The 2014-15 season was the most successful campaign of coach Joe McKeown's tenure at Northwestern. After going 23-9 and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years, Northwestern looks like a team on the rise. The team will return four starters and seven letterwinners from last year's squad. This continuity and last year's performance explain the team's preseason buzz, as they are ranked 19th in the AP Preseason Top 25 and 12th by Athlon Sports Magazine.
Here is InsideNU's full preview for the 2015-16 season, with everything you need to know for this year's team.
When watching Northwestern women’s basketball, the energy on the court is palpable during every possession. Even in the final minutes of Northwestern’s 103-44 exhibition win against Seton Hill on Sunday, with the game well in hand, the Wildcats continued to push the ball down the court, make crisp passes, and hit shots. Anyone who wants to see exciting, fast-paced basketball should head to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday, November 14th.
Northwestern will be heavily relying on four returning starters — preseason All-Big Ten starting forward Nia Coffey, small forward Christen Inman, point guard Ashley Deary, and shooting guard Maggie Lyon. The final spot will be taken by either Lauren Douglas or Christen Johnson. Douglas did not play in the exhibition game, but she exclusively came off the bench last year and Johnson, a senior captain, will likely begin the season in the starting lineup. Coffey, Lyon, and Deary all averaged well over 30 minutes last season, and will probably play similar minutes this year.
While a rotation of the main four players and either Douglas or Johnson seems set in stone, Northwestern lacks a true center on its roster. Last year Northwestern’s starting lineup featured center Alex Cohen in all 32 games, but McKeown went small in the team's first exhibition. Allie Tuttle, currently Northwestern’s tallest player at 6-foot-4, did not start the game and played sparingly last season.
McKeown seems content to go with a smaller lineup than last year, which could exacerbate the team’s poor rebounding numbers. Last season, Northwestern finished 11th in the Big Ten in rebounding margin and 12th in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Without Cohen, Northwestern will suffer even more on the boards, and it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff adapts to the lack of a center on the court. Coffey could play as a hybrid center at times, but Northwestern will likely play the majority of the season without a true center.
"When you have four players like Inman, Deary, Lyon, and Coffey, they’re going be on the floor," McKeown said last Sunday. "Even Bill Belichick couldn’t hide that... We’re going to look at Christen Johnson, someone who’s physical and can rebound."
It’s possible that Johnson and Douglas could rotate based on the situation, with Johnson getting more minutes against more physical lineups. Tuttle could also get minutes in situations where Northwestern absolutely has to have size on the floor.
As for the rest of the squad, it remains to be seen whether McKeown will utilize any of the other players on the team. Players like Nof Kedem, Lydia Rohde, and Maya Jonas all received minimal playing time last season. Although they all played well against Seton Hill, it’s hard to see them getting minutes at the expense of Northwestern’s best players.
Freshmen Jordan Hankins, Amber Jamison, and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah also played over a quarter against Seton Hill, but again, it’s unlikely that they will receive significant minutes on the court this season. Jordan Hankins exclusively played point guard and looked particularly impressive shooting the ball. Coach McKeown referred to her as a "combo player, in between a Deary and an Inman". She could theoretically slot in as a third guard for the team later in the year, but it will be difficult to get minutes.
Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who arrived in the United States from Nigeria two-and-a-half years ago, is one of Northwestern’s bigger players and showed good athleticism on the boards and on defense. Realistically, unless there is a blowout, I see little reason for Coach McKeown to play his four starters for less than 30 minutes a game. This will leave very few opportunities for the bench.
Maggie Lyon, the team’s ultra-reliable shooter on the wing, was one of the best scorers in the Big Ten last season. Lyon is a natural scorer and a fantastic three-point shooter who can break a game open with a hot stretch from the field. She averages the most minutes on the team and is capable of being a secondary ball handler alongside Deary in the half court. Northwestern’s best offensive plays generally leave her wide open for a three-pointer or with an easy two. Her off the ball movement is superb, and she shows her three years of experience when making an intelligent cut or swinging out wide to sink a three-pointer. Lyon and Coffey form an excellent offensive tandem that will be difficult to stop.
Ashley Deary, the team’s point guard, plays an integral role in the offense and provides the spark for Coach McKeown’s fast-paced attack. However, Deary’s great skill is her ability to play quickly while keeping hold of the ball, as she posted an excellent 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. Deary’s dribbling ability is absurd. Just watching her move the ball up the court is solid evening entertainment. She makes smart, crisp passes that work when Northwestern operates from its halfcourt offense, but she also excels on fast breaks, finding open players down the court with relative ease. In addition, Deary’s 3.1 steals per game create plenty of fast break opportunities for Northwestern to take advantage of.
Christen Inman played 26.7 minutes last year and shot an impressive 51.8 percent from the field. Her minutes could increase to around 30 per game this season. Her shooting ability should keep her as a reliable third or fourth option for Northwestern’s offense this year.
Nia Coffey, last year's leading scorer with 15.8 points per game, has displayed a refined offensive game that combines excellent post-up skills and good shooting. She does everything you’d expect on offense from a quintessential power forward, as she led the team in offensive rebounds last season and shot 44 percent from the floor. Coffey is one of the best players in the Big Ten, and she will often be the main source of offense on the court. In the exhibition game, she scored 29 points and picked up 9 rebounds in just 20 minutes. Hopefully she can improve on her free throw percentage, just 62.1 percent last year, as she gets to the line on a consistent basis. Coffey will also need to improve on the boards this season, and she could easily average a double-double per game as she picks up more rebounds.
"She’s just evolving as a leader…she’s one of the best players in the Big Ten and in the country," McKeown says. "She’s trying to get her teammates involved, she’s trying to play a little bit different than last year."
