All the way up through last weekend, Northwestern tore through its non-conference schedule, dominating almost every team it faced in preparation of taking on an incredibly competitive Big Ten. Now, on the brink of conference play, the Wildcats certainly seem ready to face some of the best in college basketball in the coming months.
With a 10-1 record heading into conference play, NU started its season off about as well as head coach Joe McKeown could’ve hoped. The ‘Cats began and ended their nonconference schedule with five-game win streaks, with their only loss coming directly in the middle, to No. 16 DePaul by just two points. Their dominant play against weaker (and often even similar) competition showed their discipline and consistency, while valiant efforts (and a few tight wins) against higher-level opponents showed they can hang tight with the tough teams they will face in Big Ten play.
Sure enough, all evidence shows that Northwestern is peaking at exactly the right time. The Wildcats hold a top-20 RPI, received season-high votes in both the AP and Coaches Polls after last week’s three impressive blowouts, and moved up to a nine seed in ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme’s latest NCAA Tournament projection, though his historically inconsistent predictions should be taken with a grain of salt.
Meanwhile, as a whole, the Big Ten has put together an outstanding non-conference run, one of its best of the century. The conference has four teams with only one loss in early season play and nine teams with only two, with nine teams also being ranked or receiving votes/sitting within the top 45 of the current RPI rankings. While no Big Ten team is within the top ten as of now, many have proven a force to be reckoned with.
The 9-2 Maryland Terrapins lead the way as the 12th-ranked team in the nation with their two losses coming to South Carolina and NC State, both of whom currently rank in the top 10. They lead the conference in almost every offensive category, averaging 88 points per game and scoring over 100 points in their last two outings.
As expected, the Terps look like the team to beat in the Big Ten this year, and Northwestern will be tested against them early, facing them twice in the season’s first month, including a home tilt on the afternoon of December 31st in what will be each team’s second conference battle.
However, just two seeds behind Maryland sits Indiana, the 14th-ranked team in the nation. These two certainly seem to have separated themselves as the top tier of the conference. The Hoosiers hold a 10-2 record, with their only two losses also coming to top ten teams – No. 2 Baylor and No. 10 UCLA.
Michigan is the third and final team in the rankings at 23rd. The 9-2 Wolverines dropped games to Notre Dame and most recently No. 8 Florida State.
Six others, though, including Northwestern, received votes and could find themselves in the parity-laden conference’s elite tier soon. Minnesota missed the mark by just a single vote. Michigan State recently fell out of the rankings but still remains on the bubble. Rutgers and Northwestern are in the middle of the pack, receiving more and more votes each week. Finally, Iowa and Nebraska both received a handful of votes as well. Each team has a significant chance to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Ultimately, the Big Ten is impressive all around this year, and Northwestern has a demanding road ahead. To reach the Tournament for only the second time in Joe McKeown’s tenure (and this century), the ‘Cats will likely need to finish at least at .500 in conference play, which would entail a 9-9 mark.
With only three teams seeming to be clearly a step down in quality this season among their looming Big Ten foes, easy wins will be few and far between, and a Northwestern team that has seen all too many promising squads flame out down the stretch this decade will need to hold up for a full slate of challenges.
Their first test will come against downstate rivals Illinois. The Illini, who have struggled for much of the past decade, have slightly turned things around thus far this season, holding a 9-2 record with losses to Illinois State and UNC. Their leading scorer is junior guard Petra Holešínská, who is averaging 15.6 points and 3.3 threes per game after missing last season with an injury.
The second leading scorer for the Illini is freshman Kennedi Myles, who is averaging a double-double and leads the conference in rebounding. Myles, a relatively raw but clearly able and talented post, will be a significant test for a group of Northwestern bigs that have had their share of struggles on the interior against stronger opponents.
As a whole, Illinois is a lesser team when it comes to the conference as a whole, but Myles and a collection of impressive shooters led by Holešínská combine to create a recipe for an upset waiting to happen.
However, Northwestern’s dominance in specific statistical categories makes them a tough out for anybody, especially for a team that was tested as minimally in non-conference play as the Illini were.
NU currently holds the second best scoring defense in the conference, trailing Rutgers by just half a point per game. Lindsey Pulliam is the third-leading scorer in the conference with 17.9 points per contest Abi Scheid ranks fifth in the conference in three-point shooting percentage at 45 percent.
Finally, Veronica Burton leads the Big Ten in steals with 3.4 per game, in assist-to-turnover ratio with 2.9 and ranks third in assists per game with 5.8. Coming off of her best performance of the season, putting up 18 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, and four steals in 33 minutes against Xavier, the sophomore is re-establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in every facet of the game.
Ultimately, Northwestern has what it takes to not only be recognized as top competition in the Big Ten this year, but to take the next step as a program. While their non-conference schedule was not quite as demanding as in past years, the Wildcats were able to use that to gain the momentum they need heading into a demanding stretch of the season.
NU will face the Illini in Champaign on Saturday at 2 p.m. CST to open conference play.