Last season Northwestern faced an easy non-conference schedule and a tough conference slate. They faced Maryland and Ohio State twice. They also had a stretch of four games that was tough to get through. They faced Maryland and Indiana on the road, saw Michigan State at home, and then finished off the stretch with Iowa on the road. This year their schedule is much more favorable. Let’s take a look.
Penn State Nittany Lions (12/27/2016 in University Park)
The Wildcats will open their season in Happy Valley when they face Penn State. Pat Chambers has a basketball program trending upwards. This may be a tough win for the ‘cats but it’s not out of the question.
Michigan State (12/30/16 in East Lansing)
Northwestern will end 2016 in Michigan playing Michigan State. This game may be tough to win for the team. Last year the Spartans came to Evanston and rolled past the Wildcats by a score of 76-45 behind Denzel Valentine’s 19 points. Tom Izzo has a younger team this year, so the team could hang on, but playing in East Lansing will be tough.
Minnesota (1/5/17 in Evanston)
The Wildcats will open 2017 and their home slate with the Golden Gophers coming in. This should be a game Northwestern can win. The Gophers have Nate Mason and a young team with potential, but the Wildcats can put their home court advantage to use and should come away with a W.
Nebraska (1/8/17 in Lincoln and 1/26/17 in Evanston)
Northwestern will face the Cornhuskers twice this season, like they did last year, but this time in the same month. After the departure of Andrew White for his redshirt senior season, Nebraska’s stock in the Big Ten dropped significantly. The Wildcats should be able to win both of these games. The Wildcats also have the added bonus of Dererk Pardon, who dominated on the floor in both games against Nebraska last year.
Rutgers (1/12/17 in Piscataway and 2/18/17 in Evanston)
Rutgers will be in a year of rebuilding under first year coach Steve Pikiell. Last year, when the ‘Cats met the Scarlet Knights in Evanston, they beat them 98-59 while Corey Sanders was suspended. NU should win both of these games.
Iowa (1/15/17 in Evanston)
After facing Rutgers on the road, Northwestern will come home to face Iowa. Last time Iowa came to Evanston, Northwestern won 66-61 in overtime. Iowa only returns one starter in Peter Jok, so the team will look a lot different than last year. This game is winnable with home court advantage, but will be a tight one and could go either way.
Ohio State (1/22/17 in Columbus)
Northwestern played Ohio State close last year, but Thad Matta has a stable team this year. Ohio State is winnable because Northwestern plays well on the road. If Northwestern can play the full 40 minutes without collapsing like they did both times against Ohio State last year, they can win. If they don’t they’ll lose.
Indiana (1/29/17 in Evanston and 2/25/17 in Bloomington)
Northwestern traveled to Indiana last year and it wasn’t a pretty game or pretty atmosphere. This year, they draw the Hoosiers twice. First, at home, and then in Bloomington. The Hoosiers will be without Yogi Ferrell, but they have Collin Hartman, Thomas Bryant, James Blackmon Jr., and OG Anunoby. Northwestern should be able to play closer than they did last year and take advantage of their home court when the Hoosiers come to town, but both of these games will be tough for them.
Purdue (2/1/17 in West Lafayette and 3/4/17 in Evanston)
Northwestern draws both Indiana teams twice this year, and facing them back-to-back in January/February and then seeing them again almost back to back (home vs. Michigan in between) at the end of the season. These two games against Purdue will be challenging for the ‘cats, but not as challenging as Indiana. Northwestern hung on to the Boilermakers last year when they visited West Lafayette, only losing by 10 points. If they don’t have issues with fouling like they did last year, the ‘cats may be able to come away with a win from one of these games.
Illinois (2/7/16 in Evanston and 2/21/17 in Champaign)
As part of the new in-state rival series the Big Ten announced, Northwestern will face Illinois twice this year. The game in Evanston is winnable and one Northwestern should be able to handle, but in Champaign the story might be different. Northwestern may end up splitting this series.
Wisconsin (2/12/17 in Madison)
Last year, Bryant McIntosh came out and absolutely dominated the Badgers in Evanston for arguably their best win of the season. This year, the Badgers return their starting lineup behind Greg Gard. After they lost to Northwestern last year, they turned their season around. The Badgers have NCAA Tournament potential this year, no doubt. However, if Northwestern is dominant like they were last year, there is no reason the ‘Cats can’t walk away with a W. Chris Collins and his squad last visited the Kohl Center in the 2013-2014 season, when Northwestern walked away with a win. Collins is 2-1 against the Badgers in his career at Northwestern.
Maryland (2/15/17 in Evanston)
Ah, the Terrapins. They will be a younger team this year behind veteran guard Melo Trimble. Last year, Northwestern played the Terps close in Evanston and took them to overtime in College Park. This year, with a younger squad in Maryland, the ‘Cats may have a slight edge becuase historically they’ve played better on the road. This one is a toss-up.
Michigan (3/1/17 in Evanston)
Oh Michigan, Oh Michigan, the team Northwestern had the biggest love-hate relationship with last year. The Wildcats came out and surprised the Wolverines when they played man-to-man defense. However, they blew their lead in that game, and then would go on to lose in overtime to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. The Big Ten Tournament loss is perhaps more crushing than the regular season game because Northwestern came back to tie it and there were a few controversial calls at the end. Many key players return for Michigan, but with home court advantage here, this game should be close.
So here’s the deal:
Northwestern has games they should win against Minnesota, Rutgers (x2), Nebraska (x2) and home against Illinois. There are six winnable games right there. If Northwestern plays complete games this year, they can walk away from Penn State, Ohio State, at Illinois, at Maryland, vs Iowa, vs. Michigan and vs. Purdue with wins. That’s 7 games that could go either way. Then there is Michigan State, at Indiana, vs. Indiana, at Purdue and at Wisconsin. These will be tough for Northwestern to win, and most-likely loses.
So, if you’re an optimistic Northwestern fan you walk away with six winnable games, four or five out of the seven toss-ups as wins (Penn State, at Illinois, at Maryland, vs. Michigan and vs. Iowa), and loses against Michigan State, at Indiana, vs. Indiana, at Purdue, vs. Purdue, and at Wisconsin. That’s a 12-6 record with a lot of near- perfect games.
Northwestern is more in the 8-10 win range this year. If they win the winnable games, split the toss-ups and lose the games they are expected to, they’ll walk away split at 9-9 or 10-8. With a younger team lead by veteran guard Bryant McIntosh, a 10-8 finish gives them the best chance at reaching the NIT.
As for how the season will play out? Northwestern can take a big step, win 11 games and make a lot of noise in the big ten. They can take an average step, win 9-10 games and be vying for a postseason tournament. Or, they won’t go anywhere and finish 7-11. Realistically, they’ll take at least a little step forward and end up looking for a postseason tournament.
As for when they cash their ticket to The Big Dance?
Only time will tell.