In about five and a half months, Northwestern will begin play in a season unlike any the program has ever had. Although the weight of history has been lifted off their shoulders, another kind of pressure falls right into its place. For the first time ever, the Wildcats will have to deal with legitimate, well-deserved expectations. Returning a team that should, on paper, be even more talented than last year’s, 2017-18 figures to be the most anticipated basketball season this school has ever seen.
When Dererk Pardon jumps for the opening tip-off in the first game of the season, a crucial 13-game non-conference slate will be underway. That portion of the schedule is important because while Northwestern should be improved, so should the rest of the Big Ten. The Wildcats won’t have Rutgers, Nebraska, and underwhelming Illinois and Indiana teams as their four home-and-home conference opponents again. That makes picking up resume-boosting wins and avoiding bad losses in the non-con as important as ever.
So far, we know 10 of the 13 non-conference teams Northwestern will face, and as things stand in late May, they’re a bit underwhelming. Two of the remaining three games will almost certainly be against mid-majors. That leaves one more yet-to-be-determined chance for an impressive win: Northwestern’s opponent in the 19th ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Since its inception in 1999, the Wildcats are 8-10 in the event, although they’ve won 7 of their last 11 after a 1-7 start. For a refresher, here’s a rundown of Northwestern’s history in the event.
Home teams in bold
Northwestern in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge
|1999||Florida State, 60||Northwestern, 46||Steve Lepore, NU|
|2000||Clemson, 57||Northwestern, 44||Ben Johnson, NU|
|2001||Northwestern, 57||Florida State, 50||Jitim Young, NU|
|2002||North Carolina State, 74||Northwestern, 49||Marcus Melvin, NC St.|
|2003||Florida State, 71||Northwestern, 53||Anthony Richardson, FSU|
|2004||Virginia, 48||Northwestern, 44||Vedran Vukusic, NU|
|2005||Virginia, 72||Northwestern, 57||Sean Singletary, UVA|
|2006||Northwestern, 61||Miami, 59||Jack McClinton, UM|
|2007||Virginia, 94||Northwestern, 52||Mamadi Diane, UVA|
|2008||Northwestern, 73||Florida State, 59||Toney Douglas, FSU|
|2009||Northwestern, 65||North Carolina State, 53||Tracy Smith, NC St.|
|2010||Northwestern, 91||Georgia Tech, 71||John Shurna, NU|
|2011||Northwestern, 76||Georgia Tech, 60||John Shurna, NU|
|2012||Maryland, 77||Northwestern, 57||Dez Wells, UMD|
|2013||North Carolina State, 69||Northwestern, 48||TJ Warren, NC St.|
|2014||Georgia Tech, 66||Northwestern, 58||Alex Olah, NU|
|2015||Northwestern, 81||Virginia Tech, 79 (OT)||Seth Allen, VT|
|2016||Northwestern, 65||Wake Forest, 58||Bryant McIntosh, NU|
Other than two straight road games in 2002 and 2003, Northwestern has alternated between home and away every year of the challenge. Since Bryant McIntosh’s heroics against Wake Forest last November came at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Wildcats will hit the road this year. They’re just 3-6 all-time in ACC-Big Ten road games.
In theory, coming off of the best season in program history, Northwestern should be in line for a higher-profile ACC matchup than the likes of Wake, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, who make up all of the Wildcats’ opponents since 2009 (excluding current Big Ten member Maryland). With everything from team quality and potential narratives to arenas and fun individual matchups under consideration, a few of our writers give their preferences on Northwestern’s opponent for this year’s challenge.
Will Ragatz: Syracuse
This pick is less about the specific players on the other bench and more about the opposing coach, system and environment. Syracuse loses a lot from its 2017 NIT team (that was snubbed from the NCAA Tournament); grad transfers John Gillon and Andrew White III are gone and Tyler Lydon left early to be a likely first round NBA Draft pick. Still, the Orange are just two years removed from a Final Four run, and any matchup against Jim Boeheim at the Carrier Dome is bound to be a great test for a team. Of course, the defining feature of Boeheim’s system is the 2-3 defense. I’d love to see how Chris Collins, one of the young stars in the profession, attempts to solve one of the toughest puzzles in college basketball. Would he play Skelly and Pardon together to try to get high-low ball movement in the paint? Would he have B-Mac, Lindsey, Law and Falzon put up 30 threes over the top of the zone? McIntosh and Pardon will have their hands full with talented sophomores Tyus Battle and Taurean Thompson, respectively. There’s no better way to come together as a team than to battle it out in front of 22,000 fans on the road. As always, Purple > Orange.
Chris Grismer: Virginia
The Cavaliers, who finished fifth in the conference and were eliminated in the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament last season, have given the Wildcats a hard time throughout the history of this competition, winning all three head-to-head matchups. Tony Bennett’s squad has been a top-10 defense per Kenpom for four straight years, and that will be the focus of this matchup, should it materialize. Last year, Virginia held opponents to just 31.7 percent shooting from deep and was effective in turning teams over. Under head coach Chris Collins, Northwestern has run a disciplined offense that minimizes turnovers, so this game could come down to who wins that battle. However, the Cavaliers are losing guard London Perrantes, who led the team in scoring, assists and minutes. His replacement, redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter, is a former four-star recruit with a versatile offensive skillset, but losing the experience and clutch shot-making of Perrantes will be tough. All in all, a matchup between these two teams would be a fun defensive battle, and it would give the Wildcats a good test against a respected, unique opponent. Be warned, though: both Northwestern and Virginia play at a snail’s pace. If you’re looking for a high-scoring affair, this won’t be it.
