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Previewing Northwestern basketball's Power-6 non-conference opponents this season

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There are a lot of talented guards on these teams.

Rhode Island v Creighton Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Northwestern heads into this season fresh off a historic 2016-2017 campaign. The Wildcats broke the school record for wins in a single season and made their first NCAA tournament appearance. But that’s all old news now.

With four starters and their top five scorers all returning, Chris Collins and his team are focused on reaching new heights this season. Ranked No. 20 in the preseason edition of the USA Today Coaches Poll, and 18th in KenPom, a Top 25 ranking is likely coming when the initial AP Poll is released in the coming days.

We're familiar with the Big Ten foes that lie ahead for the Wildcats this season; Michigan State, with the unexpected return of sophomore forward Miles Bridges, a pre-season national player of the year candidate and likely 2018 lottery pick, is ranked No. 2 in the Coaches Poll, Richard Pitino’s Minnesota Golden Gophers are ranked No. 15, while the Purdue Boilermakers, despite the loss of Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan, are ranked just behind Northwestern at No. 21.

But how much do you know about some of the teams NU will face to close out 2017? The Wildcats are set to play a non-conference schedule that includes games against Creighton, Georgia Tech as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and Oklahoma. They will partake in the Hall of Fame Tip Off Tournament on November 18 and 19 that will result in another matchup against a major conference opponent in either Boston College or Texas Tech.

The Wildcats will be tested in at least a few of these four matchups. As of now, I think they would be betting favorites in every non-conference game if it were played at a neutral site. However, Northwestern will travel to Georgia Tech over Thanksgiving weekend and to Norman on December 22 to take on the Sooners. Creighton, Georgia Tech, Boston College/Texas Tech and Oklahoma will all present unique challenges for the Wildcats. Let’s take a closer look at these teams.

Editor’s note: DePaul, which isn’t previewed here, is also a major conference team but will probably be bad again this year (119 in initial KenPom ranks, not too far ahead of Valpo). Northwestern will play at the Blue Demons’ new arena in December.

Creighton

The Wildcats’ first real test of the season will come against Creighton on November 15, which is sooner than you think. The Blue Jays are coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance of their own; as a 6-seed last year, they were bounced in the first round by Rhode Island and have since lost two of their best players from last year’s team. Point guard Maurice Watson Jr. graduated and big man Justin Patton declared for the draft after his freshman season (he was selected by the Bulls and sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves as a part of the Jimmy Butler draft night trade). Despite this, the Blue Jays received some votes to be ranked in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

They return senior guard Marcus Foster, their leading scorer from a year ago, and junior guard Khyri Thomas. These two should form one of the highest scoring backcourts in college basketball this season, but the Blue Jays have major question marks in the frontcourt.

They’ll welcome the addition of freshman big man Jacob Epperson, and, while the four-star recruit isn’t likely to start this year, he’ll have to contribute to a thin frontcourt in the wake of Patton’s departure. Foster and Thomas will also be joined by now-eligible Syracuse transfer Kaleb Joseph. Joseph is a 6-3 junior who started 30 games for Syracuse as a freshman in 2014-2015. However, after an unsuccessful sophomore season in 2015-2016, Joseph transferred to Creighton.

Senior big man Toby Hegner is the third sure-fire starter for the Blue Jays alongside Foster and Thomas. Creighton’s other two starters figure to be sophomores Davion Mintz and Martin Krampelj, a Slovenian native. Mintz and Krampelj scored just 5 points apiece in a scrimmage against Nebraska-Omaha, and how quickly they develop will be crucial to the Blue Jays success this season.

November 15 against Creighton will be Bryant McIntosh and Northwestern’s first real defensive test of the season, especially with respect to Foster and Thomas.

Boston College/Texas Tech

The Wildcats will partake in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament on November 18 and 19. The eight-team field for the tournament includes just three major conference teams: Northwestern, Boston College and Texas Tech.

BC finished last year 9-23 overall, with a brutal 2-16 record in the ACC. Adding insult to injury, they lost talented wing AJ Turner to Northwestern via transfer. The 6-foot-7 Turner played the second most minutes per game last year for the Eagles and also finished second on the team in assists per game and fourth in points per game.

While the Eagles hope the June signing of Illinois St. graduate transfer Deontae Hawkins can offset the loss of Turner, they’ll depend on Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman a lot again this year. These two guards averaged 18 and 14 points per game last year, respectively. Vic Law, one of five players selected to the All-Defensive team in the Big Ten last year, is likely to guard Robinson if these two teams play, while McIntosh would likely be responsible for Bowman. Should the two teams meet, the Wildcats might struggle to slow down Robinson and Bowman at times, but would also be able to expose the Eagles defensively (317th in FG% defense last year) and potentially win this game and the tournament. Collins wants to win championships this year, and a Hall of Fame Tournament championship is the first one in play.

