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Northwestern’s non-conference schedule lacks elite opponents

Play Georgia Tech, rely on Big Ten play, repeat.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern basketball’s non-conference schedule officially came out Wednesday without much fanfare. The matchups were already announced, so the official announcement mostly just clarified dates. One new nugget did come out, however: Northwestern will not play a true road game in the non-conference.

I wrote about Northwestern’s schedule back in June, and not much has really changed since then as far as the schedule. Here’s what I said in that story:

“...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.”

I understand the schedule. You get a decent Thanksgiving tournament that could potentially have some solid matchups. A preseason tourney with a better field would be preferable, but it’s fine. Miami and Seton Hall could be good opponents. Oklahoma and Georgia Tech both beat NU last season, though they’ll be different — and likely worse — teams after losing players to the NBA (an aside, how does Northwestern keep drawing Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC challenge?) American and Columbia could give Northwestern decent games. You play DePaul because of the city connection.

Again, the schedule is fine, but it’s not exactly anything to write home about.

And that’s how it’s probably going to be for the foreseeable future.

College basketball already de-incentivizes Power 5 schools from playing mid-majors, so no, Northwestern probably isn’t going to play Loyola anytime soon, if I were to guess. It just doesn’t serve NU much of a purpose, unfortunately. And, Chris Collins feels like he can’t really go out and schedule a non-conference schedule jam-packed with tough games because of the 20-game league schedule the Big Ten adopted starting this season. It’s just not feasible to play 29 or 30 high-major games in a season, especially if those high-major games come against top opponents.

Look, sometimes (a lot of times) teams that aren’t projected to be good are. Northwestern’s schedule could end up being better than it appears right now. But there are no elite opponents, no road games in hostile environments. The Wildcats will get those opportunities in Big Ten play, but how many? The Big Ten hasn’t been able to attract the same top-tier talent as other leagues in recent seasons, and hasn’t had the same number of truly dominant teams as other conferences. The bottom half of the Big Ten was so bad last season that Nebraska went 13-5 in conference and didn’t make the Tournament. 13-5!

It should be abundantly obvious by now, but non-con games matter a lot at the end of the season when the selection committee has to differentiate bubble teams from differing leagues. Limiting opportunities to add valuable resume chips seems counterintuitive to me, but that’s essentially what the Big Ten is incentivizing by adding more league games. There just isn’t room to play many good non-conference games anymore, which doesn’t seem to benefit anyone.

NU’s non-conference schedule is good enough for the Wildcats to make the Tournament with a good showing in conference play. But, from a detached view, it seems relatively weak. If Northwestern is really good, it won’t matter. If Northwestern is bad, it won’t matter. But if Northwestern is a bubble team in one of the weaker power conferences, it will matter.