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How Northwestern can replicate the best season in program history

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Despite losing crucial players this year, the ‘Cats look to 2021 for their next shot at NCAA Tournament glory.

via @nuwbball on Twitter

While Northwestern women’s basketball’s record-setting 2019-20 season was tragically cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, the program will look to replicate its success next year and bounce back from this heartbreaking setback.

A lot can be learned from Northwestern’s road to becoming the 2020 Big Ten champions as the team came away with some crucial wins that put it on the map and earned it a new level of national respect.

That history-making moment when Northwestern cut down the nets at Welsh-Ryan Arena can be traced back to November, when the ‘Cats used their challenging nonconference slate to prepare themselves for especially competitive Big Ten competition. After facing teams like Marquette, Duke and a ranked DePaul squad, NU seemed ready for whatever its conference schedule would bring, having gained momentum through its 11-1 start.

“The non-conference schedule for us was pretty tough,” McKeown said in an interview with BTN. “Those games gave us a lot of confidence.”

The two most important early-season matchups for the ‘Cats were the Marquette win and DePaul loss – both of which showed the team’s ability to compete against high caliber competition. Northwestern defeated Marquette 64-56 in overtime in the second game of the season – a team that is competitive year after year and went on to the Big East Championship only to lose to DePaul. The overtime battle was the first major challenge of the season for the ‘Cats and was a significant confidence builder against a respectable program.

A few weeks later, Northwestern faced off against DePaul, the then-No. 16 team in the country and a consistent national powerhouse. While they ultimately fell by two points, it was the first time this season that the ‘Cats gained national respect and proved they could battle with the best of the best. Despite the ultimate negative outcome on the scoreboard, the DePaul matchup was an overall positive and led NU to have the momentum to win its final five games in the nonconference.

From there, Northwestern hit the first major turning point of conference play – its 81-58 blowout of No. 12 Maryland. The Wildcats defeated the Terps for the first time in program history, officially putting themselves on the map and in the national spotlight.

Despite falling to a then-unranked Iowa team shortly thereafter, Northwestern bounced back to win five straight games, including a 71-69 overtime road win over No. 15 Indiana, the Wildcats’ second major resumé builder in Big Ten play.

While that win streak ended with a tough loss to the Terrapins in College Park, the ‘Cats ended their regular season with nine straight victories. Those wins included two over a strong Michigan team, a hard-fought battle with Nebraska and blowouts of various Big Ten opponents who ranged from tournament teams to bottom-feeders.

The postseason didn’t turn out quite as the ‘Cats hoped for, but they came away with many positives from this season that bode well for the future of the program. Northwestern managed to earn not only the Big Ten Championship, but also achieved an 11th-ranked national finish, saw Joe McKeown become the Big Ten Coach of the Year, had point guard Veronica Burton honored as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and got what would have been the chance to host a regional in the NCAA tournament.

However, this team is currently in an uncertain place. Last year, the ‘Cats lost one of its best post players in program history in Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah but bounced back and then some. But graduating five seniors, two of whom started this year, will not make a repeat of the feat easy.

The posts will have to rebuild again with Abi Scheid, Abbie Wolf, Bryana Hopkins and Amber Jamison all gone. While Scheid’s inside play didn’t dominate her game, her size, scoring ability, leadership and presence on the court will all be greatly missed.

Wolf stepped into a major role this season and dominated the team’s points in the paint and rebounds. Her size was a problem for most opponents and leaves a major gap to be filled.

While they were healthy, Hopkins and Jamison served as important utility players for the posts and were especially missed when Wolf faced foul trouble later in the season.

Next year, Courtney Shaw will step into a major role, and we will likely continue to see the smaller lineup that McKeown consistently ran to great effect down the stretch this year. Ultimately, younger players will have to step up as the inside game will be a likely weak spot for the team as a whole, especially in conference play.

As for the guards, their narrative is quite the opposite. After only losing Byrdy Galernik, they are climbing to their peak and offer a scary combination of talent and continuity.

Lindsey Pulliam’s senior season is the culmination to an outstanding career that we’ve all been waiting for. Jordan Hamilton will continue to lead in her final year in Evanston by stepping into a bigger role again. Veronica Burton and Sydney Wood will be upperclassmen and will continue to lead the defense by grooming younger players. They are prepared to not only match what they accomplished this season but surpass it.

It’s hard to know if the ‘Cats will be able to replicate their amazing accomplishments from 2019-20 after losing such crucial talent inside. While they will return one of the strongest backcourts in the Big Ten, younger players will have to step up to fill the void.

However, Shaw has shown more improvement over the past season than any other player on this roster and will continue to grow as she is groomed to become the starting center. She is already prepared to impress on defense, though her 6’1” frame will lead to some mismatches, but will need to improve the consistency of her offensive game, especially from the free throw line, to become a major threat.

Additionally, the guards will have to compensate given the transition the posts are facing. The much-used smaller lineup with Pulliam, Hamilton, Burton and Wood on the court at the same time and Shaw at center currently appears to be the strongest possible defensive group the ‘Cats have and can result in great success. However, Pulliam and Burton will have to pull the weight offensively if the other defense-first players cannot step up.

Lastly, in order to continue their success, the team will have to accomplish two things on a game-to-game basis: pull out the close wins and use the nonconference as a momentum builder.

Northwestern managed to win every truly tight game with the exception of the DePaul loss this season. On numerous occasions, Burton or (especially) Pulliam hit a game-winning, game-tying, or game-icing shot to help the ‘Cats pull out a last second win, resulting in a difference of about seven wins over the course of the season, give or take one or two depending on how lenient you are with the definition of “game-icing.”

If the Wildcats can build momentum like they did in the nonconference this season, they will set themselves up for continued success. The 11-1 nonconference finish was a game-changer this year, especially given the resumé-builders they racked up throughout. Year after year, Northwestern is challenged with competitive opponents in its early schedule and can use that to its advantage, especially in national rankings and NCAA Tournament seeding.

Despite its losses, Northwestern’s backcourt and defensive prowess could well continue to carry the team through its 2020-2021 schedule, and the persistent group will again fight for what they were robbed of this postseason. If Burton and Pulliam can carry the load and their supporting cast is up to the task, the Wildcats could be on the verge of something special.