial reaction to the reveal, our Ben Goren described the slate as pretty favorable, which I agree with. Of the five schools it gets twice, Chris Collins's squad got just two really difficult teams (Indiana and Purdue), and also gets to battle some of the conference’s best at home.
Per Thomas Beindit of BT Powerhouse, Northwestern’s Big Ten slate is the fifth-easiest in the conference in terms of average opponent KenPom rankings (Northwestern’s is 94.05, barely above Michigan State’s 93.8). You can find the conference slate for every Big Ten team here.
Broke down the upcoming Big Ten schedule by KenPom. Maryland has the easiest slate and Rutgers has the toughest: pic.twitter.com/cxI3FKxeaM— Thomas Beindit (@tbeindit) June 20, 2016
This measure provides some evidence to back up the eye test that Northwestern’s draw is at least somewhat favorable, but it is important to remember that KenPom rankings are based on 2015-16 performance. They don’t account for departed seniors, incoming freshmen, transfers, or anything else that has changed since March. Additionally, Northwestern’s figure is helped mightily by the fact that the Wildcats will play Rutgers (291 in KenPom) twice.
It’s also important to remember that it’s June, meaning Big Ten basketball games are more than five months away, but let’s break down the conference slate into three tiers to get a sense of roughly how many games Northwestern can expect to win at this point and time.
The Games Northwestern Should Win
Because the season is so long, I’m hesitant to call any of these a must-win. It is possible to slip up against one of these teams, especially on the road, and still make the NCAA Tournament. However, a loss means Northwestern would have to make up ground in the tougher parts of its schedule, so more than one defeat in these games isn’t desirable. Ideally, you want to take care of business in all of these games.
(NOTE: All recruiting rankings come from 247 Sports)
[Games are ranked in ascending level of difficulty]
1. Home vs. Rutgers
Everyone is aware that Rutgers was historically awful last season, going 1-17 in conference play. The Scarlet Knights should be better this season, with stud guard Corey Sanders returning and Steve Pikiell replacing Eddie Jordan as head coach, but transforming a team that bad doesn’t happen in one offseason. It might not be this ugly...
...but Northwestern can’t lose this game.
2. At Rutgers
Northwestern gets to travel to the Mecca of college basketball, the RAC, this season. Normally, Big Ten road games are tough, but it’s tough to imagine anyone being intimidated by fans of a team that went 1-8 in home conference games in 2015-16. Count this one as a win, too.
3. Home vs. Nebraska
Northwestern went 2-0 against Nebraska last season, and gets to play the Cornhuskers twice again this year. Both games were relatively close, but that was with now-graduated leading scorer Shavon Shields getting buckets for Tim Miles’ squad.
4. Home vs. Minnesota
The Golden Gophers weren’t that much better than Rutgers last season. They went 2-16 in conference play, including a blowout loss at the RAC. Northwestern won both of its contests against Minnesota by at least 24 points. Yet, what keeps the Gophers above the home game against Nebraska for me is that while the Huskers will likely get worse, the Gophers are almost certainly going to improve in ‘16-17. They bring back a talented group of freshmen led by Jordan Murphy and Kevin Dorsey as well as a top-30 incoming class headlined by four-star recruit Amir Coffey (brother of NU women's basketball star Nia). Ultimately, this will be a very young team, and Northwestern needs to take care of business in its one matchup this season, especially at home.
5. At Nebraska
Last time Northwestern traveled to Lincoln for a basketball game, Dererk Pardon went off for 28 points and 12 rebounds in his second collegiate game. He’ll get a chance to repeat that performance this season, but the Wildcats should be able to get a victory regardless.
6. Home vs. Illinois
Ah, rivalry(?) basketball at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Northwestern escaped with a 58-56 victory in this game in February, and Illinois could actually be better this season, despite the loss of Kendrick Nunn and perhaps Leron Black. Tracy Abrams, in his sixth year of eligibility, is a huge help if healthy, and the Illini have a lot of young, skilled players. With that said, I still think this is a game that Northwestern should win at home.
The Games That Could Go Either Way
Alright, onto the fun stuff. Every single one of these games is winnable, but at the same time, Northwestern needs to play very well for that to happen. Assuming Northwestern doesn’t slip up against a nonconference cupcake, handles business in the first tier, and doesn’t pull a ton of big upsets, these are the game that will decide its season. Last year, Northwestern struggled in these types of games, going 2-5 against Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. Again, these are listed in ascending level of difficulty.