Based on the exhibition, Christen Johnson will probably start Northwestern’s first game at forward. She played just 4.1 minutes last season, and her full offensive game has yet to be seen. Lauren Douglas did not play in the exhibition due to injury, but she averaged 10.1 points per game over 20.7 minutes off the bench last season and is a known quantity on offense. Douglas should eventually see more time than Johnson.
Last season, the Northwestern offense was high-paced and very efficient. The team was second in the Big Ten with a 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio, was third in the Big Ten in shooting percentage, and was second in turnover margin. Northwestern will once again rely upon Nia Coffey and Maggie Lyon to supply much of the team’s offense. Coffey and Lyon control the offensive spacing while relying on point guard Ashley Deary’s natural passing instincts to get good shots. The team also shoots well from three point range, hitting 34.5 percent from three as a team last season, good enough for fourth in the Big Ten.
"We're capable of making 10, 12, 15 threes a game," McKeown says. "We're also capable of struggling a bit too. We've got to get a little more consistent there. If you're scouting us, you're worried because we're streaky."
Although the team may suffer from its lack of size, it’s worth noting that the team was last in offensive rebounds per game in the Big Ten last year and still won 23 games with an effective offense.
Although Northwestern played a few high-scoring contests last season, it had one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. The team consistently forced turnovers and blocks, ranking second in the conference in steals per game and third in blocked shots. Defensively, Northwestern frustrated opponents with excellent defense and an ability to constantly disrupt possessions. In the exhibition game, Northwestern displayed all of their defensive strengths as they forced Seton Hill into 25 turnovers and picked up 18 steals. Northwestern held Seton Hill to just 21.9 percent shooting, an impressive defensive performance against any opponent.
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With the departure of center Alex Cohen, who was tied for the team lead in blocks last season, the team will have to play differently on defense this year. Nia Coffey is still a presence in the post and around the rim, but she will have to bear a greater share of the interior defensive responsibilities. Ashley Deary averaged 3.1 steals per game last season, and she will need to retain her preternatural ability to grab steals. She picked up an astounding 10 steals in just 16 minutes in the exhibition though, so no worries there.
Lauren Douglas and Christen Johnson will help Coffey with interior defense, as both players can block shots and provide solid defense. Douglas and Johnson will be critical in filling Alex Cohen’s old role. Maggie Lyon will continue to work on the perimeter while providing solid defense and great rebounding. Christen Inman will also be out on the wing. Allie Tuttle, Amber Jamison, and Pallas Akpanah-Kunaiyi could also contribute defensively in limited minutes this season.
Northwestern’s starting lineup does not have any major liabilities on defense, but it’s possible that the team’s overall defense could decline slightly without a true center, and without depth. However, McKeown has the players to build a solid defense this season. His squads at George Washington always played excellent defense, and if this Northwestern team plays at its expected level, the defense will probably remain top-five in the Big Ten.
Right now, Northwestern looks like the third best team in the Big Ten behind Maryland and Ohio State. Maryland dominated in the Big Ten last year en route to the Final Four, and Ohio State has a strong returning class that has them ranked 6th in the AP poll heading into the season. Iowa, last year's third place finisher, has graduated three starters. Rutgers, Minnesota and Michigan State could all contend for the third place spot with Northwestern this year.
Northwestern started last season with 10 consecutive victories in non-conference play, a streak that put the team on the map nationally. After three relatively easy home games to start the season, Northwestern will head to the Lone Star Showcase in late November before heading on the road to No. 22 North Carolina. The other non-conference test will be facing DePaul at home in the battle for Chicago-area supremacy.
"In all honesty, we've got to take from today to the end of December to just get better," McKeown said last Sunday. "We’re going to have some games where the ball doesn’t go in and we’re just going to use that to get better for the Big Ten."
While Northwestern may not start the year undefeated again, the Wildcats could easily go 11-1 or 10-2 to open the year, which will still leave them in good position heading into the Big Ten schedule. Northwestern was a very good road team last season and with trips to Maryland and Ohio State on the docket, they’ll need to reproduce their performance away from Welsh-Ryan this season. After opening the schedule at Penn State on Dec. 31, the toughest part of Northwestern's schedule begins with a trip to East Lansing on Jan. 10. Northwestern will then host Ohio State on January 14th before heading to Maryland three days later. Their next game is on the road against a good Minnesota team before coming home to face Indiana at home on Jan. 24. They then travel to Columbus to face Ohio State for the second time in two weeks on Jan. 28. Northwestern's crazy January ends with a rematch against Iowa, a game which ended 102-99 last year. Northwestern also has a big home game against Maryland on Feb. 14 and a potentially difficult trip to Rutgers on Feb. 10.
I think it’s fair to project that Northwestern will at least equal its 12-6 Big Ten record from last season, with the potential to improve if they can pick up an upset win against either Ohio State or Maryland. Northwestern went 0-5 last year against the top three teams in the conference and still notched 12 conference wins, so winning one of the two games against Ohio State or beating the Terrapins would be huge. If Northwestern can notch a few quality wins, go deep in the Big Ten Tournament and finish 25-7, they could theoretically take a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament and earn a home game at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Last year, Iowa was also ranked 19th preseason and received a three-seed last season with a 26-8 record. This year’s Northwestern team has the potential to equal Iowa’s achievements. Once the tournament begins, everything is up in the air, but a Sweet Sixteen run is not out of the question. That would be the furthest a Northwestern Women’s Basketball team has ever progressed in the tournament, and a massive success for the players and Coach McKeown.
"We just want to take what we learned last year and start there," Deary said last Sunday.
Northwestern begins its season Sunday against Howard at 6 p.m. CT. Follow @tristan1815 for live coverage from Welsh-Ryan Arena.