With the return to Welsh-Ryan, the loss of stars Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey and an exciting new recruiting class, the ‘Cats have a lot at stake in the 2018-2019 season. We took a closer look at NU’s schedule and how it will shape what Northwestern hopes to be a turnaround year for the program.
While last year’s non-conference slate included high-level teams like Oklahoma and Texas Tech, the ‘Cats face an easier road this year: They don’t face any preseason top-25 teams, and the toughest matchups are the Trae Young-less Oklahoma (ranked 51 on Kenpom) and DePaul (77). Northwestern has begun the season 3-0 with convincing wins over New Orleans, American, and Binghamton. This weekend, they will participate in the Wooden Legacy tournament in Fullerton, CA. The Wildcats will face Fresno State, then either Miami or LaSalle, with a third game against a team to be determined. Northwestern is certainly talented enough to run the table and win a tournament championship, though if the football game against Akron is any context, none of these games are shoo-ins. Ideally, this will provide the new-look Wildcats some time to build chemistry and get used to playing together (and maybe figure out if anyone can play point guard). The first big non-conference test comes against Oklahoma at home on Dec. 21 – last year, the Sooners trounced NU 104-78 in Norman, so the ‘Cats should be out for revenge.
The selection committee relies heavily on non-conference play when judging a team’s tournament chances, so Northwestern’s relatively light non-conference slate could work against them in the long run, even if it means starting with a glamorous record. On top of that, if the ‘Cats slip up against a lesser team like Chicago State or Columbia, it could leave a major blemish on their resume. Overall, the non-conference schedule is favorable for NU to start hot and rebuild excitement in the program now that they’re back in Evanston – but it also ramps up the pressure to keep the foot on the gas in should-win games.
Some familiar faces sit atop the preseason rankings: Michigan State opens the year as the No. 10 team in the country and the conference favorite, and last year’s runner-up Michigan is close behind at No. 19. Both – along with Purdue and Wisconsin – are in Kenpom’s top 25, with Indiana and Maryland close behind.
NU opens the conference slate on Dec. 1 at Indiana, one of the toughest places to play in the country. It doesn’t get much easier from there: The next two B1G games are at home against Michigan and in East Lansing against MSU, so the Wildcats likely won’t be favored in a conference matchup until they take on Illinois at home on Jan. 6 (according to sources, both sides hope to replace Notre Dame as Chicago’s Big Ten team come basketball season). The toughest stretch comes toward the end of January, when Northwestern takes on Indiana at home and Wisconsin and Maryland on the road over the course of just seven days from the 22nd to the 29th.
Much is in flux with the conference, with stars like B-Mac, Miles Bridges (MSU) and Keita Bates-Diop (Ohio State) all departing – but don’t be surprised if you see the familiar blue bloods running the table in the conference. Northwestern is going to have to overcome a lot to truly compete in a conference that is tough top to almost-bottom (sorry, Rutgers), but two years ago proved that when playing in an actual home stadium, the ‘Cats can’t be counted out.