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Northwestern women’s basketball preview, Part 2: Bigs

After the departure of their star center, every Wildcat post player’s role will increase and intensify.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 08 Women’s - Northwestern at Michigan

NU women’s basketball lost its most important player in the post when Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah played her final minutes in Evanston last year. As the team’s second-leading scorer last season and one of the greatest rebounders in program history, Akpanah’s presence was always felt on the court and will be greatly missed after her graduation.

Her athleticism and stamina were unmatched, so now, a rather unexperienced group of bigs will have to step up to fill the gap. With no complete newcomers in the position group (besides maybe a few minutes from first year Laya Hartman, who is officially listed as a guard), here’s what we can expect from each returning player.

Starters

Abi Scheid

Scheid is the only returning starter in the group. She was the starting power forward last season, the third-leading scorer and the leading three-point shooter among all Wildcats. Her versatile game challenges defenses with her simultaneous inside presence and sharp-shooting ability. Scheid had 47 threes on the year, yet was still the second leading rebounder on the team.

As a senior, Scheid will take on a larger leadership role to take charge of a group of inexperienced posts through the transition, and will potentially even see some minutes as a small-ball five in offense/shooting-heavy lineups. To truly bang with Big Ten centers, though, she’ll have to improve her defense.

Abbie Wolf

Wolf will be the main replacement for Akpanah at center. While she was regularly seen in the rotation last year, averaging 14 minutes a game, she will step into a much larger role this season, and the team will rely on her size inside. Wolf outmatches Akpanah in height, but her athletic ability and stamina do not compare, and could even be somewhat of a liability.

A big emphasis for the senior in the offseason was free-throw shooting and shooting as a whole. She shot under 50 percent from the line last year despite consistently performing well during practice. This translation from practice to the game is a focal point for Wolf as she steps into this larger role.

“The mentality starting on the floor and tipping it and staying present every play is much different than coming into a game,” she said. “I think the game mentality is different, but the practice and preparation is the same. One through 15 we’re all working to try to be the best players.”

Without a doubt, we will see a lot more of Wolf this season as she gains confidence in her starting role.

“She’s played big games and big minutes for us,” coach Joe McKeown said. “Now it’s about putting it altogether. She’s the one player we have who can defend in the Big Ten inside the paint and block shots and is really skilled offensively. We expect a lot from her.”

Off the Bench

Amber Jamison

After just one scrimmage, we can already tell Jamison will take on a larger role this season. Last season, she was a minor contributor in her return to the team after taking a season off for personal reasons, averaging just eight minutes per game and finishing the season with just 36 total points.

In her senior season, she will likely be utilized off the bench as a small ball 4 with an outside game. We saw a glimpse of this on Wednesday night. In her 12 minutes of play, Jamison shot 3-for-3 from the field for six points, four of which came from mid-range jumpers. The ability to shoot outside is an emphasis for the Northwestern posts this year, and Jamison fits that goal nicely.

Bryana Hopkins

Hopkins was another occasional contributor last season. While she averaged 14 minutes a game, that is largely attributed to a mid-season stretch where she started about eight or nine games due to an injury to Scheid. When she was needed, she stepped up big, and she will likely be used in that same utility role this year.

Courtney Shaw

After a year of learning from more experienced players, Shaw is prepared to step into her role as a more active contributor. The sophomore only averaged two minutes of play per game last season, but on multiple occasions, McKeown has said that Shaw is the most improved player on his roster.

“I’ve been waiting and itching since last year for the opportunity to show coaches and the team what I can bring,” Shaw said. “They’ve seen that a lot through this offseason, and I’m ready to step into my role and play into my game. I think the biggest thing is my mentality. I always thought I had the physical ability to play on this level, but more so now, I learned from Pallas and the older players on my team.

She will certainly demonstrate efforts in the offseason throughout the year in her increased role as both a relatively undersized backup center and, potentially, a power forward in a bigger lineup.

Season Outlook

All in all, the post position is going to look very different this year for the ‘Cats. Without Akpanah, Northwestern will have to rely on a lot of players who have minimal game experience. While the big picture changes will certainly be noticeable, the position group has actively worked on a few smaller intangibles to help the team as a whole.

One major area of emphasis is mid-range shooting. “Pursuing those looks and shooting those short corner and high-post jumpers will really extend the defense, so that they can’t sink in and also helping drivers,” Wolf said. This will be especially useful for creating lanes for the guards and having players like Scheid and Jamison who can shoot outside will be a great advantage.

Additionally, with the guards working on improving their outside shooting as well, the bigs are preparing to step up when the shots don’t go down from beyond the arc.

“The guard position is a little more variable,” Wolf said. “Three pointers don’t fall sometimes, but I always know I cancome in and make a hook shot or get a rebound –– the intangibles are pretty easy as a post to do, so especially when the team is down and the guards needed something, I just try extra hard to get a big steal or an easy bucket.”

Ultimately, this season is about hustle and fight for this group of bigs. Losing the athleticism represented by Akpanah will have to be made up for by effort from the younger players. As Shaw said, “It’s all about hustle, heart and wanting the ball. Obviously, I’m undersized for my position, but that’s never stopped me.”