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Northwestern women’s basketball 2018-19 season preview

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With last season amounting to a rebuild, Northwestern returns its key contributors while adding some big pieces, hoping to make a splash in what looks like a down Big Ten.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Iowa vs Northwestern Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

As many, including our own Tristan Jung, predicted, last year did not got too well for the Northwestern women’s basketball team. The Wildcats finished 12-20, with a dismal 4-12 conference mark. But most of the rotation players from last year are back — just two contributors from last year’s squad, backup center Oceana Hamilton and injury-prone three point specialist Lydia Rohde, graduated.

The team adds not only a solid recruiting class headlined by top-100 guard Sydney Wood, but returning guard-forward Amber Jamison, who took last year off for personal reasons. As most of the Big Ten seems set for a transitional year, Northwestern may have a chance to surge up the standings.

Shockingly, only one player on this still-young Northwestern team exhausts her eligibility this year. Unfortunately, Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah is probably the best, or at least the most important, player on this team right now. Though the program will have the chance to give arguably the best rebounder in their history the send-off she deserves, it will hurt not to have Kunaiyi-Akpanah as this team completes its rebuild.

How will the starting lineup shake out?

Besides Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who has a forward spot locked down, the lineup should be the same as last year except for one notable change. Abi Scheid, the streaky-shooting stretch four/five who shot just 35 percent from beyond the arc last year, after hitting on 42 percent of her triples during her freshman campaign, will reprise her role in the front court alongside Kunaiyi-Akpanah. And, at least to start the season, expect to see true sophomore duo Jordan Hamilton (who looked raw last season with 4 turnovers per game but also shot 37 percent from beyond the arc and averaged 4.6 assists per contest) and Lindsey Pulliam at the guard spots. But the small forward/third guard role is a bit more up in the air.

Amber Jamison averaged just 18 minutes per game in her sophomore season two years ago alongside Nia Coffey and Co., but she shot a whopping 42 percent from beyond the arc, and could provide much-needed touch to a team that struggled mightily from three-point land last year. Jamison also showed flashes of plus defending and playmaking ability, but will be somewhat of a question mark after her long hiatus. Bryana Hopkins started instead for much of last season, but she’s looked to be considerably less of an offensive threat, averaging just five points per game last season.

Meet the newcomers!

Northwestern has four incoming freshmen, but will also be adding redshirt freshman Lauryn Satterwhite to the fold for the first time. Satterwhite, whose brother, Cameron, made the Final Four with Loyola last year, was sort of the forgotten guard in her class after a knee injury forced her to miss last season. But she’s fully healthy now, and the Arizona product should compete for playing time in a loaded group of young guards.

Sydney Wood, Jess Sancataldo, and Veronica Burton will each join that group this season, but each first year’s journey to Northwestern has come via a different path. Wood, seemingly the crown jewel of this class, played on the No. 2 ranked high school team in the country. Profiling as an off-guard, the DC-area native profiles as an explosive, attacking player with a midrange game, who could use her athleticism at 5-foot-11 to see the court in smaller three-guard sets. Expect her to compete for playing time early and often.

Sancataldo, meanwhile, is a different story entirely. The 6-foot Australian southpaw has a background in Olympic handball, with multiple national team appearances in each of the two sports. Though she dominated weaker competition overseas, showcasing a soft shooting touch while putting up ridiculous numbers, it may take the transplant some time to work her way into the rotation.

Burton is the smallest of the bunch at 5-foot-9. Though she didn’t garner as much national recognition as Wood, the Newton, Mass. native tore up New England, averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals per game her senior year en route to being named the Boston Globe player of the year. Her father, Steve, saw some action as a backup quarterback for Northwestern in the early ‘80s. Hopefully Veronica has a little bit more success in her time in Evanston.

The only listed freshman forward, Courtney Shaw, played AAU ball with Wood. Though she didn’t make ESPN’s top 100, Shaw is listed as a top 25 forward in the country for her class. The Maryland product and bioengineering major will probably see some action as a backup in a thin forward rotation.

With three out of the four first years listed at guard, Northwestern now has nine rostered back court members compared to just five front court players, which suggests smaller lineups and significant competition for playing time, but also the potential for bigger guards like Jamison, Wood, and Sancataldo to play more of a tweener role.

Key players

Last year’s stars, Kunaiyi-Akpanah and an ascendant Lindsey Pulliam, will be relied upon to pull much of the load again once more. In addition to the former’s aforementioned rebounding prowess, her offensive game took a step forward last season, as she averaged 11.3 points to go along with 11.9 rebounds (and 2.7 blocks!!!) per game. If things break right, maybe she’ll even throw up a couple more 20-20 games.

Pulliam, meanwhile, came out of nowhere last year. Northwestern’s only All Big-Ten team selection besides Kunaiyi-Akpanah averaged 15 points per game last year, which was highest in the Big Ten among first years. Pulliam lacked any semblance of a three point shot, going just 9-of-39 from beyond the arc, but she bore the brunt of the scoring load thanks to explosive drives and an array of crafty midrange looks. The true sophomore got to the line 4.3 times per game, shooting 82 percent from the charity stripe. Pulliam, ever-improving, should have even more room to create with better shooting around her, and that’s scary for a player who has already proven herself to be one of the best pure scorers in the Big Ten.

Expectations

This Northwestern team certainly has more questions than answers surrounding it, as youth is still a dominant factor for this underclassman-laden team. But with most of the schools that finished last season above the Wildcats in conference play losing significant contributors, most notably Ohio State (who saw do-everything guard Kelsey Mitchell head to the WNBA) and Indiana (with Tyra Buss making her way overseas after a phenomenal career), there’s no reason this Northwestern team can’t make some headway.

With talent galore, and a deep, if young, roster, the Wildcats will look to bounce back to the postseason after getting shut out of it last year. It’s up to Joe McKeown, who has had disappointing seasons recently, and his staff to coax as much as possible from this group.

The Wildcats begin play with an exhibition at 2 p.m. Sunday against Lewis, before kicking things off with a bang: a road trip Tuesday against a top-20 team last season in Green Bay, and their first official home game of the year on Sunday against No. 21 Duke.