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Ranking Northwestern men’s basketball’s remaining games by difficulty

The path only gets easier from here.

Northwestern v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Many believe there is no such thing as a moral victory in sports. A win is a win, and a loss is a loss, and no sugar-coating can change the overall outcome. Yet, if you consider Northwestern’s 105-96 overtime loss to No. 2 Purdue in West Lafayette on Wednesday, the ‘Cats surely came close to achieving one if it was to exist.

In a game where Purdue outshot Northwestern a whopping 46-8 at the charity stripe, the odds were against the ‘Cats from the very start. The performance does inspire some confidence in NU’s road play, which has been significantly lacking for solid teams throughout college basketball this year. Less than 40% of seeded teams have bested unseeded opponents on the road, and for an unranked Northwestern to come extremely close to a third straight victory over Purdue – this time at Mackey Arena – is impressive, to say the least.

With January in the rear window and the back half of conference play on the horizon, the schedule seems more favorable for NU. However, as we’ve learned this season, no matchup’s result is guaranteed. So, as a fun exercise, let’s look at Northwestern’s ten remaining conference games and rank them from easiest to most difficult.

10. Feb. 22 vs. Michigan (7-14, 2-8 B1G)

When I inevitably discuss this football matchup in November at The Big House, I’ll answer much differently on the teams’ strengths than I will today. Michigan might be riding high after winning a national championship in football, but its basketball program is in crisis mode.

Juwan Howard’s team has been horrendous this year, standing at 7-14 overall and 2-8 in conference play. It’s a stunning downfall, given that Michigan nearly won the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and made the Elite Eight only three years ago. Northwestern should have no trouble against the Wolverines, especially at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Dug McDaniel will also presumably serve the sixth and final game of his road suspension on Feb. 22, making matters worse for Michigan.

9. Feb. 11 vs. Penn State (10-11, 4-6 B1G)

This season’s Super Bowl Sunday matinee at the Welsh won’t be as memorable as last year’s edition. Feb. 12 was Northwestern’s first of two wins over No. 1 ranked Purdue in 2023 and catapulted the ‘Cats toward their first March Madness berth in six years. Exactly 52 weeks later, expect Northwestern to get the job done against a Penn State team it has already beaten in State College.

Having covered Northwestern’s road victory against the Nittany Lions a couple of weeks ago for this site, I can say that Penn State will not be a pushover as many might believe. Kanye Clary, who averages upwards of 18 points per game, is a dangerous player and caused a litany of headaches for Northwestern’s defense. Ace Baldwin Jr. is also an incredible defensive player and racked up eight steals and nearly half of Penn State’s forced turnovers in that contest. However, I can’t see Northwestern losing this game. If the ‘Cats could win against the Nittany Lions on the road, a home game should not cause too many headaches.

8. March 2 vs. Iowa (12-9, 4-6 B1G)

Northwestern women’s basketball was dismantled by Caitlin Clark and Iowa on Wednesday, with the Hawkeyes scoring 110 points. In short, don’t expect anything close to that when the men visit Welsh-Ryan Arena a month from today.

If you remember the Iowa-Northwestern football game at Wrigley, the Hawkeyes had a terrible offense and one of the best defenses in the country. However, Fran McCaffery’s team is the complete opposite on the court. It has three starters – Tony Perkins, Ben Krikke and Payton Sandfort – averaging over 15 points per game, while the team collectively stands second in the conference with 84 points per game, just behind Purdue. However, Iowa’s defense is second to last in the conference, which has often been the reason for its defeats. For a Northwestern team that can defend better than the Hawkeyes and hopefully continue its recent offensive rhythm into March, I expect another home victory for the ‘Cats.

7. March 9 vs. Minnesota (13-7, 4-5 B1G)

Northwestern will face the Golden Gophers for the first time tomorrow in Minneapolis, but the easier of their two matchups will come at home to close out regular season play. Compared to preseason expectations, Minnesota has far exceeded them, given that it was universally projected to finish dead last in the conference for the second straight season. The Golden Gophers sit at 13-7 through a string of surprise results, with a March Madness bid still a remote possibility.

Dawson Garcia is dangerous, but I think Northwestern holds him in check. Putting this game ahead of Iowa was a tough decision, but the Golden Gophers may get lucky with timing here. This is NU’s last game of the season, and it’s remotely possible that by that point, the ‘Cats will rest some starters if they have locked up a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament. This is far from a guarantee, but it seems possible, given how this team has been playing lately.

6. Feb. 15 at Rutgers (10-10, 2-7 B1G)

Now we move on to some away contests. Rutgers is the easiest of these matchups, sitting second to last in the conference, just ahead of Michigan. The Scarlet Knights should vastly improve next season after landing Airious Bailey and Dylan Harper, the second and third-best recruits in the Class of 2024, respectively, but this year’s team is undoubtedly lackluster.

