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Northwestern basketball Big Ten schedule: Positives, negatives, key stretch and more

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NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan vs Northwestern Thomas Joseph-USA TODAY Sports

Look ahead to this winter and mark your calendars, Wildcats fans, because Northwestern men’s basketball’s official schedule for the 2016-17 season is now complete. With the Big 10 having released its full slate of conference games for the upcoming campaign on Thursday, and Northwestern having already announced its non-conference opponents in early July, Chris Collins and his team now know the exact road that they will have to navigate in their latest drive towards that elusive NCAA Tournament appearance. As has already been heavily discussed, the program has not done itself any favors by yet again treating itself to a cakewalk of a non-conference schedule, meaning that the Wildcats will be left to take care of most—if not all—of their resumé building for March in conference play. That is what makes diving into the nuts and bolts, peaks and valleys, and opportunities and necessities of yesterday’s release so vital for analyzing whether or not this will be the year that ends the March Sadness in Evanston.

Here is Northwestern’s full conference schedule:

Positives:

  • Of the group of five schools that sit atop the Big 10 in a cluster of contention heading into the season (Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland, and Purdue), Northwestern will be seeing both of the schools that are poking their heads out above that cluster (the Badgers and the Spartans) just once.
  • The ‘Cats will also manage to avoid seeing the conference’s best player twice. A Feb. 15 visit from Maryland marks that only time that Bryant MacIntosh and his backcourt mates will come face-to-face with junior guard Melo Trimble, who lit them up for 42 points and 16 assists in the Terps’ two wins over NU last year combined.
  • Of the group of four schools that are hopelessly mired at the bottom of the Big 10 in a puddle of futility and ineptitude (Rutgers, Minnesota, Illinois, and Nebraska), Coach Collins and Co. will get to see three of them (the Scarlet Knights, the Illini, and the Cornhuskers) twice.
  • The only home game that students away for winter break will miss will be a decidedly un-intriguing January 5th encounter with Minnesota. The Gophers should be improved, but this, this and (most importantly) this happened to Richard Pitino’s squad last year.

Negatives:

  • Visits to Bloomington, Madison, East Lansing, and West Lafayette are looming for Northwestern, meaning the Wildcats will travel to arguably the four most hostile environments in the conference to face arguably the conference’s four top teams.

Key Games:

Dec. 27th @ Penn State (conference opener), Jan. 15th vs. Iowa, Jan. 22nd @ Ohio State, March 1st vs. Michigan

In what is conference that looks to be divided into three distinct tiers, Northwestern most certainly falls into the middle tier, along with its four opponents highlighted above. The considerable strength of the top tier and the considerable weakness of the bottom tier create a situation for the league’s tournament-chasing middle tier in which the magnitude and importance of every encounter with the teams around them is amplified immensely. The schools that get the best of this five-way mini-league will likely be the ones snapping up the conference’s last couple NCAA tournament bids, while those who come off worst will likely remember their season as one of postseason-less mediocrity. Sound familiar?

As the Big 10 schedule czars would have it, the already heightened significance of these games has been raised even further for Northwestern, as they only get one shot to knock off each of the schools around them. If Chris Collins and Co. miss more than one of these shots, their push for a spot in March’s coveted field of 68 would be in serious jeopardy.

Toughest Stretch:

Feb. 26th - Mar. 4 (@ Indiana, vs. Michigan, vs. Purdue)

Overall, the latter half of NU’s Big 10 schedule has a far higher degree of difficulty than its first half, but this seven day storm headed the Wildcats’ way at the very close of the regular season is what stands out from the rest. A vital, pressure-packed home game against the Wolverines is sandwiched tightly in between a trip to Bloomington that is sure to bring back some unpleasant memories, and a visit of a potential Big 10 title contender to Evanston in the form of Matt Painter’s Boilermakers.

Easiest Stretch:

Jan. 5th - Jan. 12th (vs. Minnesota, @ Nebraska, @ Rutgers)

Simply put, these are must-wins for the ‘Cats heading into…

Most Important Stretch:

Jan. 15th - Jan. 22nd (vs. Iowa, @ Ohio State)

These back-to-back Sunday afternoons—the first at Welsh-Ryan against the Peter Jok-led Hawkeyes, and the second in Columbus against a still youthful but much-improved Buckeyes squad—could be what define Northwestern’s season. Wins in both of these games would likely mean a five-game win streak and a record that would see them sitting towards the top of the conference as league play approaches its halfway point. Furthermore, it would drive a firm wedge between the Wildcats and their two most challenging middle tier competitors.

Trap Game:

Jan. 26th vs. Nebraska

This game has all the ingredients of a classic Northwestern basketball letdown:

Ingredient #1: A Thursday night in the thick of winter quarter against probably the least exciting opponent in the conference does not sound like a recipe for a raucous Welsh-Ryan crowd (understatement of the century).

Ingredient #2: Despite being undermanned by Big 10 standards, Nebraska has developed a reputation in the past couple of years under Coach Tim Miles for being well-drilled, disciplined and plucky on the defensive end and grinding their way to unlikely victories (see Wisconsin in the conference tournament last year).

Ingredient #3: This Northwestern team could be coming into the game off the high of a potentially season-defining win at Ohio State. That means they will be very liable to come out flat against less challenging opposition (see Penn State after NU’s Wisconsin win last year), especially considering the fact that they will have very likely beaten this same Nebraska team in Lincoln just three weeks prior.

Ingredient #4: They will have their minds set firmly on the following game in just three days time.

Upset Alert:

Jan. 29th vs. Indiana (Sunday afternoon)

Remember how badly Indiana embarrassed Northwestern at Assembly Hall last year? Yeah. Do you think everyone in and around the Northwestern program remembers that too? You bet. Revenge will be on all of their minds for this Sunday afternoon tilt in Evanston, none more so than Indiana native Bryant MacIntosh. The junior floor general came off significantly second-best in his battle with Indiana All-American Yogi Ferrell last year, and will be keen to show all those watching in his home town and around the country that, in Ferrell’s absence, he can step up and dominate. And for another cherry on top of this upset sundae, nothing gets a potentially lackadaisical crowd into a game more than the opportunity to make fun of Tom Crean. Welsh-Ryan is guaranteed to be jumpin’.