Early hurdles loom on Wildcats' schedule

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Coach Bill Carmody may not admit it, but there are easier opponents against which to open the Big Ten season than the ones Northwestern has.

The Wildcats’ Big Ten campaign begins at No. 11 Purdue on Friday, returns to Evanston versus No. 19 Michigan State on Jan. 3 and continues at No. 25 Illinois on Jan. 6.

“People say we have a tough start, but I say, ‘what are you going to do? Play at Wisconsin, at Minnesota?’ ” Carmody said. “We’re going to play these guys.”

No, Minnesota and Wisconsin may not be better options, but Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Penn State would have been. However Carmody wants to spin it, the Wildcats do have a tough early conference slate, and how they fare in their opening weeks may decide whether they reach their first NCAA tournament.

In Carmody’s 10 previous seasons at Northwestern, the Wildcats have traditionally come out of the gates slow in the Big Ten. Northwestern has gone 1-3 or worse to open the Big Ten in eight of those 10 seasons.

The Wildcats were 2-1 to start the Big Ten slate in 2003-04 and ended up 8-8, their best conference record under Carmody. They also started 2005-06 with a 2-0 record, but lost their next four games and finished the season 6-10.

Even in Northwestern’s last two seasons, both of which resulted in NIT appearances, the Wildcats struggled early. They began 0-4 in 2009 and finished 8-10. Last season, they started 1-4 and ended up 7-11.

After compiling a 9-1 record in their non-conference season, Wildcats senior point guard Michael Thompson is hopeful for a hot start to the Big Ten.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve never went over .500 in conference,” said Thompson, who is averaging career-bests of 14.8 points, 4.8 assists and 1.6 steals. “I would definitely like to go over that. The ultimate goal is to make it to the NCAA tournament.

“I think we got a lot of confidence going into the conference from non-conference. I think a good start in conference play would help us out a lot and give us momentum as the conference season goes on.”

If Northwestern does struggle again early, the one positive is the Big Ten is loaded this season. The conference’s depth could allow Northwestern to dig itself out of an early hole. A loss or two to Illinois, Michigan State and Purdue could be made up quickly by defeating the conference’s three other ranked teams, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 13 Minnesota and No. 24 Wisconsin.

“Every team in this conference is very good,” Thompson said. “That’s why we came to this school -- to play the top teams night in and night out.”

For Northwestern to succeed this Big Ten season, it’ll likely need to win a few tough road games, too. In years past, the road hasn’t been kind to the Wildcats. Last season, they won one road game (Michigan) and cost themselves a chance at the NCAA tournament with losses at Indiana, Iowa and Penn State near the end of the season.

Northwestern’s lack of depth last season was a major reason for its late stumble. The Wildcats were worn down in the final weeks. It’s something Carmody is keeping in mind this season. He plans to give backups Davide Curletti and Mike Capocci more minutes in the coming week to reduce the load for his starters.

“As long as our depth holds up, then I feel pretty good,” Carmody said. “It’s a big, physical conference, and you got to get at least 16 minutes each.

“I think I’m trying to get guys in, but again, I just go with the guys who help you win. If it turns out we only play eight, we only play eight. If it’s nine, it’s nine. It’s like any team after a while if it’s too much of a drop off. That’s certainly a consideration the depth and the grind of playing in the conference. Eighteen games is a lot.”