With the men’s basketball season a little over a week out, we continue our preseason coverage of Chris Collins’ team by breaking down the schedule released last week. The men’s basketball schedule features four nonconference games before NU jumps into a 20-game conference slate beginning with Michigan State on December 20.
Here are four takeaways from the 2020-2021 Northwestern men’s basketball schedule:
Nonconference schedule shows no clear danger
In this abbreviated season, Northwestern has four nonconference games and three that should be blowout wins. One can never be too confident given the fact that the ‘Cats lost to Hartford a season ago, but it’s safe to say that they will be favorites against their mid-major opponents.
NU opens against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, followed by Chicago State and also meet against SIU-Edwardsville later on in the season. These three teams combined for a record of 16-74 last season, so it is critical that NU is able to use these games as a way to build momentum going into a tough conference schedule.
The Wildcats only play Minnesota and Nebraska once
The Big Ten is arguably the strongest conference in the nation this season. Seven teams in the conference are in the AP Preseason Top 25 Poll with three teams in the top 10. This means that for a ‘Cats team looking to shock the world, there is little room for error. This dream of a miracle season becomes even tougher seeing that NU only faces the other two bottom feeders of the conference once.
Northwestern will only see Minnesota and Nebraska once each this season, while facing tougher opponents such as Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin twice. Facing off against the two worst teams not from Evanston only once is certainly a disappointment and makes this season all the more challenging.
NU has a difficult start to the conference schedule
Northwestern faces its two easiest conference opponents in Minnesota and Nebraska late in the season, meaning the start of conference play will be a gauntlet. Seven of the ‘Cats first eight conference games are against ranked opponents, including No. 5 Iowa twice.
If the ‘Cats are able to pull off a few upsets and manage to tread through a front-loaded schedule, they have the opportunity to finish the year strong and enter the conference tournament with some momentum.
The matchup against Pitt will set the tone for the season
Northwestern will face Pittsburgh in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on December 9. The Panthers went 16-17 in 2019-20 with a 6-14 conference record and defeated the Wildcats 72-59 early last year.
Pitt comes in between two mid-major opponents on NU’s schedule and is clearly the strongest non-conference opponent the ‘Cats will face this season. This will be the first test to see how this team has changed from a season ago and if it is for better or worse.
The result of this contest may dictate how the ‘Cats will look this season in conference play. An early win against a Power Five opponent may give the team a surge of confidence that they can compete with anyone in the Big Ten.