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After years of taking care of the ball, Northwestern can’t stop turning it over

A team full of new faces has lost one of the core tenets that made the last two so potent.

Photo via @nuwbball on Twitter.

Take a guess at what you think this list of numbers represents — 16, 12, 20, 12, 21, 18.

No, it’s not the point deficits by which the Chicago Bears lost six of their games this year, nor is it the number of steals Veronica Burton has racked up in each of the past six outings for the Wildcats (though that is actually somehow possible with how ridiculously good she is).

Sadly, that’s the number of the turnovers Northwestern has committed in each of its six Big Ten games here in the 2021-22 season, including 18 painful giveaways in Thursday night’s 63-59 loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions.

In his postgame presser, head coach Joe McKeown constantly referred to the turnovers his team committed, citing them as a big reason behind his team’s sixth loss of the season, saying, “We can’t do that, that’s not us.”

Well, it wasn’t them.

In the past two seasons — two of the most successful campaigns in the history of Northwestern basketball — the ‘Cats took care of the rock as well as anybody in the NCAA. They finished 12th and ninth lowest nationally in the ‘19-‘20 and 20-‘21 seasons, respectively, in turnovers per game, with miniscule averages of 12.0 and 11.4. Six games into 2021-22 Big Ten play, Northwestern is averaging the 11th-most in turnovers in conference games at a bleak 16.5 per game.

It makes sense why, in years past, those turnover totals were so low. The team ran through Burton and Lindsey Pulliam. The former has one of the tightest handles in the sport, while the latter was an isolation-heavy scorer, an archetype connected with lower turnover numbers due the movement of the other players on the court being stopped to make way for one-on-one duels.

Burton is averaging a career-worst 2.2 turnovers herself, but that’s still in line with her numbers from previous years, and more importantly, that’s a product of how much this team depends on her to conduct its offense. Star facilitators often pile up more turnovers than teammates simply because they have the ball far more often.

The bigger issue are the tertiary pieces on Northwestern that can’t stop giving the ball away. In last night’s defeat, the freshmen tandem of Jillian Brown and Caileigh Walsh contributed 4 turnovers apiece. Brown was often overwhelmed by the full court press Penn State put forth, while Walsh struggled to handle double teams and traffic inside.

Errors of this kind were to be expected with a team often starting three first-years. Older players are going to show them defenses they’re not used to and capitalize on it.

But unlike other programs that might be able to compensate in other areas should a problem like this arise, taking care of the basketball has been integral to the identity of Northwestern basketball in recent years. Watching this team in years past, you could see the hope drain from some teams as the vice grip closed in on them. The Blizzard would force them into a horrible shot or a turnover of their own, and NU would return on offense to almost always get a shot off. The onus was on the opponents to find value in other margins of the game, because the possession battle always belonged to the ‘Cats.

Nowadays, the other teams are more often the aggressors. They press up as Northwestern brings the ball down the court and crown every Wildcat in the paint, eager that an errant decision is soon to come. Without that previous edge, NU is the one often pressing for other advantages, be it a flurry of Burton drives, even more havoc-wreaking Blizzard defense or depending on some good shooting variance from Walsh, Brown, Laya Hartman, or Mel Daley.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s a hard line between this team and the previous ones we associate with it. The roster has been fully turned over, and it now plays with vastly different levels of effectiveness and variety. The only major constants are the destroyer-of-worlds point guard and the hybrid-zone defense she’s spearheaded for so long.

It’s okay to find a new playstyle, but the turnovers have to stop if Northwestern wants to qualify for a third straight NCAA Tournament (yes, I said qualify because 2020 should count for something, dammit). The ‘Cats are .500 in Big Ten play and have dropped a few winnable games, and just like the turnovers on the court, those are some unforced errors they don’t have room for like they did before.