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For now, Northwestern basketball’s non-conference schedule is risky

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As it stands, Northwestern’s non-con slate doesn’t offer many opportunities for signature wins.

Northwestern v Gonzaga Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Fresh off last season’s magical NCAA Tournament season, the optimism surrounding next year’s Northwestern basketball team is sky-high, and for good reason. The team will return four out of five starters and over 85 percent of its scoring. And while you have to take offseason projections with a degree of skepticism, Northwestern’s appearance in several “way-too-early” Top 25 lists gives you a general idea of the national optimism and hype around the team.

Given how much talent is coming back for the Wildcats, 2017-18 will be a critical year for the development of the program. Excluding Vic Law Jr. — who received a medical redshirt in 2015-16 — next season will be the final go-around for Chris Collins’ prized first recruiting class. Continuing the positive momentum from last season will be key toward keeping Northwestern in the upper echelon of the Big Ten, and could potentially have major implications for late signees in the 2018 recruiting class, which is arguably Collins’ most important recruiting class since his first one.

For all of those reasons, the strength of Northwestern’s 2017-18 non-conference schedule at this moment — or lack thereof — is puzzling. Granted, only 10 games have been released, so three more should be announced (the team has played 13 non-conference games in each of Collins’s first three seasons). One of those three games will be Northwestern’s ACC/B1G challenge game, which certainly could be a Top 25-caliber team.

As of right now, though, here are the opponents we know Northwestern will play:

Team 2016-2017 KenPom ranking Site Event
Brown 277 Home N/A
Creighton 28 Home Gavitt Games
DePaul 184 Unconfirmed, but most likely away Five-year series (Year three)
La Salle 140 Neutral (Mohegan Sun) Hall of Fame Tip-Off
Oklahoma 65 Away Home-and-home (leg 1)
Sacred Heart 301 Home Hall of Fame Tip-Off
Saint Peter's 95 Home Hall of Fame Tip-Off
Valparaiso 104 Home N/A
Boston College* 173 Neutral (Mohegan Sun) Hall of Fame Tip-Off
Texas Tech* 41 Neutral (Mohegan Sun) Hall of Fame Tip-Off

*Northwestern will play one of Boston College and Texas Tech, depending on the result of its Hall of Fame Tip-Off matchup with La Salle.

There are several points to note for teams on the list above.

For Creighton, big man Justin Patton left school early and hired an agent for the NBA draft, and star point guard Maurice Watson Jr. has no remaining eligibility. Unanimous First Team All-Big East selection Marcus Foster, the team’s leading scorer from last season, will be back next season, but it’s tough to envision the team maintaining the level of play that earned it a No. 28 KenPom finish in 2016-17.

Likewise, Valparaiso and Saint Peter’s, who would’ve been good mid-major games last season, could see steep declines next season. Horizon league foe Valpo loses three of its top four scorers, including star forward Alec Peters, who poured in 23 points per game last season. Saint Peter’s, which finished second to Monmouth in the MAAC last season, will lose its top four minute-getters and three of its top four scorers next season.

Losing key pieces does not always mean a team will be worse — Northwestern improved significantly after losing its leading scorer (Tre Demps) and rebounder (Alex Olah) a year ago — but Creighton, Valparaiso and Saint Peter’s are losing several significant players each, which generally is not a recipe for success in college basketball if you aren’t recruiting at an elite level.

There are some relative positives, though. Creighton will be a solid opponent, and the two Big 12 teams on the list, Oklahoma and Texas Tech (if the Red Raiders meet Northwestern in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament final), are candidates to improve on their 2015-16 campaigns.

As of right now, Oklahoma is the only confirmed true road game on Northwestern’s non-conference lineup, and despite the Sooners’ struggles last season, playing in Norman should be a good test. They lose their top scorer and leader in Jordan Woodard, but will replace him with one of the best high school point guards in the country in Trae Young. Lon Kruger’s club recently got some good news when big man Khadeem Lattin decided to return for his senior season. The point guard matchup between Young and Bryant McIntosh should be a fun one. Still, Oklahoma was abysmal in 2016-17 and is probably another year or two away from returning to the NCAA Tournament.

Texas Tech, as previously mentioned, may not even happen. If it does, that would add another decent-but-not-great matchup to the non-con schedule. A win over the Red Raiders would be nice, but probably won’t move the needle a whole lot on Northwestern’s final resume.

Taking a step back, there just isn’t a whole of sizzle in most of the announced non-conference matchups. The ACC/B1G challenge game will almost certainly be a good addition to the slate; it may even wind up as Northwestern’s toughest non-con game.

But with what is possibly the best NU team of Collins’ tenure at the school, Jim Phillips and the basketball program, at least from what has been announced, have put together a non-conference schedule that gives the team little room for error. That isn’t something completely new for Northwestern in the Collins era: the team has never had a non-con strength of schedule in the top half of Division I in his four previous years in Evanston.

Year Non-conference strength of schedule rank (KenPom)

2013-2014

197
2014-2015 246
2015-2016 334
2016-2017 249

There are some clear advantages to playing a weaker non-conference schedule. There are more opportunities to work in newcomers and younger players against worse teams, and your team may not be as worn down heading into the grind that is conference play. Collins could be trying to compensate for playing in a new arena by scheduling softer games.

But scheduling that kind of non-conference slate is risky. There are fewer opportunities to pick up signature out-of-conference wins, which are valuable commodities when jockeying for postseason position with teams from other leagues. It’s also easier to justify an early-season slip-up or two if a team has impressive wins on its resume. The NCAA Selection Committee has made it clear in recent years that quality wins will improve a resume more than bad losses will hurt it. There’s also the possibility that a team more unchallenged in the non-con will be unprepared for the increased level of play at the beginning of its conference schedule.

Having said that, the non-conference schedule is not the end-all, be-all. The Wildcats will have plenty of opportunities to bolster their resume in Big Ten play. But for now, Northwestern’s non-conference schedule — albeit not fully announced — leaves something to be desired yet again.