Is this the year?
Last week, Northwestern released its non-conference schedule for the upcoming 2016-17 campaign, and with it rekindled the question as old as the NCAA tournament itself: Will this finally be the season in which the Wildcats get an invite to the Big Dance?
The non-conference portion of the schedule was an extremely successful stretch for the Cats last season. They lost just once — to eventual national runner-up North Carolina — and headed into Big Ten play with a 12-1 record, causing many to think Chris Collins was moving toward breaking that age-old drought.
Stumbles in conference play followed, lowlighted by a particularly tough 2-8 stretch, and the Cats missed out on the field of 68.
But, like last season, this year brings plenty of reasons to be hopeful.
Bryant McIntosh returns for his junior season as one of the best point guards in the Big Ten. Vic Law is back from an injury that wiped out his 2015-16 season before it started. Scottie Lindsey upped the level of his game last season. Aaron Falzon and Dererk Pardon emerged as freshman standouts. And Collins welcomes in another impressive recruiting class featuring a pair of four-star prospects in Barret Benson and Rapolas Ivanauskas.
So will this be the year the Cats finally go dancing? Another successful non-conference part of the schedule will of course be key. Let’s take a game-by-game look at the Cats’ non-conference opponents.
Nov. 11: Mississippi Valley State
The Delta Devils have been a staple of Northwestern's non-conference schedules in recent history, the two squads facing off in each of the past five seasons. In the all-time series, the Cats have lost just once, in 2003. Last year, the Cats won by 30, and the year prior they dropped 101 points on the visiting Delta Devils. Mississippi Valley State, a member of the SWAC, has failed to reach double-digit victories in each of the last four seasons.
Nov. 16: Butler
The Cats will again travel to take on the Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indy, just like they did two seasons ago. Butler has now reached the NCAA tournament in eight of the last 10 seasons after winning 22 games a season ago. The Bulldogs hold a 16-10 all-time series lead against the Cats, including wins in each of the last five meetings. The last time the Cats won at Hinkle? 1968.
Nov. 14, 21, 22, 25: Legends Classic
The Cats will participate in the Legends Classic this season, which will feature a pair of games against high-profile opponents in Brooklyn and two more against lower-level opponents in Evanston. Northwestern’s Brooklyn games come on Nov. 21 and 22 and will pit the Cats against two of three teams who made the NCAA tournament last season: Notre Dame, Texas and Colorado.
The Fighting Irish made their second straight Elite Eight last season, suffering a loss to North Carolina a year after suffering a narrow loss to Kentucky. Northwestern and Notre Dame played annually from 1921 to 1961 — sometimes meetings multiple times in the same season — and played 11 more times between 1963 and 1984. But the teams have played just once since: a 72-58 win for the Cats in 2009. Should they meet in Brooklyn, it will be a rare opportunity to renew what was a frequent series in the first half of the 20th century, a series the Irish lead 63-24-1.
Texas won 20 games last season while playing in an extremely competitive Big 12. Shaka Smart’s first season at the helm of the program ended when the Longhorns fell in the Round of 64 on that miraculous half-court buzzer-beater by Northern Iowa. Northwestern and Texas have only played twice, with the Cats winning the first game by a bucket in 1965 and the Horns winning by four in 1974.
Colorado reached the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in the last five seasons, posting 22 wins while playing in a challenging Pac-12. The Buffs bowed out of the tournament with a first-round loss to Connecticut. The Cats and Buffs have met just twice since the late 60s, with Colorado winning both matchups in 2003 and 2004.
Nov. 28: Wake Forest
The Cats will play hosts to the Demon Deacons as part of this year’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The two teams have never met before, and Wake is in quite the slump, six straight seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance. But the Deacons bring plenty of buzz in the form of their head coach, Danny Manning, who is entering his third season with Wake. The Deacons did inflict some damage on the Big Ten last season, first scoring a huge upset over Indiana in Maui before winning their Challenge game against Rutgers. In 17 Challenges, Northwestern has a 7-10 record and an even 4-4 mark at home. Last season, the Cats scored one of their bigger non-conference wins in the Challenge with an overtime win at Virginia Tech.
Dec. 3: DePaul
There haven’t been too many long breaks in this series since the teams started playing fairly regularly in the early 70s. The Blue Devils hold a 20-11 all-time series lead, buoyed mostly by an 11-game winning streak in the program’s 70s and 80s heyday. But they can’t boast about much else, winners of just nine games last season in Dave Leitao’s return to the program. After a stunning loss in 2013, Northwestern exacted revenge last season, winning by eight in overtime in Rosemont. This season, the scene shifts back to Evanston.
Dec. 11: New Orleans
The Privateers popped up on the Cats’ non-conference schedule last season, and it was a 90-63 whooping. This season’s get-together will mark the third all-time meeting between the two schools, with Northwestern also winning the first matchup in 1978. New Orleans went 10-20 last season and hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1996.
Dec. 14: Chicago State
While the Cougars put a scare into Illinois last season, Northwestern had no trouble, with a huge 77-35 victory. The Cats have won all 10 games in this series, and 11 certainly looks like a possibility, as the lowly Cougars were just 4-28 last season.
Dec. 17: Dayton
Part of a doubleheader at the United Center (the other game features Illinois taking on BYU), this one should be interesting. Archie Miller has done a terrific job at Dayton, leading the Flyers to 78 wins and a trio of NCAA tournament appearances in the last three seasons. The Flyers hold a 2-1 series edge in three previous games against the Cats, though those came a long time ago in 1972, 1997 and 1998. Despite a great non-conference record last season, Northwestern had trouble gaining much attention due to underwhelming opponents. A win over Dayton would make for a much different script.
Dec. 20: IUPUI
The Jaguars had some great seasons under now-famous chair-faller-offer Ron Hunter, but since he left following the 2010-11 season, IUPUI has posted win totals of 14, six, six, 10 and 13. These two schools have played just once, with the Jaguars actually claiming the lone victory, a 56-53 decision in 2002 — the only season Hunter took them to the NCAA tournament.
Dec. 22: Houston Baptist
The Huskies are moving in the right direction when it comes to winning games, with head coach Ron Cottrell leading them from six to 12 to 17 wins in the last three seasons, respectively. Last season’s .500 finish was a first for the program as a major program since 1987. Northwestern tangled with Houston Baptist just two years ago, winning 65-58 in Evanston.