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Evaluating women’s basketball eight games into the season

The ‘Cats have hit a few bumps in the road so far, but are slowly getting back on track.

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The Northwestern women’s basketball team has had an up-and-down start to its 2021-22 season as it closes out its first eight matchups with a 5-3 record. The Wildcats won their first three matchups before dropping a close loss to cross-city rivals DePaul. They then embarked on a trip to the Bahamas for the Paradise Jam where they went 1-2, beating South Dakota and then losing to Pittsburgh and No. 23 Texas A&M. However, their recent 72-61 comeback against a solid Clemson team did much to restore faith in Veronica Burton and Co. as they inch closer to conference play. Here are some key takeaways from the Wildcats’ first eight games of the season.

Veronica Burton continues to impress

America’s point guard is something else, so if you’re not on the Veronica Burton train yet, it’s time. There is little the senior cannot do — she leads the Wildcats in every single stat category (aside from rebounds, that one goes to Courtney Shaw), not to mention she just netted a casual career-high 32 points against Clemson. Burton is also the national leader in steals with 30 so far, redeeming her title as the Backcourt Burglar.

The Newton, Mass. native is unsurprisingly a powerhouse on the offensive side of the ball. Through the ‘Cats first eight games, Burton is averaging just under 20 points per game, and her 5.5 assists per game slots her into the top five. Additionally, Burton is one of the most clinical free throw shooters in the country — she’s only missed five of her 53 free throws, which means 48 of her 154 points have come from charity stripe. Oh, and I almost forgot. She has range too:

There are simply not enough words to describe how fun it has been watching Burton run circles around her opponents, and the ‘Cats have only played eight games. Her senior season is shaping up to be one that could cement her as a frontrunner for bundles of hardware and honors come March, but for now, it’s time to enjoy the ride.

The first-years are making waves

Joe McKeown’s top 10 recruiting class has come in hot this season. Right from the jump, first-years Caileigh Walsh and Jillian Brown worked their way into the rotation, as each of them have started all eight games so far. It’s worth considering the last time any first-year cemented themselves in the Wildcats’ starting five was Burton in her inaugural 2018-19 season. For the time being, it’s safe to say these two will continue to make appearances at tip-off, as Walsh currently leads the Big Ten in blocks with 19 on the season, and both she and Brown are averaging a respectable 8.6 points per game.

First-year Mel Daley is also seeing significant playing time. She has appeared in all eight contests as well and averages about 15 minutes played per game. Daley brings Lauryn Satterwhite-esque bursts off the bench which have re-energized the ‘Cats when play is slow. She also offers a mean jumper that looks a little bit like that of someone Northwestern women’s basketball fans are quite familiar with...cue the Lindsay Pulliam highlight tape.

With Sydney Wood and Anna Morris out of commission for the time being and Satterwhite having left the Clemson contest mid-game with an apparent ankle injury, Brown, Walsh and Daley are going to play major roles in how the next few weeks pan out for Northwestern. It’s clear all three have plenty of talent to offer, but there are still deficits in their individual play that could have to do with adjusting to the speed of collegiate play as well as getting used to McKeown’s trademark Blizzard defense. Hopefully, as their play improves with experience, Northwestern will reap the benefits and re-establish itself as a competitor in an already difficult conference.

Offensive struggles still remain

One major point of improvement the ‘Cats needed to focus on from last season was their offensive efficiency, and unfortunately not much seems to have changed yet. While Northwestern’s 69.4 points per game might not indicate scoring struggles, actually watching how the team functions while it has possession is telling. Burton makes up more of the offense than is sustainable — she and Shaw are the only two players averaging more than 10 points per game. Wood has not risen to the occasion as an offensive threat either, only averaging 3.8 points-per-game before her injury which is a seven point drop for her from last season.

In a league with several Big Ten teams boasting full lineups averaging double-digit performances, the Wildcats are going to have to find more ways to guarantee that their solid defensive efforts will not go to waste. The first-years will be especially key to this. Brown, Walsh and Daley will need to find ways to alleviate offensive production off the shoulders of Burton and Shaw. Satterwhite has also started multiple games this season, and for her it will be just a bit more patience in picking out higher-percentage shots.

Ideally, Wood will return from her injury and begin making moves toward matching her performance last year as well, which would place four veterans (Wood, Burton, Satterwhite, Shaw) back in McKeown’s rotation to balance out the inevitable inexperience brought on with the first-years. The bottom line is it’s still early, and if Northwestern can find a way to mitigate some of the slow offensive production, it might find itself right back in the mix.