Before falling to Arizona State 88-75 Sunday, Northwestern women's basketball started the 2014-15 season on a 10-game winning streak, the longest winning streak the program has seen since 1989-90. However, it will still take a strong performance in conference play for head coach Joe McKeown to break the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament.
Unlike the men's team, Northwestern women's hoops has scheduling on their side. They have two games against Illinois and Wisconsin, who finished last and next-to-last in the conference a year ago. Northwestern also has only one game against each of the Big Ten's newcomers, Rutgers and Maryland, both of whom are currently ranked in the nation's top 17.
|Two games||Home only||Away only|
|Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin||Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rutgers||Indiana, Penn State, Purdue, Ohio State|
Outside of the additions of Rutgers and Maryland, the Big Ten may be taking a dip this season. Conference-champion Penn State has started 3-8 after losing all-Big Ten first teamers Maggie Lucas and Ariel Edwards. Purdue is 7-4 after the graduation of several key seniors, and Minnesota is going to struggle without Big Ten preseason player of the year Rachel Banham, who tore her ACL several weeks ago.
The conference currently has five ranked teams, including Michigan State and Iowa, each of whom the Wildcats play twice. Otherwise, Northwestern's schedule couldn't be more favorable. The biggest challenge facing NU is staying healthy. McKeown's squad essentially runs seven-deep. The seven playing "starter minutes" are the only ones seeing the floor in tight games, and they score 94 percent of the team's points. To make a run at the tourney, McKeown will need all of them in the lineup.
Nia Coffey looks better than ever, averaging 16.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. The sophomore forward is proving exactly why she was selected to the coaches' preseason all-Big Ten team. Coffey stuffs every part of the stat sheet and scores in a multitude of ways from post-ups to mid-range jumpers to coast-to-coast lay-ups. She has cut out the foul trouble issue she had as a freshman and now just needs to work on limiting turnovers.
Center Alex Cohen and forward Lauren Douglas play alongside Coffey in the frontcourt. Cohen and Douglas both stretch the floor with their outside shooting ability, although Douglas isn't quite matching the 39.8 percent she made from three last year. They can both score in the post too and are solid defenders. When the starters are in foul trouble, sophomore Allie Tuttle or junior captain Christen Johnson will replace them on the forward line.
If there's one way in which the frontcourt can improve, it's rebounding. Last year NU was out-rebounded by an average of 6.8 boards per game. They are almost even in rebounding margin this season, but it's come against mediocre competition. Northwestern will never own the glass since the Wildcats almost always play zone defense, but they could use more production out of Cohen, the 6-foot-5 senior, who's currently third on the team in rebounding.
The load has been taken off Maggie Lyon's shoulders, and it's doing wonders for her game. She's still scoring right around 13 points per game, but instead of shooting her 2013-14 rate of 37.7 percent from the field, she's making over 48 percent of her field goals. She's also sinking more than 48 percent of her threes on 5.6 attempts per game. The former Big Ten freshman of the year looks more comfortable in the offense, and her hot hand is creating opportunities for others to score too.
Christen Inman has been just as efficient as Lyon when shooting inside the arch. Inman knows how to cut, find holes in the defense and score off the dribble. Her field goal percentage has increased to nearly 54 percent while maintaining about the same scoring mark. She's an all-around player able to defend, pass the basketball and make the smart plays.
Oddly enough, the point guard position is helping out in the rebounding department. Ashley Deary and Karly Roser track down a combined 6.8 boards per game. Deary is a quick, feisty defender and leads the nation in steals with 3.9 per game. She creates a lot of havoc on defense without getting in foul trouble. The sophomore guard usually handles the rock at the point too and keeps the offense flowing with non-stop movement.
Having Roser back has made a huge difference for NU. She only played 13 games last season due to a concussion, which often forced the wings to move to the point. Roser isn't nearly as fast or agile as Deary, but at 5-foot-10, she has the size and strength to guard big point guards and off guards. The senior captain rounds out Northwestern's top seven nicely and knows how to control the pace of the game. The next guards off the bench would likely be freshmen Alexis Glasgow and Lydia Rohde, but their playing time should fall during Big Ten play.
Northwestern women's basketball's 2013-14 season was a lot like Northwestern football's 2013 season. They had a good showing in the non-conference schedule (going 10-3), postseason aspirations built and the season crumbled due to close losses and some bad luck. They were 2-5 against conference opponents in games decided by four points or less. They were missing Roser most of the season, and she didn't seem to be 100 percent when she did play.
This year Northwestern returned over 90 percent of minutes from last year. Lyon, Coffey and Deary have improved immensely. The team is healthy, and the expanded 18-game Big Ten schedule couldn't get much easier. A .500 conference record seems attainable. The Wildcats should get around 20 wins and be right on the bubble when selection Monday rolls around in March.