The first nine games of the Northwestern women’s basketball (6-3, 1-0 B1G) season have been up and down. After winning three straight, the ‘Cats faltered against DePaul, then came out of the Paradise Jam 1-2 with losses to Pitt and Texas A&M.
However, as members of Joe McKeown’s top 10 recruiting class have begun to acclimate to Division I play, Northwestern has started to reap some serious benefits, coming mainly in the form of an impressive win at Clemson and a conference victory against Wisconsin. If you haven’t been keeping up, here’s what you’ve missed from three standout first-years so far:
A force in the paint and beyond the arc, Caileigh Walsh has started all of her first nine games as a Wildcat. Walsh opened the 2021-22 season on a slower note, with only two points to show for seven attempts in the season-opening matchup against University of Illinois-Chicago. However, she quickly picked it up with double-digit performances in two of her next four appearances, including a career-high 20 points against South Dakota in the Virgin Islands. Throughout the year, Walsh has built up a steady average of 9.2 points per game with about one-third of her successful 34 scoring attempts coming from beyond the arc.
Notably, the first-year is leading the Big Ten in blocks with 20 on the season — five more than Nebraska’s Jaz Shelley, who currently sits in second. At 6-foot-3, Walsh has adapted to the Blizzard defense in a way that utilizes her strengths as a big in the paint. Though she isn’t as quick on her feet as most of her teammates, she brings a formidable ability to anticipate opponent shot attempts that she has managed to use to her advantage. However, her inexperience has lead to a team-high 34 personal fouls so far (about 3.8 per game). As Walsh gets better at controlling herself and avoiding whistles, she will continue to grow as an obstacle between opponents and the basket.
Alongside Walsh in McKeown’s starting rotation for the first nine games of the season has been Jillian Brown, who has shown that she can do a little bit of everything. Brown has been averaging just under 37 minutes a game in her last six games, more than everyone else on the roster besides Courtney Shaw and Veronica Burton. The Michigan native plays with the poise and maturity of a veteran and she has quickly picked up the Blizzard — she tracks opposing scorers very well, keeping them no further than an arms length away, forcing them to their weak sides and allowing very few free shots on her watch.
Brown is averaging 8.4 points per game and slots in just behind Burton in the team rankings with 20 assists on the season. Interestingly, in her lowest-scoring game where she only put in three points against South Dakota, Brown notched a career high seven assists, a testament to her vision and distribution ability. That being said, she does have one of the lower field goal percentages of the usual starters at around 33 percent. Brown does tend to go for more difficult shots rather than wait for opportunities that yield a higher likelihood of points. With just a bit more patience on offense, she could be one of the most consistent players on the roster.
Mel Daley has been a pleasant surprise for Wildcat fans thus far. Only recently earning her first start against Wisconsin, Daley has gone from averaging 12 minutes per game through her first five contests to just under 23 minutes in Northwestern’s last four. Though she may only be averaging 6.4 points per game, Daley’s energy is what makes her special. While coming off the bench for the majority of the season up until this point, she contributed another level of effort and scrappiness, which elevates the play of everyone around her instantly.
One thing to note about Daley is her energy also fuels an incredible quickness that is hard to come by and also hard to avoid — she is third on the Wildcats with 12 steals despite playing less than half of the minutes of the two players ahead of her (Shaw and Burton). Daley has a little bit less to analyze in terms of a stat-line than Walsh and Brown for that simple reason, but it’s clear by her increased usage that Northwestern fans will be seeing a lot more of her and her truly beautiful, Pulliam-esque jumper in the coming weeks.