A scary schedule

For Northwestern, the upcoming schedule could be mistaken for a practical joke by the Big Ten: The first 10 conference games are against teams that went to the NCAA Tournament last season...four of them are ranked...all have winning records...gulp. Purple Reign looks closer at the gauntlet ahead.

Psst. Sorry to interrupt. You're probably celebrating, so you may find this a bit of a buzz-kill.

Indeed, it is a joyous time for Northwestern hoops fans. The Wildcats just cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time since Woodstock was lining up acts. The team is off to its best start (11-1) since the Great Depression. And the Cats have won more consecutive games (nine) than they have since Michael Jordan was playing the other B-ball.

But there is one just one little thing that needs to be mentioned, something looming that must be pointed out:

Northwestern's schedule is about to get nuts.

Having successfully navigated the pre-Big Ten portion of the season with but one loss – and their first national rankings since January, 1969 – the Cats are staring at what could be mistaken for a practical joke played by the Big Ten scheduling office. Calling it "front-loaded" is like calling Antarctica "chilly."

Of the Wildcats' first 10 conference tilts, ALL of them are against 2009 NCAA Tournament teams. NU will play Illinois twice, No. 11 Michigan State twice, Michigan twice, No. 4 Purdue, No. 23 Wisconsin, No. 15 Ohio State and Minnesota.

Opponent Date Record Highest '09 rank
Illinois Dec. 30, Jan. 23 8-4 No. 20
Mich. State Jan. 2, Jan. 30 9-3 No. 2
Michigan Jan. 10, Feb. 2 6-4 No. 15
Wisconsin Jan. 13 10-2 No. 23
Purdue Jan. 16 11-0 No. 4
Ohio State Jan. 19 10-2 No. 13
Minnesota Jan. 26 9-3 No. 22

Those outfits are a combined 63-18. Four of them are currently ranked, and all of them have been ranked at some point this season. Five are in the top six in the conference standings, and needless to say, they all have winning records.

Every team, you could argue, is better than every team NU has played thus far.

Now, Northwestern's schedule to this point hasn't been a cakewalk – Butler, a neutral-site contest against Notre Dame, a trek to NC State. That's legit. But compared to what's ahead, the pre-conference docket was child's play. And news of the Cats' freshly-minted No. 25 ranking is offset by the sobering reality that the month could start with a national ranking and end with…well, use your imagination.

There is, believe or not, some good news. Last season Northwestern went 5-8 against these particular teams. That's not horrible at all. Included in there were wins at Michigan State and at Purdue, as well as home wins against Ohio State and Minnesota.

And that was last season. Things are obviously different this year, with John Shurna playing out of his mind, with freshmen Drew Crawford and Alex Marcotullio playing up to (if not exceeding) expectations, with Luka Mirkovic suddenly one of the league's top shot blockers, etc., etc. Since Kevin Coble went down, this team has failed to live up – or down, as it were – to the tempered expectations, and they have impressed at pretty much every stop along the way. At this point, there is no reason to think that Northwestern isn't one of the top teams in the league.

Still, this upcoming schedule is insane.

It kicks off Wednesday at Illinois, which is 8-4. Now, Illinois hasn't had quite the season some expected. But three of the Illini's four losses are by a combined nine points, and none of them were at home. They could very easily be 11-1 instead of 8-4. Sure, the Illini beat NU by only one point last season and, evidenced by the four losses, have shown some weaknesses. Alas, playing in Champaign is never easy. Neither is playing Illinois. And Northwestern gets them twice in about three weeks.

NU will then have two days to prepare for a visit from No. 11 Michigan State, which will be in town on Saturday. MSU, as always, has played an exceedingly difficult non-con schedule; its three losses are to No. 2 Texas (in Austin), No. 9 North Carolina (in Chapel Hill) and previously-ranked Florida (neutral site). The Spartans have Kalin Lucas, who some dubbed the preseason Big Ten player of the year, as well as four other players who average double figures. The Cats' first and last game of the month – on Jan. 2 and Jan. 30 – will be against Sparty.*

*I don't mean to be overly conspiratorial, but the fact that the month starts and ends with the Big Ten's perennial bully….I wish Fox Mulder investigated sports-scheduling phenomena as well.

NU gets a one-game reprieve against Texas-Pan American on Jan. 7 before traveling to Michigan. The Wolverines haven't lived up to their No. 15 preseason ranking; they are just 6-4. But they played Kansas tough on the road last week, and have the league's leading scorer in Manny Harris (20.9 per game). Michigan isn't a pushover by any stretch, yet the Wolverines are probably the "easiest" opponent Northwestern will get the entire month.

When your easiest opponent for more than a month was preseason top 15...yeah.

Wisconsin is up next, coming to Welsh-Ryan on Jan. 13. Bo Ryan's club is 10-2 and winner of seven of its last eight. The Badgers have downed Arizona, Duke and Marquette. But more than that, it's Wisconsin. They're going to be tough.

And that's just an appetizer for No. 4 Purdue on Jan. 16. The Boilers have won every game this season by double digits except one, against Tennessee. They have won seven of their first 11 by at least 20 points, and three different players average more than 16 points, and they returned pretty much everyone from a Sweet 16 squad, and so on and so on. They are the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten, and for good reason. Luckily the Jan. 16 matchup against NU is in Evanston, but still.

That is first of back-to-back games in which NU will be playing a Top 15 team. Three days later, the Cats will be in Columbus to take on No. 15 Ohio State, which is 10-2 and leads the conference in scoring, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Since a Nov. 19 loss to UNC, OSU is 8-1.

State's best player, Evan Turner, who averages 18 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, is currently out after breaking his back a few weeks ago. But he apparently plans on beating team doctors' target return-date of Jan. 31 – maybe in time for NU.

"I know what Evan's target date is that he swears he will be back playing," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "He said, ‘I will be ready to go for this game right here.'"

Matta didn't say what game it was, but NU goes to OSU on Jan. 19. So if Evans is going to beat the Jan. 31 deadline, he might just be back in time for NU. (Although OSU does play No. 6 and undefeated West Virginia on Jan. 23. So maybe – hopefully – that is when Evans is eyeing his return.)

Minnesota is the final piece of this brutal early-conference season schedule. The Gophers had a late-November swoon in which they lost three straight by a combined 11 points. But since then Minnesota has reeled off five straight wins – four of which were by at least 30 points and one by a mere 20 – and apparently righted the ship.

The Gophers went to the tournament last season, and of their top four scorers, two are seniors, one is a junior and the other a sophomore. And like last season, Minnesota is swatting more than its share of shots – currently a conference-leading 7.1 per game, more than a full block better than No. 2 Ohio State's 5.9.

That the schedule is so ridiculously front-loaded means that the second half is a little easier (back-lightened?). But only a little. February features two games against Iowa, which is a Big Ten-worst 5-7, and Indiana, which is 6-6. Those are four very winnable games. NU has also scheduled Chicago State on March 3, and that figures to be a win.

It's impossible to navigate the Big Ten without running into tough stretches. But starting with Wednesday's trek to Champaign, Northwestern's schedule is certifiably brutal. You can be the judge of what will constitute success for this upcoming slate. A few things, though, seems pretty clear:

Whether or not Northwestern stays ranked, and more importantly, whether or not the Wildcats go dancing this year, will probably be determined between Wednesday and Feb. 2.

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