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Despite defensive progress, rebounding woes holding back Northwestern

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Joe McKeown's match-up zone is realizing its full potential with a veteran squad, but the Wildcats' struggles on the boards are hurting them in close games.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Welsh-Ryan Arena hasn't provided opponents any escape from the blizzard in Evanston this winter. Northwestern women's basketball's blizzard defense is arguably the best it's ever been under Joe McKeown, and they are holding opponents to 59.3 points per game.

Last season Northwestern was caught in a lot of shootouts, high-scoring affairs in which the Wildcats had to hope they were knocking down shots in the final minutes. They allowed 67.6 points per game, and opponents shot 37.3 percent from the floor. While those aren't necessarily bad marks, Northwestern couldn't rely on the defense to keep them in games.

After another year of development and the return of seven "starters," Northwestern's zone defense is reaching its full potential through improved coordination and positioning. Joe McKeown said this group's practice together from years past is paying off now.

"I think with the group we have right now, they're just more comfortable, they're making better decisions in it and they understand it a little better," McKeown said at practice.

Northwestern has two seniors and two juniors among their seven key contributors, and they've all played significant minutes since their freshman seasons. Senior captain Karly Roser said the team has developed incredible communication and chemistry this year, which led to the defensive improvement.

"We have a better understanding of each other and where each person is going to be, especially in our blizzard defense," Roser said. "The positioning on that is a lot better this year. We're talking a lot more, which really, really helps."

Despite limiting opponents to 35.4 percent shooting from the field, Northwestern is suffering from the common flaw of zone defense: rebounding. In all of their four losses, the Wildcats gave up double digit offensive rebounds. Excluding the loss to Iowa, Northwestern's average margin on the offensive glass in losses is -7.3.

The Wildcats' latest loss was the perfect example of rebounding doing NU in. Michigan tracked down 14 offensive rebounds, and NU turned the ball over 21 times, which helped the Wolverines put up 19 more shots than the Wildcats. Although Northwestern shot eight percentage points higher from the field than Michigan, the Wolverines left Welsh-Ryan as 73-66 victors.

Nia Coffey has shouldered a large portion of the rebounding load, snagging 8.5 rebounds per game, but otherwise it's hard to say who will contribute on the glass any given night. Alex Cohen and Lauren Douglas will clean glass one game and be a near non-factor on the boards their next outing. Cohen said rebounding is one of the team's biggest challenges, but they're making progress.

"It's something we've been struggling with this season and last season is rebounding and rebounding out of a zone is also more difficult. So we're really trying to focus in on that and finding your defender, blocking them out and then going to get a rebound," Cohen said.

Located in the center of the blizzard zone, Cohen plays the position Joe McKeown refers to as "the hoop." Due to her location on the floor, the position requires a lot of communication, good vision and of course, strength for rebounding. McKeown compares "the hoop" to the same position controlling a defense on the gridiron.

"Because of where she's (Cohen) located, she can see a lot of things that are going on, where a lot of people have their back to her," McKeown said. "It's almost like being a middle linebacker in football. A lot of people are listening to you, you're controlling a lot of things so she's got to be very verbal. And she's smart. She makes good decisions in it."

Cohen's communication from the middle has certainly aided in Northwestern's defensive prowess this season, but the Wildcats could use some more rebounds from their senior center, whose averaging 4.6 boards per game.

If Northwestern improves in rebounding, they're bound to improve offensively too. Not only does owning the boards eliminate the opponents' second chance points, but it gets the Wildcats in transition, where Coffey, Lyon and Ashley Deary are often at their best.

Outside of rebounding, Joe McKeown has put together all the pieces to compete in the Big Ten and make a run at the tourney. NU cut out the turnovers and unnecessary fouls which hampered the team last season. They are shooting the lights out, and the defense is stronger than ever. If anything pops Northwestern's bubble this season, it will be their troubles rebounding.