For the 2020 Big Ten Champions, this season is all about erasing the question of last season’s “what could have been” with “what could be in store.”
The Wildcats are coming off of a record-breaking year during which the team went 26-4, set a school record for wins in a regular season and clinched the program’s first conference title in 30 years.
All the momentum was in Northwestern’s court, as the team prepped to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. NU’s entire starting lineup earned some sort of all-conference honors, and beyond the starting five, the bench ran deep with multiple players contributing to countless wins from their jump shots, rebounding and the never-ending hustle they brought when stepping onto the court.
Just as the Wildcats were set to reveal themselves to America as one of the country’s best-kept secrets, COVID-19 canceled the NCAA Tournament and forced an abrupt, premature ending to a season Northwestern was not yet ready to say goodbye to. Seniors went from the excitement of their last post-season run to turning in their purple uniforms and cleaning out their lockers at Welsh-Ryan Arena, having played their final games without knowing it at the time.
But after almost nine months of waiting and wondering how high the ceiling can be for the Northwestern, the time has finally come for its title-defending year.
The Wildcats will host their season opener on Thursday against Eastern Illinois with all eyes on them as they have already garnered national respect in the preseason. In the latest AP and Coaches Polls, NU ranked 17th in the nation in both and is prepared to remain in the national spotlight as it competes with skilled Big Ten opponents like No. 14 Maryland and No. 15 Indiana.
However, the team has some challenges of its own to overcome this season after graduating starting posts Abbie Wolf and Abi Scheid. Their departure leave’s Joe McKeown’s frontcourt without much experience, so the Wildcats will have to rely more heavily on some less familiar faces.
Courtney Shaw will undoubtedly step into a much larger role this year as the only true post in the starting lineup. Her athleticism and defensive prowess often jumpstarted the team off the bench last season and will continue to make an impact as she joins the starters.
Alongside Shaw, a veteran guard unit returns to likely comprise the remainder of the starting five with AP All-American honorable mention and All-Big Ten first-team guard Lindsey Pulliam returning for her final season in Evanston. 2020 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Veronica Burton, as well as Sydney Wood and Jordan Hamilton, will take the court once again, as one of the best backcourts in the nation hopes to lead this team to another conference title.
Despite the talent that returns, the team welcomes a few new faces and will also look to some of last year’s bench players to assume larger roles. Freshmen Anna Morris, Paige Mott and Jasmine McWilliams will all play their first collegiate game on Thursday night while other young players like sophomore Laya Hartman will see their minutes likely shoot up early this season.
With a forgiving schedule and such talent on the roster, Northwestern is in store for another year of success, but if it hopes to replicate its 2019-2020 campaign, the team will have to persevere against a competitive conference slate with five teams in the top 20.
But if NU can come away with big wins in conference play and take care of business early on in the nonconference, the Wildcats will finally get that NCAA Tournament run they’ve been longing for.