Rutgers’ offense is beyond putrid to watch, averaging by far the lowest points per game of any team in the Big Ten at 66.8. The defense which lands an impressive third in the conference, somewhat makes up for it. Yet, Northwestern should win this game, even on the road. This game is only ranked lower on the list because it’s on the road, but I remain confident that the ‘Cats should get the job done in Piscataway.

5. Feb. 3 at Minnesota (13-7, 4-5 B1G)

We already discussed how Northwestern matches up against Minnesota a few moments ago, so I won’t regurgitate it here. I’ll say that a road matchup against any team should be more challenging than a home game, a phenomenon that Northwestern has repeatedly proven true. An away game against the Golden Gophers is no exception to the rule. The ‘Cats should win, but their chances are definitely not as high as they will be when closing out the season at the Welsh in March. A win might enable Northwestern to be ranked again for the first time since December, so there could be a lot riding on this contest.

4. Feb. 7 vs. Nebraska (16-6, 6-5 B1G)

In what has been dubbed “The Rematch” in advertising efforts at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the ‘Cats will look to equalize the season series against a Cornhusker team that narrowly won when the two met in Lincoln a few weekends ago. That game was a fairly bad showing from the ‘Cats, who shot only 38% from the field and 32% from beyond the arc. Boo Buie had one of his worst performances of the season with only nine points, as Brooks Barnhizer and Ryan Langborg kept Northwestern in the fight. Keisei Tominaga – one of the best stories in college basketball – delivered the dagger in the dying moments of the game on a deep three, sending the ‘Cats home with a disheartening loss in a game that never got away until the bitter end.

This time around, given the way these teams play, I am much more confident in Northwestern’s chances. The ‘Cats have only lost one home game all year – we all know which one at this point – while Nebraska has only won a single game away from the Pinnacle Bank Center, that being against non-conference opponent Kansas State in mid-December. Nebraska’s poor road play was on full display this past weekend, as it fell by 22 to Maryland – a team Northwestern beat at Welsh-Ryan Arena – in College Park. I expect this struggle to continue and believe that while Nebraska is a solid, tournament-worthy team, the Welsh is too harsh of a place for the Cornhuskers to pick up their first conference road win.

3. Feb. 18 at Indiana (13-8, 5-5 B1G)

This matchup comes nearly a year after the ‘Cats beat No. 14 Indiana only three days after the legendary Purdue victory. This time, the Hoosiers are nowhere as competitive as they were last year with Jalen Hood-Schifino on their roster, but they still pose a threat to Northwestern at Assembly Hall. Malik Reneau and Kel’el Ware are good players, but they pale in comparison to the talent of last year’s squad.

Given Northwestern has not faced Indiana yet this season, I can’t fully assess how it’ll fare in just over two weeks. It’s always tough to win in Bloomington, and the Hoosiers certainly have the profile of a team that could beat the Wildcats. I think this is a close game, but Northwestern has the upper hand. If they can find some consistency on the road, the ‘Cats have a chance to win any of these games down the stretch. A win against the Hoosiers would be a big step and give Northwestern momentum heading into the last two games on this list.

2. March 6 at Michigan State (13-8, 5-5 B1G)

In a season of impressive victories, Northwestern’s 88-74 win over MSU on Jan. 7 was one of the more important ones to note. It was a stellar performance all around, as NU dominated on both ends and avenged a 30-point loss to Illinois only five days prior. Even with the context of that result, playing against the Spartans in East Lansing is a whole different beast. Tyson Walker and Co. are among the best in the Big Ten and potentially in all of college basketball when they hit their stride.

Compared to preseason polls in which the Spartans ranked No. 4 in the country, this season has undoubtedly been a letdown. However, this MSU team is still immensely talented and presents Northwestern with a tough challenge in its second to last game of the season. NU has had MSU’s number in recent matchups, but this could be an opportunity for the Spartans to break through. It could be decisive in giving Michigan State an automatic bid to March Madness, which could fuel the Spartans to play efficient and effective basketball. It could also be Northwestern’s time to capture a huge road victory and further improve its standing ahead of Selection Sunday.

1. Feb. 28 at Maryland (13-8, 5-5 B1G)

This was tough with three road games in which all the opposing teams have identical overall and conference records. Based on previous results, I think Northwestern’s bout with the Terps will be its most difficult one. For one, Maryland is a solid home team, and having Jahmir Young and Julian Reese – more colloquially referred to as “Angel’s Brother” – presents challenges for any opponent, including Northwestern. Young was electric against the ‘Cats in mid-January, putting up 36 points in 33 minutes on the floor. His performance has been vital to Maryland’s victories this season, and another elite performance in late February could prove crucial for the Terrapins if they want to even the season series against the ‘Cats.

I won’t count Northwestern out in this game because that should never be the case with this team. They’ve proven time and time again that every game is winnable, and Maryland is a team they have already beaten this season. Yet, it’s the most challenging game remaining on the schedule because the Terrapins played such a close game against Northwestern, which none of the other teams Northwestern has to play have done. Without a Buie layup and a few other events, Maryland would have emerged from Evanston victorious. Now, they present what I see as the biggest challenge for the ‘Cats as the second half of conference play is set to begin.