On Wednesday, the Northwestern Wildcats started their 2021-2022 season, 231 days after losing to Louisville in the NCAA Tournament last year. It was also their first game in front of fans at Welsh-Ryan Arena since February 29th, 2020, when the ‘Cats clinched a share of the Big Ten title, prompting fans to storm the court.
This one wasn’t necessarily very close, with the ‘Cats besting UIC, 72-49. Nonetheless, with the team playing its first game since a few key players departed following NU’s March exit, fans learned a lot about what things might look like this year. Here are three of the biggest takeaways:
Northwestern looks to be starting two true first-years
With Lindsey Pulliam and Jordan Hamilton now gone, Joe McKeown had two starting spots to fill. Senior Veronica Burton, Sydney Wood, and Courtney Shaw started and filled their expected roles, but it was unclear coming into Wednesday who would accompany them. With Lauryn Satterwhite returning for a fifth year, Jess Sancataldo joining the team again, and various others — such as Laya Hartman, Kaylah Rainey, Anna Morris and Paige Mott — returning, there was plenty of returning talent that McKeown could’ve turned to.
Instead, he chose to start forward Caileigh Walsh and guard Jillian Brown, two true first-years. Brown and Walsh were each top 100 recruits in the 2021 class, with Walsh being rated No. 56 by ESPN and Brown No. 50. Part of his decision may have resided in the fact that neither second-year Anna Morris nor highly touted first-year Hailey Weaver dressed for the contest, but nonetheless, Walsh and Brown got the call over several more tenured names.
Both of the first-years attacked early, with Walsh scoring NU’s first points of the season on a lay-in near the basket. Brown launched it from deep, taking any inch of space defenders gave her beyond the arc as an invitation to pull. She converted on one of her five attempts, and those that didn’t go were all close. Walsh wasn’t shy herself, going 0-for-3 from beyond the arc.
Defensively, Walsh roamed the paint, rejecting four shots and grabbing four defensive boards in 25 minutes of action. Brown applied heavy pressure on the wings, living in passing lanes and collecting two steals in 16 minutes.
With that said, they both had their share of rookie mistakes. Walsh struggled to stay with her defensive assignments, getting lost in the blizzard at times. Brown appears to still have a score first, think later mentality, likely a result of her being her team’s dominant scorer in high school. It will take time for each to learn their roles on both ends of the floor, but they both demonstrated that their futures are very, very bright.
The ‘Cats are going to play a lot of man-to-man defense this year
After years of suffocating opponents with the patented blizzard defense to a point where opposing coaches mentioned it to Jillian Brown while recruiting her, Northwestern opened the game guarding the Flames man-to-man. They quickly reverted to the blizzard, but for the first two or so minutes, the Wildcats lined up in man.
There are a few potential explanations for NU. One is that the blizzard is a complicated system, and with five new players — two of whom are starting — it’s going to take time for the whole roster to fully learn and adjust to the system.
Another reason could be that Northwestern will play against Iowa, Maryland, Michigan and Indiana this year, all of whom present problems for the blizzard. For one, their offenses are based around stretching teams with shooters and punishing opponents in the paint. The blizzard is susceptible to threes from the elbows and corners, and that’s how B1G opponents have exploited Northwestern in the past. In fact, the few good looks that the Flames got were almost all from the corners. A switch to man may be an adjustment from Joe McKeown to counter opposing offenses, forcing them to change their game plan against the ‘Cats.
A final, more grim explanation is that Northwestern’s bigs might not possess the mobility to play the blizzard. In the matchup zone, post players are often drawn to the corners as matchups shift. Neither Paige Mott nor Walsh are incredibly mobile, and any struggle to rotate in time could allow opponents to find wide-open looks in the zone. Northwestern simply can’t run the blizzard if its talent isn’t agile enough to handle it, and it seems that that might be the case until Anna Morris returns.
Nonetheless, on their first four possessions of the game, the Flames missed two free throws, then traveled twice and charged into Burton, all against man, so it seems that Northwestern was successful with its significant — albeit brief — change.
There may be some growing pains this year
Though Northwestern won, there were clear areas in which the ‘Cats need to improve. The offense looked really, really sloppy at several points in the contest. The Wildcats turned the ball over 14 times, the bigs struggled to convert near the rim and the defense frequently missed rotations.
With that said, this is to be expected, as it is not only early in the season, but much of this roster still needs time to gel. Northwestern didn’t just lose two of its most prominent offensive options in Lindsey Pulliam and Jordan Hamilton, but LP and JHam were also strong leaders for this team. They set the culture, and it’s going to take time for players like Veronica Burton and Sydney Wood to reset the tone.
Furthermore, Northwestern still has to adapt to adding five first-years, as well as re-integrating Hartman and Shaw, who each missed significant periods of time last season. Then there’s Sancataldo, who missed all of last year while in Australia due to the pandemic.
This is a young team, and there are going to be significant bumps in the road this season. As Northwestern integrates the first-years into the complexity of the blizzard, learns how to run the offense without Pulliam and grows under the adapted play and leadership of Burton, Wood and Shaw, the team should slowly improve.
It is going to take time, and it may be particularly ugly at some moments, but this team is primed to progressively get better and better as the young talent gains confidence, particularly once Anna Morris gets healthy. December and early January may very well be rough, but if Northwestern’s pieces can start to fit together for the final 10 or so games of the season, this group could be a serious tournament team.