Caleb Friedman: Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish would be ideal for a few reasons. Notre Dame figures to be a borderline top-25 caliber team, and, because there aren’t too many other teams like that on the Wildcats’ non-conference schedule (so far), getting another opportunity to pick up a signature win would be beneficial. Also, Northwestern will be comfortable with the half-court pace Notre Dame traditionally plays at; the Irish were 298th in average possession length last season. I would expect Northwestern to play at a faster pace in 2017-2018 than it did in 2016-2017, but running up and down with Duke or Louisville would be a difficult task for a team that isn’t itching to push the tempo all that much. We saw how well Northwestern matches up with Notre Dame in last season’s Legends Classic Final when NU came one inbounds pass away from taking down the Irish in Brooklyn. With Sanjay Lumpkin gone, Bonzie Colson would be a difficult cover, but not one that should be insurmountable. Let’s get some revenge.
Martin Oppegaard: Duke
You simply can’t write a better script than this. Collins vs. Coach K is the matchup that we have all been waiting for, and the ACC-Big Ten challenge is the perfect opportunity to make that happen. The Blue Devils are featuring a lot of roster turnover; the losses of Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Luke Kennard and Frank Jackson to the NBA will loom large. However, Grayson Allen and Marques Bolden are back and as always, Coach K is equipped with a full reload in the form of the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation. THREE five-star freshmen — Trevon Duval, Wendell Carter, and Gary Trent Jr. — should combine to have Duke in the preseason top 5. The Blue Devils haven’t finished outside the top 10 in Kenpom adjusted offensive efficiency since 2008. Playing at legendary Cameron Indoor against an uber-athletic team would be an awesome challenge for this experienced Northwestern team, and a chance for a huge resume victory in Collins’ return to Durham. This feels like an ESPN prime time game to me. It would be an incredibly tough matchup, but against a very young Duke team that could still be finding its legs in non-conference play, Northwestern just might be able to hang around. If the Wildcats play like they did in the final half of the 2016-17 season, anything is possible.
Josh Burton: Florida State
I just think this would be a fascinating clash of styles, rosters, coaches, you name it. Leonard Hamilton churns out five-star recruits year after year and had one of the most athletic teams in college basketball this season, but he has advanced past the Round of 32 just once in his 15 years in Tallahassee. The Seminoles will lose Michael Ojo, Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac to the NBA Draft this June, but still have a solid core and are adding the No. 25 overall recruit in MJ Walker. When playing well, Hamilton’s team was one of the best in college basketball, at one point going 5-1 in a stretch of six consecutive games against ranked ACC foes and reaching a season-high ranking of No. 6. It would be an awesome early-season test for Northwestern to play such a talented and athletic team. Is it as flashy as a Northwestern-Duke matchup? Probably not, but in terms of serving as a barometer for a team trying to carry the momentum over from a year prior, it would get the job done.
Tristan Jung: Louisville
It’s time to shoot for the big time, right? Rick Pitino’s team was a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament and only big man Mangok Mathiang is departing. In last year’s NCAA Tournament, Michigan showed that a Big Ten team could hang with and defeat Louisville, and Northwestern could certainly be competitive in this matchup. Above all, we’d get to see Collins coach against Rick Pitino for the first time. Although it wouldn’t be quite as narrative-heavy as Richard Pitino vs. his dad, it would still be a good battle of coaching styles.
Louisville can easily match Northwestern with backcourt experience and talent. Point guard Quentin Snider will be back for his senior season, along with athletic freak Donovan Mitchell. Deng Adel recently withdrew from the NBA Draft and will also return. If this matchup occurs, it will be a battle of two experienced cores. Louisville’s guards have a slight advantage, but with Mathiang leaving, there is a void at center. None of the new recruits play center, which will presumably leave 6-foot-10 Ray Spalding with more minutes. He averaged 5.9 points and 5.5 boards in 19.2 minutes per game last year, and you could say that Northwestern could have the edge with Pardon at center. Louisville, in its first three years of ACC-B1G action, has only drawn Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue. The odds the Cardinals get Northwestern aren’t high, but I certainly hope it happens.
Ragatz: Miami is a possibility too. The Canes will boast a talented trio of players in Bruce Brown, Lonnie Walker and Dewan Huell, and they finished pretty similarly to Northwestern in their conference last season.
For comparison, here are the standings for both the ACC and Big Ten in 2016-17. Virginia Tech and Wake Forest both make some sense standings-wise, but ideally Northwestern won’t have to play in Blacksburg for the second time in three years or play Wake twice in a row.
Who do you want to see Northwestern play in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge? Vote in our poll and let us know in the comments.
Who do you want Northwestern’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge opponent to be?
This poll is closed