The dust is settling after the Northwestern Wildcats’ historic NCAA Tournament season last year. Literally, the dust is settling.
The team has moved out of its offices and home in Welsh-Ryan Arena as construction has begun on the yearlong renovation project of the Wildcats’ home. Northwestern will play its games at Allstate Arena next year, creating a bit of a home-court disadvantage for the team.
The Wildcats still have plenty of time to prepare for that shift to their routine. They will get some key freshman in the surging shooting guard Anthony Gaines and redshirt freshman Rapolas Ivanuskas and they will get the return of Aaron Falzon from injury.
As the Wildcats packed up their home to prepare for their big move, there was a ton of optimism for what is to come. As coach Chris Collins said repeatedly during the NCAA Tournament run, after it was over and on The Players Tribune, that first trip to the dance was just the beginning of what he hoped to build in Evanston.
These are exciting times indeed.
But as the Chicago Cubs are learning in defending their first World Series victory since 1906, last year does not matter. Success has to be built upon. Each new season is its own challenge.
For Northwestern the monkey is off their back. The ceiling has been lifted off (in Welsh-Ryan Arena’s case literally). So now the weight of expectations set in. They can crush teams that are not ready for it.
Northwestern leaves behind one pressure and now faces another. The pressure to get back.
In the grand scheme of Northwestern planning, the 2018 season was supposed to be the year. The 2017 season was a surprise. With Bryant McIntosh entering his senioror year and a roster full of veteran players who had been through all the battles to build the program to this inevitable point.
So what is in store for Northwestern?
As the team has learned plenty of times before, Big Ten season is what matters. Succeed in the Big Ten, and the quality wins will follow. Ultimately a season is made or lost in January and February. It is still the majority of the seaosn.
The margin for error for a team trying to make the Tournament is done in the non-conference season. That is where resumes can be built or destroyed. Ultimately that is what the committee will debate.
Last year, Northwestern’s schedule was the 46th toughest in the nation, according to KenPom. The non-conference portion had its heavy hitters. The Wildcats faced and beat Texas and Dayton on neutral floors. They also lost to Notre Dame in Brooklyn and on the road at Butler. The team slso defeated Wake Forest at home in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
This proved to be enough. But without getting that win over Dayton, in particular, and without taking care of business in their other games, things could have turned outmuch different in 2016.
The Wildcats’ trip to Brooklyn for a Thanksgiving tournament proved to be a big moment for the team. It helped give the team confidence they could play with tournaments team — Texas was in the top-25 at the time. That venue provided the Wildcats with an opportunity to score some good RPI games and built up that resume.
The margin for error in 2018 is not looking so good. At least so far.
The Wildcats are going to participatie in the Hall of Fame Classic at the Mohegan Sun Arena going up against Boston College, Texas Tech and La Salle. That is not exactly a murderer’s row. the other notable non-conference game that has been announced is a trip to Norman to take on Oklahoam, a middling program at the moment.
This is all to say, the schedule so far is not looking as full of potential solid wins as it did last year.
The Wildcats will still have a Gavitt Games date against a Big East school and a likely road game in the ACC/B1G Challenge. Considering Northwestern’s expectations for next year, that could become a marquee match on the schedule.
Northwestern will have to build that non-coinference schedule though to build the kind of resume to meet expectations next year.
There are already some predictions expecting Northwestern to compete for a Big Ten title next year. The Wildcats are not hoping to sneak into the NCAA Tournament next season. The aim is to threaten to host a pod or get in comfortably as a 6- or 7-seed.
To do that, Northwestern is going to have to get more aggressive with its non-conference scheduling. The team needs to make up for the seemingly weaker tournament they are playing in and boost their RPI with some tougher matcups.
The Wildcats have the team do o it. If there were a season to try to schedule a little more aggressively than Northwestern was used to, this is the one.
This is the team to push all in for. Even with the home games off campus at Allstate Arena.
Northwestern should have the team to return to the NCAA Tournament. And certainly, the team should not let its eyes get too big — especially with the uncertainty over playing so far away from home. But this is how Northwestern gets back to the Tournament.
The team has to be ready to test itself outside of the Big Ten and build that margin for error once again.