Sunday’s 28-point loss to Maryland served as a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong for this Northwestern Wildcats team as of late.
For the third game in a row, the ‘Cats could not even make it to the 60-point mark, let alone come away with a win, en route to their first three-game losing streak since 2018. Yes, the Big Ten conference is especially difficult to find success in this year, but the Northwestern team that has shown up the second half of January is nearly unrecognizable.
It was only three weeks ago that Veronica Burton led the ‘Cats to an eight-point win over a ranked Iowa team on the road, so what happened?
In two of her last three appearances, Burton has been held to under 10 points. She’s also playing an average of 37.3 minutes per game in conference play. The bottom line is, conference teams are figuring out how to take Burton out of the game while she’s on the court, effectively leaving the ‘Cats with four active players for the majority of contests. As Northwestern’s leading scorer and best defensive asset, shutting down Burton effectively shuts down the whole team because there really isn’t a consistent number two beside her that can support the rotation in her absence.
Burton is still good enough to find her way around the inevitable face guards and double teams to make an impact on the floor. In her recent nine-point games, Burton has still notched a combined total of 14 rebounds, 11 assists and six steals. Nonetheless, without her typically massive contributions in the scoring category, there is little Northwestern can do but play catch-up against powerful conference offenses, no matter how good its defense is.
When thinking about a team like Maryland, more than just one player who can dictate the course of a game comes to mind. Five Terps had double-digit performances on Sunday against the ‘Cats, while Northwestern did not have a single player score over nine points. Obviously, having a top-tier performance against a team like Maryland was not the expectation for NU, but the lack of scoring from everyone besides Burton in recent matchups probes the question of whether or not this team has an identity beyond its star player.
In their last five games, only three players have had performances above 10 points besides Burton — Caileigh Walsh, Laya Hartman and Courtney Shaw. Barring Sunday’s matchup in which Walsh did not play, these four have not started a game together. With offensive inefficiency being the source of a lot of Northwestern’s struggles, it would make sense to allow the ‘Cats most productive scorers to open up contests.
In addition, there’s no denying that the absence of Sydney Wood has had an immense effect on this season, too. Similarly to how Courtney Shaw’s midseason injury last year placed the ‘Cats in a rut with few players stepping up to fill her role in the paint, Wood’s maturity and leadership in the backcourt with Burton would certainly have helped Northwestern control a little bit more of their destiny these past few weeks. However, Wood’s lack of presence is an explanation, not an excuse.
Looking forward, Northwestern has a chance for redemption. Of their next five games, four are certainly winnable — versus Illinois, at Purdue and Penn State, then versus Rutgers. That being said, this is arguably the ‘Cats most important stretch all season. With their results as of late, there is no guarantee they will win all four matchups. If they do, there are still postseason hopes. If they don’t, the future of Joe McKeown’s program is in jeopardy.
It’s unfortunate to watch a team that has seen such ample success in recent years sit between a rock and a hard place, especially with such a talented first-year class coming in to raise everyone’s hopes. With that, the issues the ‘Cats are facing are not due to a lack of talent. Nearly everyone has contributed moments of brilliance. What needs to be the focus is making this team more than simply the product of Burton’s play, both right now and for the duration of the season. Sooner or later, the Wildcats will have to reconcile with the fact that individual moments are not enough when a lack of collective identity persists.
This next stretch of games presents a chance for this Northwestern team to prove that it is, in fact, a team. If Burton gets taken out of a game, it is the responsibility of the coaching staff and her teammates to find a way to win, because that’s what a successful team does.
There is no denying that these Wildcats have fight. It’s about time they start fighting once again.