Pillote: Northwestern correct to schedule easy nonconference foes


Bobby Pillote, Reporter

Northwestern men’s basketball announced its nonconference schedule for the 2015-16 season Wednesday, revealing a mostly pitiful slate of cupcakes for the Wildcats to romp through to open coach Chris Collins’ third season at the program’s helm.

The matchups aren’t exciting — nobody is salivating over another tilt with Mississippi Valley State — and the weak lineup won’t do any favors for NU’s RPI, a rating metric used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, but a bevy of easy wins is exactly what the Cats should be aiming for.

Some observers argue that a soft schedule will hurt NU’s RPI so much that selection for the NCAA Tournament will become impossible. But this line of thought assumes the Cats are already at the level of a tournament team, which probably isn’t the case in the third year of what is still an ongoing rebuild.

Yes, the team sports a roster featuring two senior leaders — guard Tre Demps and center Alex Olah — along with precocious sophomore guard Bryant McIntosh, but that core is supported by a still largely unproven cast of role players and newcomers.

NU is a fringe tournament team at best. Perhaps the only chance the Cats have at receiving an at-large bid is by padding the win column as much as possible, which should be no challenge given their nonconference slate.

The stiffest test for NU will be the CBE Hall of Fame Classic, where the Cats will face two Power Five conference opponents in a four-team bracket. Beyond that, NU will battle just one other Power Five team, Virginia Tech, during the 13-game nonconference stretch.

Given that, it’s not unreasonable to expect NU to enter Big Ten play with 11 wins already on its resume.

But even then, the Cats would need at least nine more wins in conference — a .500 mark ­— to reach the 20-win plateau so often used as an NCAA Tournament benchmark, and 20 wins alone won’t be enough without some marquee victories along the way.

A season like the one Illinois experienced last year is the most likely outcome for NU. The Fighting Illini went 10-3 in nonconference play, avoiding any unexpected wins or losses, before fighting to a 9-9 mark in the Big Ten in much the same manner and ultimately earning a berth in the second-tier NIT.

Making the NCAA Tournament is still the end goal, but an NIT appearance would hardly be a disappointment for Collins and his squad. The easy nonconference schedule maximizes whatever postseason chances the Cats have, NCAA or otherwise.

That’s because, beyond his core players, Collins needs time and easy opponents to mold and develop his rotation before throwing it into the meat grinder that is the hyper-competitive Big Ten.

Sophomore wing Vic Law showed flashes of what made him a four-star recruit late last season, but needs to come on as a consistent scoring and rebounding threat to take pressure off Demps and Olah.

Opposite Law in the frontcourt, talented freshman power forward Aaron Falzon will need to assimilate quickly to have the kind of immediate impact NU’s coaches are hoping for. And after the departure of guard Johnnie Vassar, Collins still needs to find a backup ball-handler so Demps and McIntosh aren’t each playing 40 minutes a game.

This season will be the Cats’ best shot at postseason glory so far during the Collins era, but that really isn’t saying much. Discussion of ending the program-long NCAA Tournament drought is still presumptive and premature.

At this point in the process, NU is absolutely better off chasing wins during the nonconference schedule rather than trying to nudge its RPI upward.

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