The Big Ten Conference hosted its annual Media Days last Tuesday and Wednesday in Minneapolis, Minn., the host city of this season’s B1G women’s basketball tournament. Women’s head coach Joe McKeown was joined by G/F Sydney Wood and F Courtney Shaw, while men’s head coach Chris Collins brought along G Boo Buie, G Chase Audige and F Robbie Beran. Here’s what they had to say from Target Center:
NUWBB’s Joe McKeown
Opening statement: “Thanks to the Big Ten for doing this again. I thought last year when we combined, it was just a great opportunity for women’s basketball, too, in the Big Ten. Excited to be in Minneapolis. Great, great, great city. I’m a homeowner here, so I’m up here all the time. I’m one of the biggest fans of Minneapolis and Minnesota, except when I play the Gophers. One of my former coaches, Cheryl Reeve, is the head coach of the Minnesota Lynx, proud of what she did for women’s basketball in the WNBA.
“Great to be here and excited to come back for our tournament. This will be a great venue. Hopefully, we’ll have a great fanbase for the Big Ten tournament in March. I love our team right now. We lost one of the great generational players in Big Ten history, Veronica Burton, first-round pick of the Dallas Wings. Just got done playing this weekend with USA Basketball. I gave her the ball four years ago, and she gave it back. I’d like to announce that she is coming back for a fifth year, but unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.
“It creates opportunity for younger players, too. We brought back two fifth-year seniors, Courtney Shaw and Sydney Wood. They were part of our Big Ten Championship team in 2020. They just understand. They’re helping our young players every day. We’re just lucky to have them, have that experience in a league where everybody’s good. It’s my 40th-plus year in women’s basketball. Just getting started, so really excited about my team, what we’re doing at Northwestern.”
Q: From the time that you came into this league as a rookie coach, you’re probably the last guy standing, how has the league changed?
McKeown: “As a matter of fact, you and I talked. I was at [George Washington University]. I said, ‘I might go to Chicago and take the Northwestern job.’ You said, ‘Are you crazy?’ I went from a Final Four-potential team to a team that finished last five, six years in a row.
“We’ve seen the league grow. At that point there were 11 teams. We added Nebraska. To add Rutgers and Maryland, I just thought was great for the league. For women’s basketball, you’re talking about three schools that are committed at the highest level to our sport. There’s a rumor we’re going to L.A., too, but I don’t know about that. I don’t tan well.
“I think the league right now is as good as it’s been. I think there’s great players. I think everybody’s recruiting hard. I think being a national league, covering the real estate that we do, you look at all the great players in the footprint of the Big Ten. Got great young coaches in the league. They challenge you every day. I think to me it’s the best league in the country right now.”
Q: You’re familiar with [Minneapolis]. I would assume you were at the Final Four last year. Talk about what your impressions are of this area as a market for women’s basketball.
McKeown: “I came in here seven or eight years ago, we recruited the best player, Nia Coffey, who was the Player of the Year, McDonald’s All-American, Hopkins High School, won championships, led us to the NCAA tournament. And recruiting Nia here, it’s like high school basketball is so good. Then we recruited Abi Scheid from Elk River, who had another incredible career, part of our championship team.
“What I learned was the opportunities young girls, how big basketball is growing up here. The coaches they get, the opportunities they get to play makes it a special place. Then when I got in the league, we played Minnesota here at Williams, the crowds were great. Then I come over with Cheryl sometimes in the WNBA Playoffs, it was packed. Just had a great basketball vibe. Then the Final Four this year, I don’t think you could have had a better venue. So hopefully that will be that way. You can see the Wildcats in the championship game.”
Q: I know Shauna Green used to be an assistant on your staff. What did you see during that time and what do you think she can bring to Illinois?
McKeown: “That’s a great question. Shauna Green, I’m glad she left Dayton actually because I’m the winningest coach in the history of the Atlantic-10. Trivia question. Shauna Green was going to break all my records in a couple years. I’m glad she left for that reason.
