Basketball season is right around the corner, and that means it’s time for another year of Northwestern Women’s Basketball. The Wildcats are entering a critically important 2016-17 campaign in which they will look to bounce back from the disaster of last season and return to the NCAA Tournament.
If you aren’t familiar with the women’s basketball team, this article will contain everything you need to know to become a fan of this talented, fun-to-watch group. On the other hand, if you’ve been following this team for a while, this will be a good refresher on where the Wildcats stand heading into this season.
Record: 18-17 (11-1 non-conference, 4-14 Big Ten, 3-2 postseason)
Returning almost all of the core group of players that led Northwestern to qualify for the 2015 NCAA Tournament, the program’s first berth since 1997, the Wildcats entered the 2015-16 season with sky-high expectations. They were tabbed as the No. 12 team in the country in one preseason ranking and were expected by almost all prognosticators to finish near the top of the Big Ten. Everything started as planned, as Northwestern went 11-1 in non-conference play. Then Big Ten play began and it all came crashing down. The Wildcats shockingly won just 4 of their 18 conference games, losing 9 of 10 at one point. The stunning collapse was caused by several factors; Northwestern had little to no depth and struggled on defense and the glass. The team rallied to improbably reach the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament as a 12-seed, but promptly lost in the first round of the WNIT.
Guard Maggie Lyon
Lyon is a big loss for the Wildcats, who already struggled to shoot from long-range. Lyon was a four-year starter in Evanston, averaged over 35 minutes a game in all four seasons and ended her career as Northwestern’s career leader in three-point field goals made. Her 16 points and 6 rebounds per game as a senior will be tough to replace, but even more difficult will be her value as a floor-spacer for the offense.
McKeown is entering his 31st season as a head coach and ninth in Evanston. He began his head coaching career at New Mexico State in 1986, leading the Aggies for three seasons before being hired by George Washington University. During McKeown’s 19 seasons at GWU, his teams made the NCAA Tournament 16 times but never reached the Final Four. In 2008, McKeown moved his family to Chicago to get better care for his son with autism and took over a Northwestern program that had consistently been in the cellar of the Big Ten since the late 1990s. He has since recorded five winning seasons in eight years, including the 23-9 team in 2014-15.
Despite losing Lyon, this year’s roster gives plenty of cause for optimism. Most importantly, Northwestern will be a much deeper team in 2016-17. The Wildcats get redshirt senior Lauren Douglas back after Douglas missed all of last season to injury and also bring in four talented freshmen and a transfer. Northwestern is unquestionably led by its three senior captains, but should get production from a number of other sources this season.
The Big Three
The three members of Northwestern’s 2013 recruiting class, which has a strong argument as the best in program history, are entering their final season together and looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament. These three will each play 35+ minutes per game and will be counted on to lead the Wildcats night in and night out.
Nia Coffey, 6-foot-1 senior forward (20.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg last season)
In Coffey, Northwestern has one of the best players in not only the Big Ten but the entire country. The three-time First Team All-Big Ten member is a dominant force at power forward; Coffey combines elite athleticism with a silky midrange jumper and an incredible ability to rebound and score around the basket.
Ashley Deary, 5-foot-4 senior point guard (12.4 ppg, 6.7 apg, 4.0 spg)
Deary, last season’s Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, is a steal waiting to happen. She set the conference’s all-time single season record with 141 steals last season and led Northwestern in assists. Deary also chips in with some scoring. She has a streaky outside jumpshot and can finish at the rim despite her small stature.
Christen Inman, 5-foot-10 senior guard (14.5 ppg, 76.5 % FT)
Inman, the least-heralded member of the Big Three, is an extremely important player for the Wildcats. She is a talented scorer who generally lives in the midrange but may be counted on to take more shots from beyond the arc with Lyon having graduated. Inman does all of the little things well, plays with a high motor and was the best free throw shooter on the team among players with at least 25 attempts.
Other important returners
Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, 6-foot-2 sophomore forward (7.8 rpg)
Kunaiyi-Akpanah progressed a great deal throughout her freshman season. Coming in as a raw athlete from Nigeria, she barely played early in the season but ended up starting the final 20 games and recording three double-doubles. Kunaiyi-Akpanah is Northwestern’s best rebounder and is especially dangerous on the offensive glass. Will she be able to score and defend better in year 2?
Jordan Hankins, 5-foot-8 sophomore guard (22/23 FTs on season, 9.3 ppg in B1G Tourney)
Hankins was a little-used reserve during the regular season but broke out in a big way during the Big Ten Tournament run. Hankins showed the ability to hit threes and is quick and athletic at the guard position.
Lydia Rohde, 5-foot-10 junior guard
Rohde is another player that didn’t play too much during the regular season but started all five postseason games when Lyon went down with an injury. Rohde, a solid outside shooter who doesn’t do much else, is a candidate to help replace Lyon this season.
