If the Northwestern men’s basketball team fails once again this season in its quest to make its first NCAA Tournament, it’s likely fan hearts won’t be broken until February or March - the time the season usually deteriorates every year. Unfortunately, the recipe for failure has actually been years in the making, embodied by the head-shaking tradition of assembling small-conference bottom-feeders for our non-conference schedule. As usual, Northwestern has taken the most difficult path to the tournament, embracing a non-conference slate so terrible that anything below a 12-1 record would be considered a colossal disappointment. This is a self-defeating proposition, considering Northwestern's precarious state in the bottom half of the Big Ten conference: strength of schedule - quality wins, in particular - figures heavily in the NCAA Tournament calculus, and since Northwestern is unlikely to break .500 in conference play their non-conference schedule needs to make a statement. Northwestern has clearly opted for quanitity in wins, not quality, but as years past have shown, this is likely to be a fatal mistake.
One concern is that Northwestern’s marquee non-conference opponents are much stronger in name-recognition than court prowess. The notable new-comer to the slate is Baylor University of the Big 12, which last year ranked as high as ninth nationally before its season crumbled. Though Baylor’s outlook this season looks bleak, bringing in new opponents from the other power conferences is vital to Northwestern improving its scheduling.
Sadly, Baylor is an anomaly. Northwestern’s lone ACC opponent, Georgia Tech, looks poised to replicate last season’s mediocrity, opening the season ranked 89th behind powerhouses like Harvard and Cleveland State in the KenPomeroy Basketball Ratings (this match-up, at least, is not Northwestern’s own doing--it’s a part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge negotiated by the conferences themselves). While the trip to Creighton should be Northwestern’s stiffest road test, the Blue Jays are no longer the class of the mid-majors, currently in the midst of a four-year NCAA Tournament drought after going 6-8 to start the new millennium.
The greatest scheduling tragedy, though, is the Wildcats’ non-conference tournament: the Charleston Classic. Last year, the Wildcats participated in the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. In addition to facing a legitimate opponent in St. John’s, Northwestern received significant national exposure from playing in New York and players got the chance to play one on of basketball’s most famous stages. In Charleston, the Wildcats are doomed to play in an empty gym against true lightweights. Northwestern’s opening game against Louisiana State sounds promising (after all, the Tigers are the top football team in the country) until you realize the Tigers went 11-21 last season and ended the year ranked 227 in the RPI. A match-up against Tulsa or Western Kentucky looms after that. The tournament finals, if the Wildcats make it, offers a wide range of opponents, from the downright-awful Saint Joseph’s or a second tangle with Georgia Tech to two excellent potential opponents in Seton Hall and Virginia Commonwealth. VCU would be the real triumph for Northwestern - the Rams are coming off a Cinderella run to the Final Four and enter the season just three spots behind Northwestern in the Pomeroy Rankings. Odds are the only time the Wildcats won’t be favored before Big Ten play would be against VCU in the tournament finals.
This is all in addition to the rest of the indiscriminate opponents scattered throughout Northwestern's non-conference schedule. Texas Pan-American, Texas Southern, Mississippi Valley State, Central Connecticut, Eastern Illinois and Stony Brook will all make a visit to Welsh-Ryan Arena, while Northwestern’s only road games come in the Charleston Classic and trips to Georgia Tech and Creighton. Northwestern’s commitment to playing teams from small conferences isn’t so self-destructive, it’s the fact that the teams we face are so often the worst of the small conferences that hurts us.
The true difficulty comes in finding a way to fix this problem. Scheduling marquee opponents is harder than many would imagine as the largest programs--the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world--are extraordinarily reluctant to leave their gyms to play inferior programs. As a result, any opportunity to play the best would have all of the challenges of a trip to a very hostile court and none of the financial benefits of a big non-conference home game.
Still, Northwestern’s sights should be set higher. If the Wildcats are ever going to make the NCAA tournament, barring a miracle conference tournament run, they will need to rely on at least one non-conference win of value. Odds are, even if the 'Cats enter Big Ten play undefeated and ranked, that’s not a privilege they'll have.