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Northwestern’s winning formula is a difficult one

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Even with another great performance from Veronica Burton, the ‘Cats fell flat against the Buckeyes.

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s pretty hard to remember the last time Veronica Burton had a bad game.

The lead candidate is probably her 2-for-12 outing against Milwaukee back on December 14, as that remains her only single-digit scoring night of the 2021-22 season. But that one off-night is very much overshadowed by her stellar play in nearly every other contest this year. She’s second in the nation in steals per game (as is tradition), is shooting a solid 35.9% on threes while having increased her volume and has done a remarkable job in giving the younger players on this team a release valve they can always count on. An All-American selection for her is very much on the table.

Her performance on Sunday afternoon, while not her best, was still a classic Burton outing. Six jaw-dropping steals, 16 points supplemented by the senior guard willing herself to the free throw line and a team-best eight rebounds despite maybe being the eighth-tallest player on the court.

And it wasn’t nearly enough.

Despite the 74-61 score making Northwestern’s loss to Ohio State not appear too bad on the surface, the reality is much more grim. After about the five minute mark of the third quarter, the outcome of this game was pretty much decided. The Buckeyes buried the ‘Cats in a barrage of at-rim attempts and timely threes, meanwhile the Wildcats averaged a subpar 13.3 points per quarter through the first three periods and found themselves trailing by 20 points early in the fourth.

The past two games played by the ‘Cats define what this 2022 Northwestern team is. At any point in time they can have the best player on the court, and that gives them the chance to beat almost anyone. If Burton plays like her superstar self and gets help from the tertiary talent on team — like she did on the road at Iowa from Melannie Daley and Courtney Shaw — the Wildcats are a tough out for anyone. But should Burton play anything less than superb or the supporting cast come up short in producing another scoring option, games will always be arduous for Northwestern at best, and lost causes at worst.

One only need look at the final box score to spot the clear difference between the ‘Cats and the victorious Buckeyes. Paige Mott finished as NU’s second leading scorer with nine points on 4-for-5 shooting. She played a great game, but she’s still only a bench forward who garnered 19 minutes of playing time. Meanwhile, OSU featured four double-digit scorers, even with ace shooter Taylor Mikesell having an off-day. One team has multiple avenues through which to generate points. The other’s strategy almost exclusively boils down to “Veronica go left, Veronica go right, let’s hope some other people hit just a few shots too.”

This isn’t meant to be a scathing criticism of the coaching staff for leaning so hard on their star point guard, nor is it of the other members of this roster who are for the most part experiencing their first ever college basketball season. It’s just an evaluation of where the team is at this point in time.

And it doesn’t mean that the talented freshman should stop what they’re doing! Daley has earned the right to experiment with some self-creation off the dribble. If Jillian Brown has a decent look from behind the arc, she should take it. Caileigh Walsh has proven very capable in the post with her array of jump hooks and subtle spin moves, and their senior leader believes in them and wants them to take their shots.

“We’ve got to knock down those shots because I think we are very capable of hitting them,” said Burton, when asked about the ‘Cats 4-for-15 shooting on threes against Ohio State. “I don’t think we’ve shown all the potential that we have, but I think we will eventually.”

Relying on a singular superstar and some talented young guns is a viable strategy, but it’s not the most consistent or easy one, which is how you get the two wildly different results this team has produced in its past two games.

The obvious question, then, is whether this problem (if you can even call it that) can be fixed. The answer is probably no.

The scoring opportunities previously reserved for Lindsey Pulliam and Jordan Hamilton with have been given to the three freshmen, and the offensive formula the ‘Cats’ currently follow is the same as it is last year — Veronica Burton drives, hoping that other people make some jumpers. Sure Pulliam and Hamilton were better than the three first-years, but Burton has improved, too, and is eating a bigger piece of the opportunity pie with her backcourt veterans now departed, leading to roughly equivalent values.

It’s why you so often see the superstar guard go careening to the hardwood like she did several times against Ohio State, almost injuring herself in the process. Free throws are those “easy baskets” she knows they need to generate, and launching herself head-first into a mass of defenders is often the best way to do that.

This is what Northwestern’s women’s basketball is in 2022. They’re fun, they are for the most part good, but there really isn’t a bigger fix besides having a better day than the one they had before.

“It’s so common in the game of basketball, you’re going to have great days, and you’re going to have tough days,” said Burton after the loss, “And all that it really comes down to is how you bounce back.”

That’s absolutely the right mindset to have, especially for a young, promising team like this one.