Everyone knows Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament. For the casual basketball fan, this may be all they know about the Wildcats' program. Getting over the hump, and in to the tournament, would be a huge step for Chris Collins' program, and it starts with the non-conference schedule. While Northwestern has many chances to get quality wins during Big Ten play, they need to enter conference play with a good record as they will surely have hiccups throughout the Big Ten schedule.
Today, we take a look at three key opponents Northwestern will face in the non-conference.
#1 North Carolina
On November 23, Northwestern will get, by far, their toughest test in their non-conference slate. The Wildcats will face North Carolina in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic. Roy Williams' Tar Heels have an absolutely loaded roster returning from a Sweet 16 run last season. This includes their top 4 scorers (all double figures) last season in Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Justin Jackson. Northwestern isn't short of returning scorers either, as they will have 7 of their top 8 scorers back from last season.
While winning this game isn't completely out of the picture, it is a long-shot as North Carolina will likely be ranked in the top-5 at this point in the season. Northwestern, however, can use this game to prove to themselves and their fans that they can hang with anyone. The key to the game will be Bryant McIntosh's play at point guard alongside fellow guard Tre Demps against Wooden Award candidate Marcus Paige. If McIntosh can stay in front of Paige and not allow him to speed up the tempo, which North Carolina loves to do, Northwestern can stay in this game.
While the Big East isn't what it used to be, it is still a very solid conference with 6 out of 10 teams making the NCAA Tournament last season. This game also provides a chance for Northwestern to get revenge on their in state rival after DePaul beat the Wildcats 57-56 two seasons ago. While DePaul returns 3 of their top 4 scorers, Northwestern needs to look at this as a very winnable game.
The matchup to watch in this game may be DePaul's junior center Tommy Hamilton IV, who averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds last season against Northwestern senior center Alex Olah, who averaged 12 points and 7 rebounds. Hamilton and Olah are 6'11'' and 7'0'' respectively, and the winner of this individual matchup could determine who comes out on top in this game. A mid-December contest, this game will be a good game for Northwestern to gain some confidence heading in to Big Ten play.
#3 Virginia Tech
The Big Ten vs. ACC Challenge always provides fans with entertaining games and also allows teams to face an opponent with a similar level of talent. This game is also intriguing as Virginia Tech transfer Joey van Zegeren will play for Northwestern against his former Hokies.
Zegeren played 3 years at Virginia Tech and averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds last season. He will spend his fourth year of eligibility with Northwestern, and will be fired up to face his old squad on December 1st. He provides Northwestern with some front-court depth they haven't had in previous years with returners Alex Olah and Vic Law the likely starters up front. This would be a good game for Northwestern to show off the depth on their roster. They have enough talent to handle teams like Virginia Tech, who will struggled greatly in the ACC last season with a 2-16 record.
Coming away with two wins in these three games would be huge for Chris Collins' squad. While the North Carolina contest will be a great challenge, it will also give Northwestern a good chance to see where they are early in the season. For Northwestern, it is all about making the NCAA Tournament. The only problem for Northwestern is that the Big Ten is loaded with quality teams. Even with all their returning pieces, Northwestern may be in the bottom half of the conference when it comes to overall talent on their roster. It will be up to the Wildcats to set the tone for their season in the non-conference, and try to carry as much momentum as they can in to Big Ten play.