Northwestern Basketball Non-Conference Schedule Analysis: Now With Monte Carlo Simulations!

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - MARCH 17: Brady Heslip #5 of the Baylor Bears reacts after hitting a 3-point shot against the Colorado Buffaloes in the first half during the third round of the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at The Pit on March 17, 2012 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

On Thursday, Northwestern basketball released their non-conference schedule, which appears on paper to be fairly lackluster, with red flags like only one true road game, not many big names, and lots of SWACtion. If it were closer to the start of the season, we could just look at KenPom.com's predictions and histograms projecting the probability of given win totals, but that data isn't available yet. So l did the next best thing: set approximate probabilities for each game and run the simulation myself.

First, a quick blurb on each team.

Texas Southern Tigers

Conference: SWAC

2011-12 record: 15-18, (12-6)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 287th

Northwestern played these guys last year, cruising by an 81-51 margin, and this year's game should go about the same.

NU win probability: 95%

Miss Valley St Delta Devils

Conference: SWAC

2011-12 record: 21-13, (17-1)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 257th

The Delta Devils rolled through the SWAC last year, although they didn't look it in Evanston when NU tied their own Big Ten record by raining in 20 three pointers.

NU win probability: 93%

Fairleigh Dickinson Knights

Conference: NEC

2011-12 record: 3-26, (2-16)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 328th

Um, yeah. This is the kind of putrid opponent than aspiring NCAA tournament teams should avoid, as they put a huge dent into the apparently all-important RPI non-conference strength of schedule.

NU win probability: 99%

Delaware St. Hornets

Conference: MEAC

2011-12 record: 15-14, (12-4)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 250th

Delaware State is at least one of the better teams in the weak MEAC. Should still be an easy NU win; it would be fairly disastrous if NU did not begin the season 4-0. If you're going to schedule a bunch of weak teams, it's best to do it to start the season; Carmody will be able to play his entire roster during this four game stretch and get a sense of what all these newcomers can do in game conditions.

NU win probability: 93%

South Padre Invitational (Bracket TBD)

Potential opponents:

Illinois St. Redbirds

Conference: Missouri Valley

2011-12 record: 21-14, (9-9)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 81st

TCU Horned Frogs

Conference: Big 12

2011-12 record: 18-15, (7-7)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 156th

UAB Blazers

Conference: Conference USA

2011-12 record: 15-16, (9-7)

2011-12 Ken Pom ranking: 133rd

It would be nice if Northwestern scheduled a lot more neutral or road games against opponents in this 75th to 200th nationally range, would dramatically improve their RPI ranking. Anyways, Northwestern plays two of these three teams in southern Texas. Illinois State returns everyone from an NIT team and could be a sleeper in the Valley, that will be a tough game if it happens. TCU and UAB will be easier, but on a neutral court it wouldn't be a huge upset if NU were to lose. I'd set the win probability at about 50%against Illinois State and at 65% to 70% against UAB or TCU. Since we don't know what the bracket is yet, I plugged in two games with win probability of 62% into the simulation.

Maryland Terrapins

Conference: ACC

2011-12 record: 17-15, (6-10)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 134th

Maryland is still in rebuilding mode, especially after leading scorer Terrell Stoglin was booted off the team. There is a strong recruiting class coming in but NU should be significant favorites at home against a young and inexperienced Maryland team.

NU win probability: 75%

Ill.-Chicago Flames

Conference: Horizon

2011-12 record: 8-22, (3-15)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 290th

UIC used to have a strong program, even sweeping a home and home series over two years against NU early in Carmody's NU tenure, but they've fallen to the bottom of the Horizon League. NU should roll.

NU win probability: 95%

at Baylor Bears

Conference: Big 12

2011-12 record: 30-8, (12-6)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 17th

Baylor put a savage #BEATEMDOWN on NU in Evanston last season and this game will likely be more of the same. Baylor may have lost three starters to the NBA but Scott Drew is bringing in yet another monster recruiting class featuring 5 star center Isaiah Austin and two other four star recruits. Plus they return their stud point guard Pierre Jackson and gunner Brady Heslip who's good for at least 6 threes against the NU zone.

NU win probability: 20%

Butler Bulldogs

Conference: Horizon

2011-12 record: 22-15, (11-7)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 110th

Butler came crashing back down to earth last season, falling all the way to the CBI after consecutive national title game appearances, but they should be much improved this season thanks to the addition of Arkansas transfer and lights out shooter Rotnei Clarke and a strong recruiting class. This should be an NIT team at the very least; it's a good thing NU has home court advantage for this game.

NU win probability: 60%

Texas State Bobcats

Conference: Southland

2011-12 record: 13-17, (5-11)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 263rd

I have nothing to say about this team.

NU win probablity: 93%

Stanford Cardinal

Conference: Pac 12

2011-12 record: 26-11, (10-8)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 32nd

This will be quite a test for Northwestern. Stanford rolled to the NIT title last March, blowing out Minnesota in the championship game, and they return much of that roster, led by guards Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright. This should be a game vs an NCAA tournament caliber opponent.

NU win probability: 50%

Brown Bears

Conference: Ivy

2011-12 record: 8-23, (2-12)

2011-12 KenPom ranking: 308th

The final tuneup before Big Ten play comes against a very bad Brown team. Of course, the last time Northwestern hosted a team from the Ivy League, it was also against Brown back in 2007-08, and Brown won. Look at that box score, Sterling Williams played 37 minutes and had 20 points!

NU win probability: 96%

So, that's the schedule. Here's a 100,000 trial Monte Carlo simulation of that schedule, in histogram format:

Nu_non_con_wins_chart_medium

So we can assume a likely record between 9-4 and 11-2. I'd say NU needs a minimum of 10 wins going into Big Ten play to feel good about their NCAA chances, largely because there are so many putrid teams on the schedule that the overall non-conference SOS in RPI format, which was a key criterion for the committee last year, probably won't be very good.

The home-and-home series with Baylor, Stanford and Butler are all good things, as is the South Padre Invitational, but there are too many games against awful competition. Iona showed how to game the system last year: schedule lots of teams between 75 and 200th overall, many of them away from home. While it's true that blue-blood programs from the nation's top conference probably don't want to schedule Northwestern, programs from the better mid-major conferences like the Missouri Valley, Conference USA, Atlantic 10, etc. would jump at the chance to play a home-and-home against a Big Ten opponent like Northwestern.

The good news is that a weak-ish non-conference schedule doesn't spell doom for Northwestern, as they will still have the chance to pick up plenty of marquee wins during Big Ten play. It's much more important for programs from weaker mid-major leagues to give themselves opportunities at resume-building wins in non-conference play (which is why those schools would love to play Northwestern...pick up the phone, Phillips and Carmody). So NU can make this all moot by winning 10+ Big Ten games, a feat much easier said than done, but one the program should be striving for.

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