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Northwestern women’s basketball enters a critical season

The pressure is on for the Wildcats.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Maryland v Northwestern Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The “golden generation” of Northwestern women’s basketball will graduate in 2017, and there’s nothing we can do about it. With that reality looming, it’s up to the team to choose between a glorious swan song and a bitterly disappointing defeat.

As a unit, Nia Coffey, Ashley Deary and Christen Inman took a small step backward last year. From making the NCAA Tournament in their sophomore year, the team went 4-14 in conference and barely made the NIT thanks to a crazy run in the Big Ten Tournament. With last year’s huge expectations completely unfulfilled, this team is now entering a critical season. If Coffey, Deary and Inman want to cement their legacies, last year’s team-wide inconsistency cannot continue.

I’m not arguing that any of them are deficient from a statistical or talent perspective. Ashley Deary’s hands, passing and court vision are unreal. Christen Inman, when she’s hitting her shots, is a fantastic two-way player. And Nia Coffey is one of the best players in the Big Ten, period. We know what we’re getting from this trio, and so does head coach Joe McKeown. They will play 90-95 percent of the minutes, and they will usually be really good.

But that wasn’t enough last season. There were games during the regular season in which all three and Maggie Lyon played decently, and yet Northwestern still couldn’t pull out victories against teams that the preseason prognosticators had them winning (at Penn State, both Minnesota games for example).

The team will have to rally as a whole in 2016-17. Northwestern needs to play consistently good team basketball on defense and offense. Outside of Lyon, Inman, Deary and Coffey, the other players on the team really didn’t show up until the Big Ten Tournament. Sure, Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah had some revelatory games and Lydia Rohde occasionally got hot from three, but the team needed that every night, rather than once every 5-6 games.

That’s one of the things that Northwestern will miss with the departure of Maggie Lyon. No matter what happened, you could bank on Lyon scoring at least 15 points and competing on defense. While the team played well with Lyon out in the Big Ten Tournament, it’s hard to expect the trio of Amber Jamison, Jordan Hankins and Allie Tuttle to be quite as good as they were during that three-game stretch.

Reinforcements are hopefully on the way. After a season spent without any imposing size on the court due to the departure of center Alex Cohen, Northwestern has brought in three new candidates to support Kunaiyi-Akpanah and Tuttle, who both played at the five depending on the situation. Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf are both tall and promising players who can fit that role. Oceana Hamilton is a true center at 6-foot-4, but she might not get too much playing time to start the year. If any of these four develop into a reliable contributor every night, that will be key to this team’s success.

The way I see it, there are two outcomes. Either Northwestern women’s basketball plays like it did during the Big Ten Tournament, or it plays like it did against San Diego.

You may recall that Big Ten Tournament run. Northwestern, as a 12-seed, won three straight games after winning just four conference games, before losing in the semifinals to Maryland. Northwestern shot the ball well, Nia Coffey and Christen Inman dominated, and the team looked fine without Maggie Lyon. Northwestern will struggle with the two elite teams: Maryland (who just won their first exhibition game 146-17) and Ohio State. But other than those teams, the third spot in the Big Ten is wide open, and Northwestern has the talent to make it there.

Northwestern could also finish 12th again. They could finish anywhere between 12th and 3rd and I wouldn’t be surprised.

You probably didn’t watch Northwestern play San Diego in the Women’s NIT. For three quarters in Evanston, Northwestern was poor offensively and out-muscled by San Diego’s offense. San Diego, a reasonably good team from the WCC but definitely not as talented as Northwestern, went up by 21 points in the fourth quarter. This is the same San Diego team that would travel to Michigan and lose by 27 later in the WNIT. And while Northwestern made a huge comeback and only lost by four points, the bleakness of that game is what could happen in 2016-17. It’s unlikely, but possible if the team starts to lose belief down the regular season stretch like it did in 2015-16.

As for the long-term health of the program, Northwestern cannot let the “San Diego outcome” happen. Joe McKeown has done a tremendous job in resurrecting this program from the depths of Big Ten Tartarus, and this Class of 2017 is the group that will define his rebuild. Lyon was the vanguard. Coffey, Deary and Inman have a chance to solidify Northwestern women’s basketball as a perennial contender, and not just a team that made a one-off good run by winning a ton of close games.

But those three can’t get this team over the hump by themselves. At least, I don’t think they can. Sure, Nia Coffey could start shooting 40 percent from three, up her points per game to 25 and play better defense. Ashley Deary could overcome her 5-foot-4 stature to become a dominant scorer. Christen Inman could shoot 50 percent from the field despite a massive volume of midrange jumpers.

In my opinion, that’s asking for too much. It’s much easier to envision a small leap from players like Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, Jordan Hankins or Allie Tuttle. It’s much easier to project a freshman like Abi Scheid or Abbie Wolf to play decently. And hey, maybe redshirt senior Lauren Douglas can come back and have something left in the tank after a series of debilitating injuries.

And besides, what about the future? Once Deary, Inman and Coffey leave, who’s going to replace them? Someone has to step up pretty soon, or else Northwestern will be right back to where it started. If Northwestern wants to contend in 2016-17, that needs to happen now.