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Four takeaways from Northwestern women’s basketball schedule

The Wildcats lucked out with this lineup.

We’re nine days from the return of everyone’s favorite team. Northwestern’s women’s basketball will begin its 2020-2021 season looking to defend its 2020 Big Ten regular-season title and remain a top competitor in a competitive conference.

Earlier this week, the Big Ten released the complete women’s basketball schedule for the coming season with each team playing 20 conference matchups and up to 5 nonconference games. NU will play only three

Here are four takeaways from the Wildcats’ new schedule:

Nonconference opponents should pose no trouble

The pre-Big Ten slate is typically an enlightening period for Joe McKeown’s squad as they face an array of top teams outside the conference and learn more about their chemistry and skillset. However, in this shortened season, the Wildcats will face only three opponents outside the B1G: Bradley, Eastern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky.

The toughest opponent of the three will be Bradley, which is coming off the best season in program history. The Braves posted a 22-7 record last year and finished third in the Missouri Valley Conference. However, their only real challenge in the conference was Missouri State, whom they fell to twice.

Both Eastern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky should be easy wins for the Wildcats as they posted 19-12 and 11-18 records in 2019-2020, respectively. The two Ohio Valley Conference teams struggled, as Eastern Illinois lost to two teams Northwestern handled (Wisconsin and Valparaiso), and EKU fell to the Panthers twice, once by almost 50 points.

Compared to last year’s nonconference that featured No. 16 DePaul and highly skilled Marquette, Duke and Boston College teams, Northwestern should have no problem finding wins in these matchups.

Northwestern has to start hot with little preparation for Big Ten play

The Wildcats won’t have much of a nonconference buffer to rely on this season, as Big Ten play picks up eight days after their season opens. Normally, teams have almost two months of games to prepare themselves for the most important stretch of the season, but Northwestern has just two mediocre opponents before it faces its first challenge.

Last season, the ‘Cats finished 10-1 in the noncon slate, with their only loss coming to No. 16 DePaul by two points. Their strong performance in November and December against teams like Marquette and Duke provided momentum that allowed them to tear through the Big Ten.

This year, matchups against Bradley and Eastern Illinois will have to be enough as NU faces its first conference foe on December 14 in Minnesota before squaring off against Purdue three days later. While neither the Golden Gophers or the Boilermakers are top competition in the conference, it will be a major step up from what the Wildcats faced the week before, so they must work out all the kinks in those first two matchups.

The ‘Cats only face their two toughest opponents once

Northwestern got extremely lucky with its Big Ten schedule, as it only has to face No. 12 Maryland and No. 16 Indiana each once. The Terrapins and the Hoosiers are the only two teams in the conference that ranked higher than the No. 17 Wildcats in the AP Preseason Poll and will be without a doubt their toughest challenges of the year.

Not only does Northwestern have to face each team just once, but it gets to play both at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Last season, NU traveled to Indiana for its craziest game all season when it came away from Assembly Hall with a comeback, overtime win over a ranked IU squad. The Wildcats split with the Terrapins, beating them by over 20 points in December before falling by nine in January.

Both matchups will be significant challenges for the Wildcats, featuring some of the conference’s best players like IU’s Ali Patberg and UMD’s Ashley Owusu, who return for another year, but NU’s stellar back court will only have to take care of business against each team once.

NU plays easier opponents twice but Ohio State and Michigan will be challenges

The Wildcats should feel fortunate with the teams they have to play twice. Nebraska, Wisconsin and Illinois should be easy wins. Rutgers will pose a slightly larger challenge as Arella Guirantes returns for another year, after she led the conference with 20.6 points per game last season. However, NU should be able to take care of business against all four of those opponents.

Ohio State and Michigan, on the other hand, will be prove more difficult. The Buckeyes were in the middle of the pack in the conference last year but advanced all the way to the championship game against Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament. OSU returns First Team All-Big Ten forward Dorka Juhász, who became one of the most effective scorers and rebounders in the conference, and is ranked 20th in the nation coming into this season.

Michigan also returns the bulk of its roster from last season including Naz Hillmon, Amy Dilk, Hailey Brown and Izabel Varejao. While the Wildcats were able to take down the Wolverines twice during the regular season, Michigan emerged victorious when it mattered most in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. Ranked 25th in the nation, UM’s physicality in the post will pose a significant challenge for NU twice this year.