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Northwestern women's basketball: Better than the men, by a lot

Wildcats face Nebraska to open Big Ten play, after a solid 10-3 non-conference performance

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

While the men's basketball team sputters along in Chris Collins' first year, the Wildcat women have quietly put together a 10-3 nonconference season, including an upset of No. 25 DePaul. It appears the success head coach Joe McKeown has had on the recruiting trail is beginning to show on the court.

To wit—the Wildcats feature four new starters this year, three of them freshmen. One of those freshmen, forward Nia Coffey (a McDonald's high school All-American and the 24th best recruit nationally, according to ESPNU HoopGurlz), leads the team in scoring, with 15.5 points per game, along with 8.8 rebounds/game, and a sophomore, guard Maggie Lyon, is second at 13.8 points/game.

The Wildcats have beaten all of their usual non-conference bevy of lesser-conference lights, save a clunker of a 70-67 loss to Indiana State at a tournament in New Orleans.

Against major conference foes, NU beat then-No. 25 DePaul at home, and lost on the road to then-No. 17 Cal, which was a Final Four team a year ago, and at home to North Carolina State, which is 13-1 and ranked just outside the top 25. So no shame in either of those losses.

The true test, as it is every year, will come in Big Ten play, and the Wildcats start off with a tough one: on the road tonight against No. 18 Nebraska, one of the preseason favorites to win the conference title. Tune in on BTN at 8 p.m. CT, after the men get slaughtered against Wisconsin on ESPN2.

After tonight, the women return home for a winnable game against Illinois on Monday, before facing No. 17 Purdue at home on Thursday.

The team is doing all this without Karly Roser, a junior who had been slated to be the starting point guard this year. Roser, who can be an effective slasher to the basket but is somewhat turnover-prone, has been sidelined all year with an upper-body injury. Given that she is a team captain and honorable mention All-Big Ten honoree last year, her loss isn't insignificant.

But freshman Ashley Deary has stepped in admirably. While her scoring's been a bit spotty, she has dished out 6.5 assists/game. Guard Christen Inman (a four-star recruit) is the third member of the highly regarded freshman class that ranked 17th in the nation, chipping in 12.8 points/game.

The emergence of Inman and Coffey has pushed forward Lauren Douglas, a starter last year, into a Tre Demps-like spark-off-the-bench role. But aside from Douglas, contributions from the bench have been sparse, so depth remains somewhat of an issue.

Given the youth of the team, I don't expect NU to play more than a spoiler role against the Big Ten heavyweights, but you never know.

The league does look somewhat wide open this year, with no elite squads. Penn State is the highest ranked team at No. 15 in the AP poll, followed by No. 17 Purdue, No. 18 Nebraska and No. 22 Iowa. Indiana is getting votes. The polls are here.

NU will hopefully be among a handful of teams fighting to get on that NCAA bubble, but they'll need to hold their own against the bottom half of the conference and spring an upset or two.