7. At Illinois
More rivalry basketball! Northwestern and Illinois will face off twice this season, which is how it always should be, but often isn't. However, going into State Farm Center and securing a W will be a tough task for the Wildcats. As I mentioned earlier, Illinois is bringing back a fair amount of talent. Malcolm Hill,a healthy Mike Thorne, and Jalen-Coleman Lands are all solid players. The Fighting Illini actually knocked off a couple ranked teams at home last season, beating Purdue and Iowa. Then again, the team also lost to Nebraska at home. This game would be very nice to have for Northwestern, but the team will need to show up in a hostile atmosphere.
8. At Penn State
Northwestern and Penn State split a two-game series last season, with the road team winning both times. They’ll face off just once this year, in Happy Valley. Penn State finished a game below Northwestern with a 7-11 conference record in ‘15-16, but like Illinois, seems like a solid candidate for improvement. Brandon Taylor is gone, but Shep Garner and Payton Banks are back, and joining them is the 26th best recruiting class in the nation. This game will be a good test of whether or not Northwestern’s postseason hopes — NIT or NCAA regardless — are legit.
9. Home vs. Iowa
The Hawkeyes were one of the best teams in the country last season until they collapsed by losing six of their final eight conference games. Unfortunately for Fran McCaffery, Iowa lost its leaders in points (Jarrod Uthoff), rebounds (Adam Woodbury) and assists (Mike Gesell), as well as a fourth starter (Anthony Clemmons) to graduation in 2016. At least Peter Jok is back, and he is a monster. Northwestern might want to actually guard him this year:
Iowa also landed four-star recruit Tyler Cook, but several role players from last year will need to make major progressions for Iowa to stay near the top of the Big Ten standings. Northwestern gets the Hawkeyes at home, which helps. If Sanjay Lumpkin and Co. can limit Jok’s effectiveness, this is definitely a winnable game. The Wildcats beat the Hawkeyes in their last meeting at Welsh-Ryan, two seasons ago.
10. At Ohio State
Twice last season, Northwestern hung with Ohio State. And twice, the Buckeyes pulled away in the last five minutes. Can the Wildcats finish the deal in Columbus this year? It won’t be easy. Although much has been made of four of the five members of Ohio State’s 2015 class transferring, none of them were major contributors last season. Thad Matta gets his five leading scorers back, including senior Marc Loving and juniors Keita Bates-Diop and JaeSean Tate. The sole returning freshman, Jaquan Lyle, is a candidate for a breakout season, and Matta picked up a four-star recruit as well. Again, this is a bubble game. I can see Northwestern playing well and stealing a victory, but I can just as easily (probably more easily) see Northwestern collapsing down the stretch once more.
11. Home vs. Michigan
Northwestern lost by just nine points at Michigan a season ago, then took the Wolverines to overtime on a neutral court in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. The man who sent that game to overtime, Alex Olah, is gone, and so is Tre Demps, who was just a tiny bit important the last time Michigan came to Welsh-Ryan Arena. You probably don’t need a reminder of what happened, but this will always be awesome:
While Northwestern loses those two seniors (and gains Vic Law), Michigan returns just about everyone who contributed heavily in ‘15-16. Caris LeVert is gone, but he missed almost the entire conference season with injuries for two straight years anyways. Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr., and Duncan Robinson should all take strides for John Beilein this year, and the incoming class is solid. With that said, there’s no reason why Northwestern can’t keep this one close on its home floor.
12. Home vs. Maryland
Melo Trimble is coming back for his junior year. That’s good for Maryland, but not thrilling for the rest of the Big Ten. Along with Trimble, Mark Turgeon returns Robert Carter and some solid role players, and adds the 11th-best class in the country. Hey, at least the Terrapins are still losing a lot of talent. Diamond Stone is headed to the NBA, and Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon are out of eligibility. Northwestern lost to Maryland twice last season, but neither game was a blowout. This one would’ve gone in the third tier if it were being played at Maryland, but Northwestern will have a shot at home. Trimble against Bryant McIntosh should be fun once again.
The Games Northwestern Will Probably Lose
A single win in this section would be one more than Northwestern had in ‘15-16. The Wildcats didn’t upset a single team that finished in the top 5 in the conference, and lost by a combined 77 points in three straight games against Indiana, Michigan State, and Iowa. Hopefully these games will be a little more spread out this year, but regardless, they’re going to be tough. If you’re Chris Collins, these are opportunities to really boost your postseason resume and make a statement.
