After a shaky start to the season, Northwestern opened their conference play against the Wisconsin Badgers. The ‘Cats got off to a quick start, building a lead but eventually slipping up and slowing down. Ultimately, they held on for a 12-point victory. Here are three takeaways from Northwestern’s conference opener win over Wisconsin:
Shooting could be a problem for Northwestern yet again
The past two years for Northwestern, the defense has been sturdy as can be. With absolute terrors like Veronica Burton and Sydney Wood at the top of the Blizzard and capable defenders in the back line, the ‘Cats could always count on keeping games in the 50-to-60 point range and racking up a bunch of steals.
In 2019-20, the offense was rollicking largely due to the spacing provided by Abi Scheid, who just casually became the country’s preeminent sniper in her senior season, cashing in 47.7% of her 153 attempts in 30 games. Last season, the offense regressed sans Scheid’s shooting, as teams were comfortable to back up and cut off driving lanes while daring NU to make jumpers.
Nine games into the 2021-22 campaign, it seems that the “sit back and make them shoot” strategy will be prevalently used against Northwestern yet again. Wisconsin — a team that at the moment is quite possibly the worst in the Big Ten — was able to hang tough with the ‘Cats by playing way off in a 2-3 zone and thus causing a few dry spells for the NU offense. Northwestern may have finished a decent 5-for-14 from behind the arc, but were a dastardly 15-for-46 on two-point attempts, many of which were contested runners and mid range jumpers taken with the shot clock dwindling down.
Burton will always get a few unbelievable layups to fall, and transition buckets will come with the combination of her and Melannie Daley pressing opponents (a point Coach McKeown made in his postgame presser), but if teams aren’t scared of the Wildcats’ shooting ability, the driving lanes for Burton will be clogged, and the Northwestern offense will suffer long term.
Speaking of which...
Veronica Burton still rules
It wasn’t nearly the Backcourt Burglar’s best game and she still was the best player on the court by a large and discernible margin. With her shot not falling as much as she would like, and the Badgers’ defense focusing in on her heavily, Northwestern’s star point guard took to the free throw line and went a perfect 12-for-12 from the charity stripe and finished with a game-high 19 points.
Sure, many of those attempts came with the contest decided and Wisconsin deciding to intentionally foul to extend the game, but other attempts were often the product of Burton maneuvering her way through defenders and smartly engaging contact to draw the fouls her team needed. Additionally, the senior star finished with four steals, several of which ended with Northwestern layups on the other end.
It’s overly simplistic but I can’t emphasize it enough — cherish every moment you get to watch Burton play basketball for this school. She’s truly a special player who changes the game plans of other teams with her point of attack defense. She’s almost never wrong on any decision she makes with the ball in her hands and has now bumped her season shooting splits on free throws and threes to 92.3% and 40.7%, respectively. She rules, have fun and watch her play every night that you can.
Northwestern’s situation at center is worth watching
On the surface, freshman Caileigh Walsh had a great performance against the Badgers, finishing with 14 points and two made threes on the night. However, her time was limited by her foul trouble, as she racked up five personals in only 18 minutes of play. She currently has a bad habit of starting her contests vertically, only to swing an arm down toward the shooter at the final moment, often triggering a whistle from the official.
Senior Courtney Shaw was her usual reliable, versatile self on defense, but continued to display poor touch around the rim, finishing 2-for-8 from the field on her attempts. Mercy Ademusayo and Paige Mott also saw time, though the former is limited by a lack of ball skills, while the other is under sized for the position.
That leaves sophomore Anna Morris, who is returning from injury and saw just 3:47 of playing time, all of which came in the final quarter. However, she also hit what might have been the game’s most crucial shot. With Northwestern leading just 43-37 and having not scored in ages, Morris hit a baseline jumper from about 15 feet via the ‘Cats’ X-motion offense that they often run against 2-3 zones. The bucket got their offense out of the mud, and they would never lead by less than eight points the rest of the way.
There’s still plenty of season left to go, and all of the options Joe McKeown has in hands are fine ones, but the team will eventually have to choose which player they trust the most at the center position going forward.