Northwestern formally announced its schedule on Wednesday. Along with the teams announced, we also know that the Wildcats are going to play two of Colorado, Notre Dame, and Texas along with Bryant as part of the Legends Classic. We also know that Northwestern will play one of either Seattle, Louisiana Monroe or Eastern Washington, also as part of the Legends Classic. We know what the schedule is (basically), and, uh, it isn't phenomenal.
Here's what we get when we rank the teams on Northwestern's schedule by their final KenPom ratings from last season:
Notre Dame* (35th)
Louisiana Monroe† (121st)
Wake Forest (125th)
Eastern Washington† (196th)
Houston Baptist (273rd)
New Orleans (319th)
Mississippi Valley State (340th)
Chicago State (349th)
* Northwestern will play two of the three teams denoted
† Northwestern will play one of the three teams denoted
If you really want to get pessimistic about it, you can bring up how Butler is losing Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones and will probably take a notable step back this season and also that Eastern Washington is losing its two best players while Louisiana-Monroe is losing five seniors from its rotation. What you have is a schedule that, on the back end, looks fairly similar to a schedule last year that checked in as the 345th best schedule in the nation, according to KenPom.
Let's say Northwestern draws Eastern Washington, Notre Dame, and Colorado in the games that are still up in the air. That would put the average KenPom rating of NU's opponents at 194, a modest step up from the average rating of 227 of last season's nonconference schedule As a point of reference, the team with the 175th best nonconference strength of schedule last year (smack dab in the middle) had an average opponent KenPom rating of 148. So Northwestern's schedule is about 30% worse than the most average schedule in America. Yikes.
At this point, it's fair to say that this is the Chris Collins philosophy in nonconference scheduling. In 2014-15, the nonconference schedule sported an average opponent KenPom rating of 186. In Chris Collins' first season, the average rating was 176, the strongest slate of his Northwestern tenure. It checked in as the 271st toughest non-conference schedule nationally. There's a consistent theme: a tournament with at least one good team (Missouri and UCLA in year one, Northern Iowa in year two, UNC in year three, and Colorado/Texas/Notre Dame in year 4), maybe a decent team in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and then a whole lot of cupcakes.
It's a strategy that is a bummer for fans. Average attendance has gone up the last couple of years, but it's hard to imagine students or others filling up the gym for MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE VS NORTHWESTERN III: ITTA BENA STRIKES BACK. An exciting nonconference home game would be a cool thing.
But that's not the real issue with the schedule. The schedule is not maximizing Northwestern's postseason potential.
Northwestern was good enough to make the NIT last season. The team's biggest strikes against itself in the selection process was the lack of a marquee win (not a function of the schedule), a bad RPI (thanks to playing terrible teams in nonconference as well as Rutger) and a bad nonconference schedule. I wrote at the time, and stand by, that beating Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament wouldn't have been enough to get the Wildcats in. NU's RPI would still have been problematic and that schedule would have proved to be a huge differentiator when compared with that of other bubble teams.
And that's just for the NIT bubble.
Northwestern fans shouldn't be thinking about the NCAA Tournament this upcoming season, but if and when the Wildcats start to knock on that door, a schedule like this can singlehandedly keep them out. Maybe Chris Collins would make the adjustment when the time comes, but last year, in a season he described as the one in which Northwestern has "got to take a jump," he put forward the weakest power conference non-con schedule in the nation.
There's a simple enough way to fix it, and it doesn't mean going on the road to play a Duke or a Kentucky or someone else of that ilk. RPI is a terrible, bad metric that is also the most important metric for the selection committee. It's also very easy to game. Want a guaranteed victory? Don't schedule Mississippi Valley State, schedule a team that isn't in Division 1. They don't count against your RPI. Replace the teams that will rank south of 300 (like New Orleans, Chicago State, etcetera) with teams around 200. It's not like Northwestern is short in the pocket and can't afford the expenditure -- just ask Nevada's athletic department. There's cash to throw.
If Northwestern was more willing to use that money, it'd be in much better shape. As it stands, it looks like the lessons of 2016 have gone largely unlearned. I guess we have MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE VS NORTHWESTERN III: ITTA BENA STRIKES BACK to look forward to!