Northwestern took yet another step forward to their NCAA Tournament aspirations in 2011-12, although they once again fell short. The Wildcats, who have never made the NCAA Tournament, finished the Big Ten season with an 8-10 record, but that was not enough.
They won every game they were supposed to during non-conference play, including an impressive three-game sweep at the Charleston Classic. The only two games prior to conference play that the team lost were to Baylor at home and at Creighton.
To reach the NCAA Tournament in 2013, Bill Carmody's squad might need to do even better in the action before the conference season, as well as win eight or nine league games and an additional Big Ten tournament win or two. Here's a look at their non-conference schedule in 2012.
vs. Texas Southern-W
vs. Mississippi Valley State-W
vs. Fairleigh Dickinson-W
vs. Delaware State-W
The Wildcats should have no problem getting wins early on and would ideally coast to a 4-0 record before heading to South Padre Island. Mississippi Valley State had the highest RPI of these four teams in 2012, at 152.
And while the Delta Devils did advance to the NCAA Tournament last season, Northwestern defeated them earlier in the year by a score of 92-67, which included a 59-21 score at intermission. Anything but four wins here would put a huge damper on the Wildcats' tournament hopes.
vs. Illinois State-L
While both Fairleigh Dickinson and Delaware State serve as tuneup games for the South Padre Island Invitational, the Wildcats will face off with TCU once they reach there.
TCU, who recently joined the Big East Conference, was where current Wildcat Nikola Cerina played before transferring to Evanston.
In fact, the picture here is Cerina blocking Jimmer Fredette in a Mountain West battle. While the tournament could go many ways, I see Illinois State winning the it, followed by Northwestern, UAB, and TCU in that order.
The Illinois State Redbirds bring back plenty of talent from last year's NIT squad.
The picture of Georgia Tech's Brian Gregory here may show how all ACC coaches that have faced off with Northwestern over the past four years have felt.
The Wildcats have beaten Florida State and Georgia Tech at home during that time, while also winning at North Carolina State and Georgia Tech.
While Maryland may be improved this year, expect the Wildcats' streak in the challenge to improve to five. They will then host the UIC Flames at Welsh-Ryan in what should be an easy win, although Illinois lost to UIC at the United Center in 2010.
The biggest test on the non-conference slate for the Wildcats is their only true road test in Waco, Texas. Baylor embarrassed Northwestern last season in Evanston, defeating them 69-41 in a game that was never competitive.
The Bears lost Perry Jones, Quincy Miller, and Quincy Acy to the NBA, while Northwestern's lone loss was that of John Shurna. Despite returning more key players, Baylor is too talented for the Wildcats to handle on the road.
vs. Texas State-W
After traveling to Baylor, the Wildcats return home for four consecutive contests in preparation for Big Ten play. Butler won in Evanston in 2009 but lacks the star power they had back then. Texas State should be no problem in the next contest.
Beating Stanford would be a huge win for Northwestern, as the Cardinal are supposed to compete in the Pac-12 this year after winning the NIT last season. The Wildcats also faced off with Stanford at home in 2009, although the home team won that contest.
The non-conference campaign should be topped off with a win over Brown.
While there may be five games that could go either way during this non-conference schedule, I believe that Bill Carmody's team has both enough talent and depth to survive every home contest and only falter to ISU at a neutral site and to Baylor on the road.
Drew Crawford will be the go-to-guy this upcoming year, but look for JerShon Cobb to be close by. Dave Sobolewski needs to build upon a steady freshman season, while Alex Marcotullio and Reggie Hearn should be expected to contribute regardless of whether their roles change.
Adding transfers in Nikola Cerina and Jared Swopshire should also help, not to mention Tre Demps and Mike Turner becoming eligible after redshirting a year ago. On top of that, Alex Olah, Kale Abrahamson, Sanjay Lumpkin, and Chier Ajou all come to the campus for the first time.
If my predictions hold true, I believe going .500 in conference and winning on Thursday of the BTT should be enough for NU to punch their ticket for the first time.
That's certainly easier said than done, though, as winning nine games in a league as strong top to bottom as the Big Ten could pose as a real challenge. At the least, expect another NIT appearance and a few wins out of this year's squad.