Northwestern released its non-conference schedule for the 2015-16 season on Wednesday, but there's really only one topic of concern that surrounds this program:
Will this be the year the Cats finally make an NCAA tournament appearance?
Last season, the second of the Chris Collins Era, featured another long losing streak during conference play, but thanks to some strong play toward the end of the season, the Cats finished eighth in the Big Ten, an improvement over 2014's 11th-place finish.
There were plenty of reasons for hope for the future last season, most coming from Collins' continually exciting recruiting success. Vic Law was the highest-rated Northwestern recruit on record, and another highly touted freshman, point guard Bryant McIntosh, had such a great season that he landed on the Big Ten's All-Freshman Team alongside superstars like D'Angelo Russell and Melo Trimble.
McIntosh and Law will be back this season along with upperclassmen Tre Demps and Alex Olah, each coming off their own solid campaigns. And two incoming freshmen, the highly rated Jordan Ash and Aaron Falzon, have added to the rave reviews over Collins' recruiting.
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So with that in mind, here's an opponent-by-opponent look at Northwestern's 2015-16 non-conference slate.
Nov. 13: vs. UMass-Lowell
The River Hawks have been playing Division-I hoops for just two seasons and won a total of 22 games in those two seasons.
Nov. 18: vs. Fairfield
The Stags haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 1997 and have won just 14 games in the past two seasons combined. Northwestern and Fairfield have one previous meeting, an 18-point Fairfield win to open the 1976-77 season.
Nov. 20: vs. Columbia
After a solid 21-13 showing in 2013-14, the Lions stumbled last season, finishing at 13-15. Man had yet to reach the moon the last time Columbia made an NCAA tournament appearance. Northwestern is 1-1 in two previous matchups, the most recent in 1991.
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Nov. 23/24: CBE Hall of Fame Classic, Kansas City, Mo.
The highlight of the Cats' non-conference portion of the schedule, they'll participate in one of college basketball's better offseason events. Played at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Northwestern will play two of the three other schools in the event on consecutive nights. The Day 1 matchups are to-be-announced, but the three others participating are North Carolina, Kansas State and Missouri. It will provide two matchups against big programs from big-time conferences. The Tar Heels are perennial national-title contenders and could be this season's preseason No. 1 team. The other purple Wildcats are helmed by former Illinois head coach Bruce Weber. Mizzou, though a strong program in recent history, is coming off its worst season since the mid-1960s, a nine-win campaign under first-year head coach Kim Anderson.
Nov. 28: vs. New Orleans
No, it's not the Pelicans, and Olah won't have to worry about defending Anthony Davis. The Privateers have averaged fewer than 10 wins over the past five seasons and have yet to return to their Tim Floyd-led glory days of the mid-1990s. Northwestern has played New Orleans once before, a 65-54 win for the Cats in 1978.
Dec. 1: at Virginia Tech (Big Ten/ACC Challenge)
It's been a pretty long NCAA tournament drought for the Hokies, who haven't been to the Big Dance since 2007. Buzz Williams is entering his second year as the head coach in Blacksburg, where this one will be played. Somewhat surprisingly, this will be the first meeting between these two programs. Interestingly, Northwestern welcomed in Virginia Tech transfer Joey van Zegeren this offseason. Eligible to play as a grad transfer, he'll be going up against his former team in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Dec. 5: vs. SIU-Edwardsville
The Cougars are just five seasons into their tenure as a major D-I college basketball program and have yet to finish over .500. But they did establish a new high last season with 12 wins. Northwestern has four wins in four tries all-time against SIUE.
Dec. 13: vs. Chicago State
Another group of Illinois-based Cougars, these guys are entering their third season as members of the WAC after winning just eight games a year ago. Chicago State has never made the NCAA tournament in 31 seasons as a major program. Northwestern and Chicago State have played nine times since 1981 (most recently in 2010), and the Cats have won all nine games.
Dec. 19: at DePaul
The Blue Demons have a new, old head coach as Dave Leitao is back at the helm of the program after five dismal seasons under Oliver Purnell. DePaul's last NCAA tournament trip came in 2004, during Leitao's first stint in Lincoln Park. This will be game No. 31 in a longtime series, a series DePaul has a big 20-10 lead in. The last meeting was a dramatic 57-56 win for the Demons in Evanston. This will be the Cats' first trip to the Allstate Arena since 2007.
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Dec. 21: vs. Sacred Heart
The Pioneers have only been playing major college hoops since 1999 and haven't reached the NCAA tournament in that time. This will be Year 3 of the Anthony Latina Era, and after a five-win season to start things off, Sacred Heart bounced back with 15 wins last season. Northwestern's never seen Sacred Heart, but incoming freshman Aaron Falzon ought to be familiar. His brother, Tevin, plays for the Pioneers.
Dec. 27: vs. Loyola (Maryland)
It's not the Ramblers, but it'll have to do. The Greyhounds made the NCAA tournament in 2012 but have just 22 wins in the past two seasons combined. Northwestern has seen Loyola (Maryland) before, in 2006, a win for the Cats.