Strength of schedule.
If this is the year Northwestern makes the NCAA tournament for the first time, the strength of the Wildcats’ schedule is going to be something that’s talked about an awful lot come March. We all know how challenging Big Ten play will be, but what about the recently released non-conference portion of that schedule?
Though teams can certainly change a lot from one year to the next — the Cats are a prime example, with the loss of second all-time leading scorer Drew Crawford — here’s an opponent-by-opponent look at the teams on Northwestern’s non-conference schedule, how they fared last season and when was the last time the Cats played them, if ever.
Nov. 14 vs. Houston Baptist: Houston Baptist was the worst team in the Southland Conference last season. The Huskies won six games all season, including just two conference games. The matchup will be the first ever between the two schools on the hardwood.
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Nov. 17 at Brown: Brown finished 15-14 last season, fifth in the Ivy League. The Cats have seen a lot of the Bears recently, including last season, when the Wildcats claimed a 58-52 win in Evanston. The last time the Cats faced the Bears on the road, Northwestern's Craig Moore scored 31 points and hit nine 3-pointers. Northwestern has a 6-2 series lead, with five of those games coming in since 2006.
Nov. 20-26 at Cancun Challenge: The Wildcats’ first two games of this event will take place in Evanston before they head to Puerto Aventuras, Mexico, for the second two games. Those last two games could come against Virginia Tech, UCF or Northern Iowa. Northwestern has never faced any of those three schools.
Dec. 3 vs. Georgia Tech (Big Ten/ACC Challenge): The Cats are hoping this year’s Challenge game goes better than last season, when they were destroyed by North Carolina State, 69-48. This year’s game coming in Evanston should help, as should the downgrade in competition. While the Yellow Jackets are just one of two major-conference opponents on the Cats’ schedule (pending those Cancun Challenge matchups), they haven’t been to the NCAA tournament in four seasons and have finished a season above .500 just once during that stretch. They were 16-17 last season and finished near the bottom of the ACC. The two schools have met twice before, with Northwestern winning both meetings.
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Dec. 6 at Butler: Though the Bulldogs missed the tournament under their new head coach last season, they’re likely the highlight of the Wildcats’ non-conference schedule. The Northwestern-Butler series is actually a pretty longstanding one. Stretching back to their first showdown in the 1934-35 season, the Cats lead the series, 16-9. Recent meetings have favored the Bulldogs, who have won the last four including all three since 2008. In its debut campaign in the Big East, Butler finished the season with a 14-17 record in second-to-last place.
Dec. 14 vs. Mississippi Valley State: The Delta Devils were 9-23 a season ago, second-to-last in the SWAC (which sounds like one of those sound effects that pops up on the screen before the ‘60s “Batman” show). The Cats hosted these guys last year, too, and claimed an 86-64 victory.
Dec. 17 vs. Central Michigan: Only one team had fewer MAC conference wins than the Chippewas last year (Ball State). They finished with a 10-21 record. These two schools played in three straight seasons in the mid-90s. Northwestern won all three of those games.
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Dec. 20 vs. Western Michigan: The only team on this schedule to make the NCAA tournament last season, the Broncos were the MAC champions and went to the Big Dance for the first time in a decade. They finished with a 23-10 record and a 14-4 conference mark. That’s all the more surprising following their offense-free performance Dec. 7 in Evanston, when the Cats locked them down in a 51-35 slugfest. Including last season’s win, Northwestern holds a 22-5 lead in this long-running series.
Dec. 22 vs. UIC: The Flames won just one game in Horizon League play last season, finishing their season with a 6-25 record. In Howard Moore’s four seasons as head coach, UIC has posted double-digit victories just once. Last year’s 93-58 win for Northwestern snapped a four-game losing streak to UIC. That evened the all-time series at 4-4.
Dec. 27 vs. Northern Kentucky: The Cats have never faced Northern Kentucky. The Norse, as they’re called, play in the Atlantic Sun Conference and finished 9-21 last season, just their second as a D-I school. Northern Kentucky won’t be a full-fledged D-I member until 2016.