06 December 2011

NU's 2012 B1G Schedule Analysis

By now we have an initial feel for the B1G's overall strength as well as some familiarity with our conference foes.  This is as good a time as any to peak ahead at what's in store for NU next year in conference with an eye for what it will take for NU to finally get the monkey off its back and make the NCAAs.

In our estimation to be on the bubble NU will need to finish 8-10 in conference assuming a win at Creighton on December 22nd and otherwise 9-9.  The bubble would burst if NU lost its first round B1G tourney game against a bottom B1G team.  So how does this season shape up as NU once again strives to break through that NCAAs glass ceiling?   As we did last year, we find it helpful to chart NU's course by first organizing NU’s conference games into four categories: Egg, Low Hanging Fruit, Bling, and Wheaties games.

Categorizing NU's B1G Schedule

Egg (2)
Egg games are those in which NU is projected to win at least 3/4ths of the time (per kenpom.com):

Penn State, Iowa

Low Hanging Fruit (6)
These are games that NU is projected to win but with less than a 75% probability:

Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan, at Penn St, at Iowa

Bling (5)
These are games that NU has between 25%-50% chance of winning:

at Michigan, Michigan St, at Minnesota, Purdue, at Illinois

Wheaties (5)
These games are those which NU has less than a one in four chance of winning:

at Ohio St, at Wisconsin, at Purdue, at Indiana, Ohio St

Plotting NU's B1G Schedule

Now the 18 game conference season is more of a marathon than a sprint.  And as any experienced marathoner knows it is helpful to split a race into definable segments so as to plot progress and determine in real time whether one is ahead of pace, on pace, or behind pace.  In deference to NU's academic system we break the B1G marathon into trimesters to benchmark's NU progress.  Together with our the organized buckets of games above we are able to use this trimester framework and adjust for differences in schedule difficulty, or hill gradients if you will, along the set schedule/course.

First Trimester
Egg: Penn St
LHF: Illinois
Bling: at Michigan, Michigan St
Wheaties: at Ohio St, at Wisconsin

In recent years the schedule makers have shown an affinity for throwing NU right into the B1G fire.  This year is no different.  The six game first trimester features just two games in which NU is favored, and NU will be significant underdogs in two of the other four games.  With this difficult start to the B1G slate a 2-4 start to conference season would not be ideal but should be taken in stride if it were to come to pass.  A 1-5 start would be cause for concern while a 3-3 record (e.g., defending the Welsh) would be cause for optimism.

Second Trimester
Egg: Iowa
LHF: Nebraska
Bling: at Minnesota, Purdue, at Illinois
Wheaties: at Purdue

Once again NU is favored in only 2 of these 6 games although there is only one Wheaties game during this stretch.  Assuming a 2-4 first trimester record anything worse than 3-3 record here starts to back NU against the wall.  NU successfully defending the home court would again do the trick.

Third Trimester
Egg: None
LHF: Minnesota, Michigan, at Penn St, at Iowa
Bling: None
Wheaties: at Indiana, Ohio St

NU has a chance to finish strong with four very winnable games and two golden opportunities to make a big impression on the Selection Committee.  While the first two trimesters will be more about positioning NU for the NCAAs this last trimester will be make or break.   There are a couple of winnable roadies during this stretch run.  Win those and NU is looking ok.  Better yet defeating OSU at the Welsh in the penultimate regular season game could really sway the Selection Committee.

Overall B1G Course Analysis
The way the schedule makers have set it up a sluggish start to the conference season is to be expected.  NU fans should take this account and not be quick to toss out their NCAA dreams if NU finds itself at 2-4 to start out conference play.  The middle part of the schedule eases ever so slightly, and it is by the end of this six game stretch NU will hopefully be at no worse than 5-7 so as to provide itself some cushion for the home stretch.  And it is during this home stretch that NU has some downhill running and will need to get its kick hard for that NCAAs finish line.

There is a real opportunity here for NU to finish strong which would help with the NCAAs resume.  The layout of the B1G schedule is both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing in that it will give the freshmen guards time to acclimate to B1G play in time for this pivotal stretch run.  The blessing could turn into a curse if 1) the freshmen struggles through the first two-thirds of the season are such that NU's back up is put up against the wall or 2) the freshmen themselves hit the proverbial wall by then.

What happens is anyone's guess at the moment.  Stay tuned.