While Northwestern’s full schedule has not been announced, 27 of the 31 games the Wildcats will play next season are public. There will be 20 Big Ten games, home games against DePaul, Oklahoma and Columbia, a home date with Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC challenge and three games at the Wooden Challenge in LA (the other teams in the field are Grand Canyon, Miami, Seton Hall, Utah, La Salle, Hawaii and Fresno State). Here’s a breakdown of how the schedule looks from a long way out.
Because the Big Ten has moved to a 20-game league schedule, B1G coaches have less flexibility in crafting their schedules. Given the Big Ten/ACC challenge and other early-season tournaments, it is challenging — and, in many cases, unwise — to schedule top mid-majors and other marquee non-conference matchups. So, in Northwestern’s case, you can expect four lower-tier mid-majors to fill out Northwestern’s schedule next season.
From a fan perspective, it isn’t really exciting to see the Wildcats play the likes of Mississippi Valley State or Sacred Heart. But, with the upped number of conference games, it’s inevitable. High-major teams need to rack up wins during the non-conference slate, and games against low competition provide opportunities for younger players to get experience and teams to develop a rhythm in the season’s early months.
As far as the rest of the non-conference schedule goes, the Wooden Legacy will be paramount. The eight-team, bracket-style tournament will give NU opportunities to play solid competition. Miami and Seton Hall both lose a lot of talent, but have made the NCAA Tournament each of the previous three seasons. The chance to play three high-major teams (or an up-and-coming Grand Canyon team, albeit without Isiah Brown) and come out with a championship would be a valuable chip to have on the resume at the end of the year.
Oklahoma and DePaul might be decent, but probably aren’t NCAA Tournament teams next season. Georgia Tech took a hit when Josh Okogie opted to remain in the NBA Draft, and likely wouldn‘t be a marquee win.
So, taking a holistic look at the schedule, it’s not great, but not awful either. A lot of games are at home, which is favorable There are no surefire top 25 teams on the schedule. If Northwestern does well in the Wooden Legacy, that should include should be two or three quality games. If Northwestern were to lose early, though, the quality of games would likely drop. So, like last season, there isn’t huge margin for error in the non-conference schedule,
With 20 league games, most of the resume-building for the Tournament will need to come in confernence play. This was still the case with 18 games, but upping the total to 20 means there will, theoretically, be more games where the level of competition to locked in at a relatively high level. There could be problems, however, if the Big Ten is as bad (perception-wise) as it was last season.
Northwestern also only plays Michigan State, Purdue and Nebraska once each, which limits the number of signature wins available on the schedule.
Theoretically, an above .500 record in the conference should be good enough to make the Tournament, but we saw that sometimes that isn’t the case — 13-5 Nebraska says hello.
It seems like a safe bet that the bottom and bottom-middle of the Big Ten will be better than they were last season, but the conference probably won’t have any elite teams.
Teams exceed and fall short of expectations all the time, so certain matchups may look different during the season than they do now. At this stage, the schedule does not jump out as particularly difficult or easy. The Big Ten will always provide opportunities to rack up good wins, but carrying one or two shining non-conference wins goes a long way in sorting out bubble comparisons at the end of the season. There may be the chance to get those wins, but it’s probably more likely that there isn’t.
Realistically, most of the resume-building will have to come from conference play.