Lauren Douglas, 6-foot-2 redshirt senior forward (10.5 career ppg, 130 blocks)
Douglas isn’t really a newcomer. She’s been suiting up for the Wildcats since 2012 and received a medical redshirt after missing all of last season due to injury. Douglas’s return is promising for a couple of reasons. The long, athletic forward averaged double figures in points coming off the bench as a sophomore and junior and her abilities as a shot blocker and outside shooter should prove very useful. Douglas will play this season, but can she return to her pre-injury form?
Abbie Wolf, 6-foot-4 freshman center, Greenwich, CT
Wolf, a top-100 recruit, brings size and skill to the Northwestern frontcourt and will compete with Kunaiyi-Akpanah for minutes at the five.
Abi Scheid, 6-foot-2 freshman forward, Elk River, MN
Scheid is the other member of Northwestern’s incoming duo of top-100 recruits named Abbie/Abi. Scheid spells her name differently than Wolf does, and the two also have differently styled games. Scheid has good size but is more of a stretch four who can shoot from the outside and run the floor.
Byrdy Galernik, 5-foot-8 freshman guard, Toledo, OH
Galernik is an enticing point guard recruit who will compete with Hankins to play behind Deary, although the two could also play together with Hankins at the two.
Oceana Hamilton, 6-foot-4 redshirt junior center
Alabama transfer who will compete for minutes in the frontcourt.
Allie Tuttle, 6-foot-4 senior forward/center
Tuttle played a decent amount last season, especially in the Big Ten Tournament, but the senior may find herself out of the rotation with all of the new talent in the program.
Amber Jamison, 6-foot-0 sophomore guard
Maya Jonas, 6-foot-2 junior forward
Bry Hopkins, 6-foot-2 freshman forward, Palatine, IL
What will the rotation look like?
At this point, there are still plenty of unknowns. The only thing we know for sure is that Coffey, Deary and Inman will start every game and play a lot. Who else will start? Northwestern needs another wing and a center to fill out the lineup.
Who plays with Coffey down low?
First, let’s look at the five position. Hamilton started at center in the exhibition game, but played just 10 minutes. In my mind, the two real candidates for this job are Kunaiyi-Akpanah and Wolf. Kunaiyi-Akpanah is the incumbent starter and brings more athleticism and rebounding than Wolf, but the freshman already likely has a more polished offensive game in the low post. I think Kunaiyi-Akpanah will open the season as the starter but Wolf could overtake her as the year goes on.
Where is NU going to find three-point shooting?
Northwestern finished dead last in the Big Ten in three-point percentage (30.6%) a season ago and no longer has the services of its best shooter, Maggie Lyon. That’s one of the biggest causes for concern surrounding this team. Coffey, Deary and Inman can all hit threes, but all three shot below 29 percent from deep in conference play. It would be very beneficial to Northwestern if any of that trio could improve their efficiency this year, but the Wildcats will also need to find shooting from other sources. Hankins and Rohde are streaky shooters, one of whom could start alongside Deary and Inman as a floor-spacing option. Douglas figures to come off the bench but could help in this area if she can find her sophomore stroke (40% from deep in 2013-14, 28% each of her other two seasons). Will Scheid be a shooter at the college level? There are a lot of unknowns here.
Who gets left out of the rotation?
Last season, McKeown generally played a 7 or 8-woman rotation. That number figures to expand this year due to Lyon’s absence and Northwestern’s much-improved depth, but some players will still find themselves without regular minutes. My projection is this: Rohde and Kunaiyi-Akpanah start alongside the Big Three, Douglas is the first player off the bench, and the rotation is filled out by Hankins, Wolf and Scheid.
Northwestern’s season opens on Friday, Nov. 11 against Hampton. The Wildcats shouldn’t be tested until their fourth game of the season, when they head south to take on No. 21 DePaul. The Blue Demons handed Northwestern its first loss of last season and went on to reach the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. Following that game, No. 20 Florida visits Welsh-Ryan Arena. Those consecutive games against NCAA Tournament teams should tell us a lot about this team right away. The remainder of the non-conference schedule features four games against fellow WNIT teams (Virginia, @Milwaukee, @Santa Clara and @Gonzaga) mixed in with plenty of cupcakes. The Wildcats open Big Ten play at Nebraska on Dec. 28. After playing 18 conference games the last two seasons, the Big Ten is going back to a 16-game conference schedule this season, meaning Northwestern only plays three teams twice. Those three are Indiana, Rutgers and Purdue, all of whom beat Northwestern last season. The Wildcats have to play the conference’s two elite teams, No. 6 Maryland and No. 7 Ohio State, just once each.
What to expect from this team
Northwestern is going to improve this season. There’s too much talent on this roster to go 4-14 in conference play again. The question is this: just how much better will the Wildcats be? The answer is significantly, in my opinion. The team’s depth has been vastly upgraded and Northwestern should be much better at rebounding and defense. I’m also optimistic that there will be enough outside shooting for McKeown’s fast-paced, spacing-based offense to run smoothly again. It should be an exciting season in Evanston.