Much like we did for the men’s team yesterday, it’s time for our staff to make one bold prediction for the 2021-22 Northwestern women’s basketball season. The Wildcats tip off their year tonight at 7 p.m. CT against UIC at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Feel free to make any of your own bold predictions in the comments down below.
Daniel Olinger: Veronica Burton gets selected as a Second Team All-American at the very least
I know all the potential pitfalls of this prediction. College basketball is loaded with more offensively talented players than the senior point guard, and raw points per game often correlates more to accolades than picture perfect defense. Additionally, these esteemed designations are usually handed out to the leaders of CBB’s top teams, and while NU should once again be good, they probably won’t be elite as they were two seasons ago. But I’ve gone too far down this rabbit hole to not go all the way in. Burton is absolutely menacing on defense, both at the point of attack and off the ball, while using her superior handle and craft to keep the ‘Cats offense above water on the other end. She’s improved every single year she’s been in Evanston, and I doubt that pattern stops in 2021-22.
Mac Stone: The ‘Cats reach the Sweet 16
We already know that the ‘Cats are an absolute nightmare for teams to face defensively. What they struggled with last season, though, was their lack of offense. With Lindsay Pulliam gone, that becomes an even larger focal point. For one, expect Veronica Burton to step up offensively and become Northwestern’s leading scorer. On top of that, the offensive maturity of both Anna Morris and Paige Mott should greatly benefit the Wildcats’ scoring output. Add onto that a healthy Courtney Shaw and all of a sudden Northwestern looks like a very competent offensive team. There’s no reason to think they won’t be a top four team in the Big Ten, and if they exceed expectations, they could easily be a top 16 team in the country and make a little run in the postseason.
Ben Chasen: Veronica Burton wins Big Ten Player of the Year
Perhaps this isn’t the boldest prediction, but it is one that I genuinely do believe will come true. There is no shortage of elite players in the B1G, and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, in particular, gave me pause. But think about it: no one will have a better chance to show off her skills on her team than Burton. Going back to the two studs I just named: Hillmon will have to share the floor with Leigha Brown, while Clark’s teammate Monika Czinano will warrant her fair share of the spotlight, too. This isn’t a shot at the rest of the Northwestern roster, but Burton is the clear leader in talent on this squad, and I think she’ll show out in such a way night in and night out that she’ll be widely considered the conference’s best player by the season’s end.
Jacob Brown: Anna Morris’ Performance Will Make or Break Northwestern
It’s hard to derive any significant conclusions from an exhibition, especially one where Northwestern looked sloppy at best. One thing that was clear, though, is that Parkside did their homework and came out attacking the elbows, the weak spot in the Blizzard. In doing so, it became clear fairly early on that first year Caileigh Walsh, who started for the Cats, doesn’t yet have the mobility or understanding of the Blizzard to fill cover the corners (yet). This caused the ‘Cats to struggle to rotate, and Northwestern ultimately played lots of the game with Paige Mott accompanying Shaw and playing man-to-man instead of the Blizzard. Teams like Iowa, Michigan and Maryland have the talent to drain open threes and the coaches to gameplan against Man and the Blizzard. NU is going to need a post player who has the mobility to cover the corners and size up bigs like Naz Hilmon and Mackenzie Holmes in the post. Anna Morris showed flashes of this ability last year, and if NU wants to be able to limit opposing bigs, she will play a large role in doing so. Offensively, Northwestern needs shooters. Morris struggled shooting the three last year (hitting only 7.7% of her shots from beyond the arc) but with a full offseason to gel with her teammates and work on her shot with the coaching staff, it is reasonable to assume that she’ll be able to find the touch that she had from deep in high school.
Didi Jin: Northwestern’s offensive output will improve
While the departure of Lindsey Pulliam is a big blow to Joe McKeown’s squad heading into this season, I see it as a potential blessing in disguise. Pulliam’s ability to score was unrivaled, but it also meant that the offense could be solely reliant on her, leading to team dry spells when she wasn’t shooting well. Without her, the door is now open for players to have more autonomy in the operation of the offense. Now, I don’t expect anyone outside of Veronica Burton to average upwards of 15 points per game (which is what Pulliam did all four years at NU). However, led by veterans in Burton, Sydney Wood and Courtney Shaw, there should be ample opportunity for younger players to shoot the ball often, particularly the freshmen that ESPN called McKeown's “deepest class ever.”
Michael Barthelemy: Jillian Brown will emerge as a reliable scoring option
Based upon the need for an established second guard to score, I’m not sure if this is the most bold take, but I do really believe in Brown. She was a prolific scorer in high school and will have plenty of opportunities to take shots this season. Without a clear second option behind Veronica Burton, there will plenty of open looks for young players like Brown, Anna Morris and Caileigh Walsh. Northwestern was at its best when both Burton and Lindsay Pulliam were hitting shots over the past two seasons, and I think Brown has the potential to show flashes of Pulliam-type scoring ability.
Bradley Locker: Courtney Shaw becomes the yin to Veronica Burton’s yang
For the past three seasons, Veronica Burton and Lindsey Pulliam established themselves as an elite scoring duo, culminating in nearly 32 combined points per game last season. There are numerous candidates to help offset the loss of Pulliam, but one name to look out for is Courtney Shaw. In Northwestern’s exhibition against Parkside, Shaw got a starting nod and put up just eight points; however, in NU’s 2021 NCAA Tournament Run, the forward tallied 22 points in two games. Shaw has just nine career starts, but assuming her minutes continue to amplify this year, she can certainly take the reigns as Joe McKeown’s No. 2 scoring option.
Sarah Effress: Jess Sancataldo earns her spot back in McKeown’s rotation
A native Australian, Sancataldo did not return to Evanston for the Wildcats’ 2020-21 campaign due to COVID-19 restrictions limiting her ability to move between Sydney and the Lake Michigan coast. However, the senior is back and fresh off a year of coaching at home and working to improve her game on her own. Though knee surgeries limited her playing time sophomore year, Sancataldo’s freshman campaign showed promise — the 6-foot tall guard appeared in 19 games, managing a 44% field goal rate and a team leading 41% from beyond the arc. Her in-game experience has been limited during her time overseas, but hopefully the offseason work Sancataldo has put in will speak for itself as she returns to Welsh-Ryan Arena.