Playing Texas Tech in a potential Hall of Fame Tournament championship game seems more likely (the Red Raiders are 33rd in the initial KenPom rankings while BC is 95th). Texas Tech will get their top two scorers back from last year, including All-Big 12 member Keenan Evans. But the Red Raiders are also experiencing an extreme roster overhaul. They'll be without six rotation players from last year, and are welcoming four transfers and four new recruits to the team.

Tommy Hamilton left DePaul to join Texas Tech for his last year of eligibility and Brandone Francis transferred from Florida. The Red Raiders also signed two JuCo players. Three three-star recruits and a four-star Italian combo guard by the name of Davide Moretti, a member of the FIBA All-Tournament Team in the U18 Championships, make up the 2017 freshman class.

Despite Moretti’s European accomplishments, none of the freshman figure to play major roles right away for Texas Tech. Hamilton and Francis, meanwhile, could. Evans, named to the third team All-Big 12 last year, and Zach Smith, the second leading scorer from last year’s team, will lead Texas Tech as seniors this go-round. Although it’s probably a tougher matchup than Boston College, Northwestern should, on paper, have a good chance to beat Texas Tech as well.

Georgia Tech

The Wildcats will travel to Atlanta over Thanksgiving weekend to play Georgia Tech in this year’s edition of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. As freshmen, the current seniors lost 66-58 to Georgia Tech at Welsh-Ryan arena in the 2014 challenge. This game will hopefully illustrate how far Northwestern basketball has come since Chris Collins and the current seniors arrived on campus over three years ago.

Georgia Tech seems to have a bright future under head coach Josh Pastner. In his first season in Atlanta, Pastner brought his team out of the ACC cellar and had the Yellow Jackets flirting with an NCAA tournament bid come Selection Sunday.

Pastner and GT will return their three leading scorers from last year and will welcome four new freshmen to campus. The addition of three three-star recruits will eventually offset the production of the six players who are gone from last year’s team, but they are unlikely to play a huge role in the game vs. Northwestern. Five Yellow Jackets graduated after last season, including starters Quinton Stephens and Josh Heath. Returnee Josh Okogie is the team's best player and was selected to the ACC All-Freshman team last year, which is not an easy feat considering the abundance of one and done talent in the ACC.

Okogie, like his ACC All-Freshman team counterparts, may have the talent to be an NBA draft pick next year. Law will likely guard the explosive 6-foot-4 sophomore for the majority of this game.

How the rest of the Northwestern roster handles Tadric Jackson and Ben Lammers will likely determine the outcome of this game. Lammers is the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, while Jackson was the ACC Sixth Man award runner-up last year. Both should have big roles again this season.

Northwestern is more than capable of winning these types of games in 2017, and their ability to do so will be pivotal come Selection Sunday in March.

Oklahoma

The final non-conference major opponent for the Wildcats will be the Oklahoma Sooners. I think we all remember the Buddy Hield Oklahoma team that challenged Kansas for a Big 12 regular season title two years ago; that team eventually made it to the Final Four, something Bryant McIntosh has said he is hoping to do this season.

After losing to eventual national champion Villanova by 44 in the national semifinal, last year it seemed that the Sooners experienced a year-long hangover. They finished 11-20 and won just five games in the Big 12.

This offseason they lost Jordan Woodard, their leading scorer and point guard from last year, but added an impressive recruiting class headlined by five-star point guard Trae Young. Young was a consensus five-star recruit, and his college decision ultimately came down to Oklahoma and Kansas. Much to the delight of the Sooner faithful, the Norman native announced his commitment to Oklahoma on February 16 in front of a packed auditorium at Norman North High School, just a couple miles from the Oklahoma campus.

Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger was also able to persuade the second or third-best player in Oklahoma (depending on what recruiting site you trust), Brady Manek, to stay home for college. Manek is a four-star power forward who figures to play decent minutes this year as well. Oklahoma also added three-star center Hannes Polla from Finland and Junior College transfer Ty Lazenby while retaining seven of their top eight scorers from last year. Senior Khadeem Lattin is a presence down low, and returners like Kameron McGusty and Rashard Odomes will be looking to make leaps forward.

Lazenby averaged 22.9 points per game in Junior College last year and was named to the All-NJCAA first team. He, along with Young and Manek, should make an immediate impact for the Sooners. Young will step into Woodard’s vacant point guard spot right away, and his ability to score efficiently (he averaged a ridiculous 40+ points per game his senior year) will have a profound impact on how successful the Sooners are this season. B-Mac vs. Young could make for one of the best point guard matchups in all of college basketball this season.

With a loaded, deep roster, Oklahoma should make a return to the Tournament after a year off, and are most likely the Wildcats’ toughest non-con opponent. The Sooners received many votes in the Coaches Poll but did not quite crack the Top 25. If you’re into advanced stats, they are No. 21 in KenPom, just three spots behind the Wildcats.