“Now we have to play her at Illinois. She’s got this tremendous energy. She did a great job. I mentioned Nia Coffey. Shauna coached her. Helped me recruit Abi Scheid from Elk River. She has tremendous personality, poise. She loves the game, passionate. I thought it was a great hire for Illinois. I’ll keep you posted on that.”
McKeown joined by Courtney Shaw and Sydney Wood
Q: What words would you use to describe last season as a whole?
McKeown: “Well one word is frustration. I felt we were one of the best teams in the country at times, and to not be one of the 68 teams that got to play was disappointing. I feel like we did a lot of things to earn the right to play, so it was frustrating. And I think it leaves a chip on your shoulder, it gives us something to look forward to prove this year.”
Shaw: “We learned a lot from the process. I feel like we left a lot of things on the table, unfinished business. It’s a big reason why I came back as a fifth-year. To make a positive spin on things you could say growth because a lot of our younger players were getting experience and all the adversity we went through. We learned a lot and I think we can apply it this year.”
Wood: “A word would be potential. I think we showed a lot of potential at moments. we had some really good games — Michigan came and we beat them when they were a top-five team. We had spurts, this year it’ll be about putting everything together and being a consistent team day in and day out.”
Q: How does having that chip on your shoulder manifest itself in practices?
Shaw: “It’s why a lot of times when we step out on the court and play big teams we step up to the level of competition. I think we pride ourselves in surprising people, just because our name isn’t always in the biggest circles because of our university. We pride ourselves in letting our play speak for us, and I think that’s what we really want to focus on this year and make things happen in that way.”
Wood: “In practice, it just looks like going hard all the time, trying to come together as a team so when we go into tough situations with this chip on our shoulder, we’re able to show what it looks like in how we play, how we carry ourselves on the road and also at home.”
Q: Mel Daley, Caileigh Walsh and Jillian Brown got a lot of playing time last year as freshmen. What did you see in them?
McKeown: “I think the one thing Mel does is she can put the ball in the basket. She’s explosive. We’re young, we’re going through a growth process. She took advantage of opportunities and she keeps improving. The big thing is she’s fearless when she has the basketball, and that’s good and bad some days, but that’s the word.
“Caileigh Walsh is really gifted, she can play inside-out, shoots threes, she can post up. She has the ability to score from anywhere on the court. For her, it was really a learning experience too, throwing her into the fire in a lot of big games. She took big shots too and was not scared of that moment.
“Jillian, we saw the growth progression. She played her best basketball in February and March. In the Big Ten Tournament she probably played the best game of the year or leading up to that. There are things you’d like to see as a coach, all the things you preach she’s starting to do. She works, she’s got this great work ethic.”
Q: Who’s the personality on this year’s roster?
McKeown: “We’ve got two right here (gesturing to Shaw and Wood) that can hold a room anywhere. I think Paige Mott too might be the one. You want her with you if you’re going to a comedy club or something.”
Wood: “I would say Kaylah Rainey, who’s stepping into the point guard role. She definitely has a lot of personality, which you might not expect, she can be a little unsuspecting. But she’s definitely got a lot of personality in her.”
Shaw: “Yeah, I definitely think Kaylah Rainey, K-Rain as I call her. Jazz [McWilliams], the junior class in general. I just think they bring a light and a great energy to practice a lot of the time. As well as me and Syd, you know, we do our best as the old heads. I just think it’s good to enjoy what you’re doing because it’s hard work and you gotta keep after it.”
Q: When you know someone as a high-schooler you’re recruiting then you see them and they’re leading your program, sometimes back as a fifth-year, does it ever get old?
McKeown: “Right now it’s great for me because [Wood and Shaw] played on teams that won Big Ten Championships that were ranked 9th, 10th in the country. The next year, when the NCAA Tournament was canceled, we thought we had a Final Four team — they won the championship we would have hosted the first two rounds. They were part of this incredible team that could just play any way you wanted to play.
“Then the next year we go to San Antonio, we play great, we had Louisville on the ropes. They were a part of that, these nationally ranked teams. They’re fearless. They’ve gone into every gym in the Big Ten and won in hard places, and they’ve gotten beat and they know what that experience feels like and how to translate it to younger players. That’s one of the things that really excites about having them here.”
