The Northwestern women's basketball team tips off its season tonight against University of Tennessee-Martin at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Wildcats also play Sunday at home against Central Michigan. Both games should be good early tests, as UT-Martin is coming off three straight Ohio Valley Conference titles, while Central Michigan is a solid MAC squad.
After missing out on the postseason last year and finishing 14-16 overall, 4-12 in the Big Ten, the Wildcats look to rebound behind the strength of their veteran front court, led by honorable mention All-Big Ten selection Kendall Hackney. Head coach Joe McKeown's team will also be doing some rebuilding on the fly, as five freshmen join the team, a couple of whom figure to see plenty of playing time.
How well Northwestern does this year will depend in large part on how well those newcomers contribute. The Big Ten, as always, is deep. Seven teams made the NCAA tournament from the conference last year, and four are ranked in the preseason AP poll, with three others receiving votes. I'm not sure the Wildcats have the horses to finish higher than eighth in the conference, but they should be competitive.
When I talked to McKeown a few weeks ago, practice had just started, and he was still in the early stages of setting his lineup. So here is my best speculative guess at how the lineup will shake out.
Three starting slots appear set-- senior Hackney, who was the team's leading scorer at 15.0 points per game, at forward; senior Dannielle Diamant (13.9 points, 6.7 rebounds) at center; and sophomore Karly Roser (8.0 points, 4.7 assists) at point guard.
The other two slots are up in the air. The Wildcats will need someone to fill the shoes of Morgan Jones, who transferred to Florida State in the offseason and was the team's second-leading scorer. Allison Mocchi, the other starter last year, also graduated, as did Brittany Orban, who was also a starter until suffering a season-ending injury six games into the year.
I wouldn't be surprised to see two freshmen fill those two spots. When I talked to McKeown, he spoke very highly of Maggie Lyon, a nearby graduate of New Trier High School and a three-star guard recruit. He also had good things to say about three-star wing Lauren Douglas, three-star wing Devon Brookshire and four-star post player Christen Johnson. Sophomore center/forward Alex Cohen also could be in the mix for a possible starting role.
Backing up Roser will be freshman Nof Kedem, a recruit from Israel, as well as senior Inesha Hale, who has struggled to stay healthy in her Wildcat career. Rounding out the bench will be junior three-point specialist Meghan McKeown, junior center Anna Cole and senior forward Kate Popovec. Junior guard La'Terria Taylor has yet to see a minute of action in her career due to injuries, and I'm not sure what her status is for this season.
Looking at the conference, defending champion Penn State figures to be the team to beat, picked by both the coaches and the media as the preseason favorite at Big Ten media day. The Nittany Lions are ranked No. 8 in the preseason poll.
Nebraska (No. 18), which made the Big Ten tournament final last year, Ohio State (No. 19), and Purdue (No. 21) should be the other main contenders for the conference title. Michigan, which has a new head coach, and Iowa are the clear second tier. After that, the rest of the conference looks pretty wide open.
On paper, Northwestern looks like it'll be better than last year, but probably not enough to get off the bubble. Especially with so many freshmen, there are a lot of question marks. On the other hand, the Wildcats went on a preseason tour of Italy, which gave the team a couple extra weeks of practices and a bunch of exhibition games to acclimate the freshmen into McKeown's system.
Hackney is likely to see a lot of double teams, and while Diamant should provide a nice second scoring option, Northwestern will need a third scorer to step up. They'll also need to handle the ball a lot better, as they had an unsightly 18.0 turnovers/game last year, third worst in the conference.
McKeown is entering the fifth year of his NU tenure, and some fans have begun wondering whether he'll be able to get the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament since 1997. But the recruiting has been getting a lot better, and I think the program is in good hands. The Wildcats are no longer a team that looks like the Bad News Bears against even mediocre competition, which if you watched the team during the June Olkowski and Beth Combs eras, is a major improvement.
But anyway, this sounds like too much of an epitaph, when the season hasn't even begun yet. It should be an exciting year at Welsh Ryan Arena, and if you have a chance to get out to a game, go for it! The Wildcats could use your help, drawing 719 or fewer in eight of their home games last year.