It's safe to say that the Northwestern Wildcats' basketball program has struggled in Big Ten play. In fact, the Wildcats' haven't had a winning record in conference play since the 1968-69 season. Chris Collins' squad will look to turn it all around in 2015-16 when they return their top 4 scorers from a season ago and head in to the season with both talent and experience. Today, we take a look at the key games and stretches of the Northwestern Wildcats' 2015-16 conference schedule.
Northwestern's Key Big Ten Games
-Northwestern vs. Maryland (January 2)
The Wildcats' get to face the likely preseason top-5 Terrapins twice this season, the first at home on January 2nd. This will be a good measure for Chris Collins' team to determine where they are as far as playing with a top team in the nation. Besides North Carolina, the Wildcats have a pretty easy non-conference slate, so when the Terrapins visit Welsh-Ryan Arena in the 2nd conference game of the season, Collins' better have his team ready. This will not only be a measuring stick game for the Wildcats, but provides a chance for them to get the signature win they need at home.
-Northwestern @ Iowa (January 31)
A mid-season game at Iowa may not seem like the most important game for the Wildcats, but this is more about what comes before this contest. Prior to facing the Hawkeyes, the Wildcats play Maryland, Indiana, and Michigan State. All three of these teams are likely NCAA Tournament qualifiers and will be at the top of the Big Ten. One way to kill NCAA Tournament bid hopes is going on a long losing streak. This is something the Wildcats can't afford and may need to win at Iowa to stop a losing streak after facing three top Big Ten teams.
-Northwestern @ Michigan (February 24)
Finishing the season strong is one of the best ways to catch the committees eye in March. In their last three games, the Wildcats play Rutgers, Penn State, and Nebraska. These are three very winnable games for Northwestern. Before these three games, however, the Wildcats play the Wolverines. This may be Northwestern's last chance, except possibly the Big Ten Tournament, to show the committee what they can do against a tournament caliber opponent. Winning this game could also propel the Wildcats to end the season on a 4 or 5 game winning streak.
Starting on January 19th, Northwestern plays 4 games to close out the month. These games are @Maryland, @Indiana, Michigan State, and @Iowa. These are four games that the Wildcats will have little margin of error if they want to come out on top. To win at College Park or in Assembly Hall, Chris Collins' team will have to play nearly a perfect game. If they lose both those games, the pressure will be on to win at least one out of the next two to avoid a 4-game losing streak that could be devastating to the Wildcats' tournament chances. On the other hand, if Northwestern can just survive these 4 games 2-2, it could propel them to a good February where they will face a little bit lighter competition.
The five teams Northwestern has to play twice in the Big Ten are Nebraska, Penn State, Minnesota, Maryland, and Ohio State. This sets up pretty well for the Wildcats as they get to play 3 teams (Nebraska, Penn State, and Minnesota) who they should be better than twice as well as getting two shots at Maryland to pull off that signature resume win. No matter what happens, Northwestern's season will be judged on whether or not the Wildcats can make their first ever NCAA Tournament. This is expected when you are the only Power 5 team to never make the tournament.