Chris Collins likes to compare the Big Ten schedule to an 18-round boxing match.
In many ways, the analogy makes sense. Almost all of the 18 games each team plays are tough, physical contests. And in a year that has already shown an unusual amount of parity in the conference, no games are sure wins or sure losses for a team like Northwestern.
“You go into every round, you come out of that corner and you give everything you have into that round,” Collins said Tuesday. “Hopefully, when the dust settles, you win more rounds than you lose. If you lose more, then you’re knocked out.”
The Wildcats won their opening round with ease, cruising to a victory over Penn State. But in the second round, Northwestern got a tough reminder of how difficult it is to win in the Big Ten, as it fell behind Michigan State 28-9 and couldn’t complete a comeback.
Leaving the sports metaphors aside, Northwestern is two months into the 2016-17 season and has put itself squarely in the conversation for that elusive program-first: a bid to the NCAA Tournament. At 12-3, the Wildcats have picked up a few solid wins and suffered no bad losses. At this point, they have just 16 games left to prove themselves to the selection committee.
9 wins in those 16 games probably gets Northwestern to its dream. 10 wins almost certainly does. But with the way the conference is shaping up, every game is going to be tough (except perhaps the two against Rutgers). That doesn’t leave much room for error.
“You have to take every game as a must-win,” said Bryant McIntosh. “If you don’t show up as [though it’s] a must-win, you’ll get your doors blown off.”
The Wildcats’ next two opponents have a played a significant role in throwing the Big Ten hierarchy into chaos over the first week of conference play. Minnesota, who visits Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday night, just beat No. 15 Purdue on the road and took Michigan State to overtime. Nebraska, who Northwestern plays on Sunday, is 2-0 with road wins over Indiana and Maryland. Those teams went a combined 8-28 in the conference last season, including 0-4 against Northwestern. Meanwhile, the defending champion Hoosiers are 0-2.
“What you’re seeing is there’s just really a lot of good teams,” Collins said. “There is no upper, middle, bottom tier - you’ve gotta play every game in front of you.”
Collins is correct that the conference’s tiers have become so jumbled that they barely exist. However, no team has played more than 2 games yet. A set of tiers will begin to become clear over the next month, and Northwestern has the opportunity to establish itself in the mid-to-upper one if it plays up to its potential.
That’s what makes Thursday’s game against Minnesota - and the five following it - so important. Minnesota is exactly the type of solid, yet beatable team Northwestern needs to defend home court against if it wants to be one of presumably 5-8 Big Ten teams to make the Big Dance.
After Minnesota and Nebraska, the Wildcats have games against Rutgers, Iowa, Ohio State and Nebraska again. They need to take care of business in as many of those games as possible to set themselves up to end the season with 5 of the last 10 games against Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin.
The opportunity is there.
Starting Thursday night, it’s time for Northwestern to seize it and knock out its demons.