13. Home vs. Purdue
AJ Hammons is gone, which is nice, because he dominated Northwestern the past few years. Now, if only Purdue were losing Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan too... There are questions in the backcourt, but the Boilermakers have a solid, experienced backcourt with Vince Edwards, PJ Thompson, and Ryan Cline. I’m still holding a grudge against this team for choking against UALR in the first round of the NCAA Tournament when I had them going to the Elite 8, but Purdue will be tough to beat, even at home. This is an especially tough matchup for Northwestern, since young big men Dererk Pardon and Barret Benson figure to have a long day in the paint.
14. At Purdue
Northwestern actually hung with Purdue on the road last season, eventually falling by just ten points. It’s probably a safe bet that that margin will increase in this one. Taking one of two from the Boilermakers this season would be a major success for the Wildcats.
15. Home vs. Indiana
Indiana was really, really good last season. The Hoosiers went 13-3 in the Big Ten and knocked off Kentucky to get to the Sweet Sixteen. In ‘16-17, Northwestern has to play the defending conference champs twice. However, Tom Crean’s squad will look a little different than it did last year. Star point guard Yogi Ferrell is gone, along with fellow graduates Max Bielfeldt and Nick Zeisloft. Troy Williams, somewhat surprisingly, is staying in the NBA Draft, so he won’t be back either. Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby decided to return, so it could’ve been much worse. Indiana will also get James Blackmon back from injury and should again have depth with Collin Hartman, Robert Johnson, and two four-star recruits. Unless something changes dramatically between now and Northwestern’s two dates with the Hoosiers, the Wildcats should expect to be heavy underdogs both times.
16. At Wisconsin
Of Northwestern’s 20 wins this past season, beating Wisconsin was unquestionably the most impressive. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the two teams’ seasons went in completely opposite directions after that game. Northwestern lost five in a row to effectively remove itself from NCAA Tournament contention, and Wisconsin won 11 of its next 12 games and finished the season in the Sweet Sixteen. This season, the Badgers are going to be scary. Greg Gard, who did a fantastic job after taking over for Bo Ryan, gets his entire starting lineup back, including Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, and Ethan Happ. Northwestern will have an extremely difficult time pulling the upset when it heads to the Kohl Center this season.
17. At Indiana
McIntosh’s first trip home to Assembly Hall this January didn’t go so well. More accurately, it was a bloodbath. Indiana made 200 threes (okay, only 13), and there was a lot of this:
(Bryan Spurlock/USA TODAY)
I would be downright shocked if Northwestern won this game.
18. At Michigan State
Forget Middle Tennessee State.
Forget the departures of Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Deyonta Davis, and Matt Costello.
Michigan State is going to be so good this year. Tom Izzo has the fourth-best class in the country coming in, which features four top-50 recruits. To put that into some depressing perspective, Northwestern has never has a single top-50 player. Five-star recruits Miles Bridges (12th in 247’s rankings) and Josh Langford (20th) have All-Big Ten potential as freshmen. Eron Harris, Matt McQuaid, and Gavin Schilling are back too. Northwestern lost by 31 to the Spartans at home, and will need a miracle to win this game in the Breslin Center.
Way Too Early Win-Loss Prediction
Six easy games, six bubble games, and six hard ones. So much can change in the next five months, but let’s give this a shot.
I think Northwestern will continue the trend from last season and go 6-0 in its easy games, although the Illinois home game worries me a bit. In the second tier, I think Northwestern will go 3-3, beating Penn State and Ohio State on the road and Michigan at home, and falling to Iowa and Maryland at Welsh-Ryan Arena and Illinois on the road. Finally, I can’t see the Wildcats pulling a single upset among the six games in my third tier.
In my hypothetical situation, Northwestern goes 9-9 in Big Ten play. If that were the case, Northwestern would need to avoid any bad losses and pick up several resume-boosting wins in its admittedly disappointing non-conference schedule to get back to the NIT. Picking up more than three wins in the middle tier of conference games and/or pulling out a big upset against an elite team will be necessary to put Northwestern on the (gasp!) tournament bubble. Hey, it was "next year" for Cleveland this year, so anything is possible.
When next March rolls around, I’m sure I’ll regret some of the predictions and analysis I just made. Weird stuff happens in college basketball all the time, and we still have a long ways to go before the nonconference season even kicks off. But it’s never too early to speculate on whether or not this is the year.
How many conference games do you think Northwestern will win in 2016-17? Let us know in the comments, and vote in the poll below: