For the second consecutive Sunday, Northwestern pulled its starters midway through the fourth quarter, this time on the road at Michigan State. But unfortunately for the Wildcats, rather than closing out a decisive victory, they were closing out an ignominious defeat. Amazingly, within the span of a week, the fortunes of Northwestern women’s basketball have gone south. Northwestern dropped out of the AP Poll but received enough votes to unofficially land in 26th. More troublingly, Northwestern has also fallen to 82nd in the NCAA’s RPI rankings. After a resounding 74-51 defeat on the road at No. 18 Michigan State and a disappointing home loss to Purdue, it’s now fair to start asking difficult question: Is Northwestern still an NCAA Tournament-caliber team?
Let’s look at Northwestern’s resumé thus far. Due to an incredibly easy nonconference schedule, Northwestern basically has zero impressive wins this season. Other than a road victory at North Carolina, at best the sixth-best team in the ACC, Northwestern’s nonconference wins all came against bottom-tier women’s basketball programs. Considering the lack of parity in women’s basketball, these victories are worth even less than, for example, the men’s team's weak nonconference slate. The selection committee will be more concerned with Northwestern’s only game against a decent nonconference opponent, a home loss to DePaul. But the DePaul loss is looking even worse for Northwestern as time goes on, as the Blue Demons have lost to Loyola Chicago and Villanova since beating Northwestern.
In Big Ten play, Northwestern has gotten off to a slow start, and its loss at a middling Penn State team also looks bad. Northwestern could regret that loss down the stretch, as the team led in the fourth quarter but fell apart after Maggie Lyon fouled out. Although Northwestern had a convincing victory against Nebraska, the Cornhuskers are not expected to make the tournament and have started 1-3 in Big Ten play.
This week, Northwestern has two games against the best teams in the conference, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 8 Maryland. Northwestern could easily be 12-6 with just 12 games to play, including return dates with Ohio State and Maryland. Northwestern would have to go 10-0 in all of its non-Ohio State and Maryland games to be safely in the tournament. Considering how the team has played thus far, that will require a number of on-the-fly adjustments for head coach Joe McKeown and his players.
In its last two games, Northwestern’s issues have come on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the team has gone completely cold from three-point range, shooting an abysmal 13.9 percent from three over the previous two games. With the team lacking interior scoring options, Maggie Lyon and Christen Inman have played a ton of minutes and taken a ton of shots. While Inman has been solid shooting the ball from midrange, she’s not a good three-point shooter. Meanwhile, Lyon has started Big Ten play shooting a below-average (for her) 32 percent from the field. Ashley Deary’s double-digit scoring run early in the season has slowed down, and her assist to turnover ratio has been 1:3 in Northwestern’s last two games.
Ultimately, Northwestern’s offensive problems will have to be solved through hitting more shots. As Ben Goren pointed out in his excellent film study on WNUR sports, Northwestern’s small-ball offense can still be effective. The path for Northwestern's offense remains clear. Northwestern has to hit more shots to stay in games and preventing turnovers, something it was doing just fine in non-conference play and against Penn State and Nebraska. Once the offense gets going in transition and starts to fire on all cylinders, Northwestern’s four dangerous starters can all score in large amounts.
However, Northwestern’s defensive problems are more worrying. Here is an example of Northwestern collapsing in the zone against Purdue:
(All highlights courtesy of Big Ten Network)
Northwestern makes three separate mistakes here that really good teams such as Ohio State and Maryland and good teams like Rutgers will waste no time picking apart. Purdue finds a hole in the zone defense off the dribble and has a wide-open midrange shot. Although that misses, Purdue picks up the offensive rebound and kicks it back out again. Then, Nia Coffey falls asleep on defense and lets her opponent score an easy layup. Coffey may be a bit tired from doing yeoman’s work on offense, but she has repeatedly allowed opponents to score easy baskets. While she may not be able to out-muscle opposing forwards, she can’t keep missing assignments.
Inside, Maya Jonas gets confused in the zone and completely loses the shooter, allowing a wide-open look. The players that have rotated as Northwestern’s fifth starter have all generally been poor defensively. Lydia Rohde gets confused on screens and isn’t quick enough off the dribble. Christen Johnson doesn’t offer a much of a presence inside. Maya Jonas sometimes does a good job, but occasionally she gets lost as well, as exemplified on this play.
Looking at tomorrow’s vital game against Ohio State, OSU’s Kelsey Mitchell and Ameryst Alston are two of the best players in the country. If NU lets them have wide-open midrange jumpers and second-chance opportunities, Northwestern will fall behind quickly. Earlier this season, Mitchell scored 42 points against a good Texas A&M team on the road. Northwestern can’t let anything close to that happen if it wants to win. Northwestern’s defense has to tighten up, whether it is playing zone or man-to-man.
Against Michigan State, Northwestern once again struggled on the boards, which does not bode well for its opposition. The rebounding has been a problem all year for Northwestern, and other than Coffey and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, Northwestern has no above-average rebounders. On Sunday, and in the future, Northwestern will face players like Brionna Jonas of Maryland.
Here’s a highlight of Brionna Jones on the glass against Nebraska (even though she doesn’t score):
That’s going to happen often against Northwestern as bigger teams crush NU’s smaller lineup on the defensive glass.
Northwestern still has enough talent in its starting lineup to possibly pull an upset against a top-tier Big Ten team and close out its Big Ten schedule with a strong run. The committee usually weighs the end of the season more than the beginning, and Northwestern really does have the potential to start 1-5 and Big Ten and then go 10-2 the rest of the way. Other than the four games against Ohio State and Maryland, Northwestern does not play a currently ranked team. Its most difficult game will be at Rutgers on Feb. 10, but that could also be an opportunity for Northwestern to get the quality win it desperately needs.
While Northwestern’s remaining Big Ten games may not look that good in terms of strength of schedule, winning 11 games in the Big Ten and attaining a 23-6 record should still be enough for Northwestern to get an at-large bid. Inman, Deary, Coffey and Lyon can still hang with any team in the Big Ten when they hit their potential. Last year, Northwestern won eight straight games after starting 4-5 in Big Ten play last season. Other than the Penn State game, Northwestern has been able to take care of business against lesser teams, which wasn’t the case at times last season.
But last year’s team had Laruen Douglas and Alex Cohen. This team has little depth and a huge hole at the five. Despite Northwestern’s slow start last year, by this point, it already had some resumé-building road victories against ranked teams (DePaul and Michigan State). It would really help if Northwestern could knock off Ohio State or Maryland, but that is a very tall order considering how those squads have been playing.
Northwestern will have to improve on both sides of the ball in the weeks to come if it wants to remain in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid. Any chances at a high seed have probably disappeared, but the road back to safety starts Thursday in Evanston, as Northwestern hosts No. 5 Ohio State at 7 p.m.