NUMBB’s Chris Collins
Opening statement: “It’s always exciting to kind of get started with the season with Media Day today. I always hate following coach McKeown, I tell him he’s a tough act to follow. Been having to do it my whole tenure at Northwestern.
“Like I said, just really excited to get started with the season. It’s always good. It’s a fresh start each year. Really looking forward to seeing what our group can become. We have five of our top seven guys, scorers back from last year, a number of veteran players. Three guys here today — Boo Buie, Robbie Beran, Chase Audige — that have been three- and four-year starters in our program, have played in a lot of games, experienced some ups and downs along the way. We’re going to really lean on those guys, their experience, their leadership with our group, as we build our team.
“We feel like we’re going to have a chance to be very competitive this year. Certainly the league is going to be as good as ever. I know there will be a lot of new faces to this league. When you compete against the level of coaches and environments that you play in, you know night in and night out you’re going to be competing against the very best. Anxious to get started, a couple weeks away. Looking forward to seeing what our group can become.”
Q: Between name, image and likeness and obviously the transfer portal, what do you think will have the greatest long-term impact on the sport of college basketball?
Collins: “Yeah, I think obviously our game has changed a lot in the last couple years. I think the combination of those two things, the rules with transferring kind of changing, which has opened up more movement than we’ve ever seen before, now with the player’s ability to make money off their name, image and likeness, which I fully support, but that has added a new dynamic to our game.
“I think it’s going to be interesting to see how it evolves. I think the teams and the programs that are going to be the most successful are going to be the ones that can adapt and learn how to manage what’s going on in our sport. We’d all love to see the four-year guy, the guy you come in and develop, watch him grow, mentor. We’re seeing less and less of that. You’re seeing more transferring. You’re seeing guys bop around a little bit more. That’s the reality. Every team up here, you probably have some guys they lost and some guys they gained. Us included.
“It really makes the importance for you to kind of understand your identity as a program and kind of find your philosophy, what it’s going to be, how can we be successful, how can we support our players. At the end of the day the college model is still about the players. It’s about these guys. It’s about their development, their ability now to go out and have their own brands, make some money off what they do out there on the court.
“I think it’s going to be interesting. I think time will tell. I think it’s still really new. We’re in the first kind of year or two of this thing. How will this evolve, what will it evolve into, what will the next steps be as we move forward.”
Q: I think last year at the end of the season you talked about the continued upward trajectory. What are the factors this year with a new frontcourt?
Collins: “Obviously we wanted that trajectory a little bit quicker. Last year we were disappointed because we felt like we had 11 losses by five points or less during the year. You win five or six of those, all of a sudden 15 wins is 20 or 21, and you are playing in the tournament. That’s kind of the margin for error.
“We are going to have a younger frontcourt. I’m anxious to see what those guys can do. A lot of new faces that are going to get opportunity. That’s kind of what college basketball is about really. There are a lot of teams in this league that have lost guys that have been mainstays. It’s opportunity for other guys to step up. Certainly we’re going to need those guys to do their part.
“But we’re going to go as our perimeter goes. I mean, that’s where the strength of our team lies. Boo Buie being a four-year starter at point guard. For us to be the team we need to be, we need him to be an All-Conference-caliber performer, which I think he can be. I think his growth over the last four years has been really good. Now it’s time for him to put it all together and have a great senior year.
“Robbie Beran and Chase Audige have been guys that have played a lot of games, certainly have had their tough moments, but also some really good wins, have seen what it’s like to win at this level. We’re going to really go as those guys can lead us. We’re going to need our new frontcourt guys to be able to come in and do their part, especially in the Big Ten. You know how physical this league is, what big guys you’re going to face night in, night out. No one is going to really replace the things that Pete [Nance] and Ryan [Young] did, but collectively can we come out and can they play to their strengths and give us the production we need to be successful in the conference?”
Q: We’ve heard a couple of coaches say it’s really hard to figure out your league at this stage of the year because when you lose 80% of what you’ve had, you have new experience, there’s a level of variance there. When you’re looking around the league, how do you go about that? How do you identify what exactly a team is going to be like?
Collins: “Yeah, I think really the last couple years we had a lot of continuity in our conference. That’s what made the league so good. We had a tremendous amount of older talent that kind of had their styles and you knew what teams were going to do, you knew who the best players were.
“I think this year is going to be a new age of Big Ten basketball. I think a number of the All-Conference players from last year have now moved onto the professional ranks. I think you’re going to see a lot of emerging stars in this conference, which is going to be very exciting. I think you’re going to see younger guys now, guys who have gotten better.
“You saw it in the past. Who would have thought before this year last year that the kind of year Keegan Murray and Johnny Davis, the growth that they had to become the superstars they were? Those are just two examples. I think the great unknown about a lot of these teams in this league is what’s going to be exciting. Are teams playing any differently, new identities to this team, who are going to be the new stars of this conference that are going to emerge?
“I think to your point, this year there are going to be a lot of intriguing storylines. We feel like with a lot of guys being back, hopefully that can be an advantage for us. We have four returning starters. We have five of our top scorers back. We feel like hopefully our experience and continuity maybe can be a little bit of an advantage for us as we get started for the season.
Q: Coach K retires. What does the sport lose without a leader like that?
Collins: “Coach K to me was the epitome of college basketball. I was very fortunate in my life to play for him, but then to work under him for 13 years. 17 years of my life I got to be around him every day and witness his greatness.
“I think the thing more than anything is how much he loved the college game. He wanted to win, he wanted to compete, but he always wanted the game to grow. He wanted the product to be better. Leaders and mentors like that, when you see them now leave the game, it’s sad. It’s surreal for me as the season is beginning not to turn on a game and not see him out there because I know his passion for it, how much he loved what he did.
“We’re going to miss him. It’s the responsibility of us now as coaches to kind of carry that mantle of the guys before us that were such unbelievable representation of the college game, the way they did it, how they led young men. I think we hold that responsibility to keep it going.”
Collins, joined by Chase Audige and Boo Buie
Q: Last year, toward the end of the season it felt like it came together — you won six of your last 12 against conference opponents. How can you carry some of that momentum forward?
Collins: “We’ll hopefully draw on some of those experiences. We were kicking ourselves because we felt like we had a team that was pretty much competitive with every team in the league. We had 11 losses five points or less, that’s the fine line in this league of being a tournament team and being in the middle or bottom tier of the conference.
“You lean on these guards, I’ve got two guards here that have been three and four-year starters. You hope that the experiences they’ve gone through, they’ve been really good players in this league. We return five of our top seven scorers from last year and hopefully the continuity and experience will help us as we go into this year.”
Q: You guys [Audige and Buie] have played countless minutes on the court together, what does it mean to have that familiarity with one another?
Audige: “I think it means everything, just being so comfortable with the guys we have. It’s definitely good knowing that my point guard knows where I like the ball, I know where he likes the ball, and we’ve really learned how to play off each other these past couple of years. Adding the young guys in and the players coming back from last year, I think it’s something really special. The league is so new this year I can’t even tell who’s who, but just knowing who I got on my team is the most important.”
Buie: “Having a veteran backcourt is huge, especially for the young guys. Chase and I have been through the ropes, we’ve played over 100 games at this level. When we’re in these moments that we’re seeing situations the young guys encounter, we try to guide them through those tough moments.”
Q: In what ways do you feel like you’ve improved and this team has improved?
Buie: “I’ve been taking a real big step in leadership, leading with my voice. I’ve kind of always been a guy that led by action, but over the years I’ve tried to change to leading by example and with my voice because me being one of the best players on the team, guys listen to me. When coach is always the one talking, it kinda gets a little repetitive so you need a coach on the floor to keep everyone engaged. That’s the type of player I’ve been trying to become. Lead my team, lead the young guys, showing them the way.”
Collins: They better like hearing my voice because I’m the one who puts them in and out of the games (laughing). But, no Boo is right. The great coaches always say when you have player-led teams those are the ones that have a chance to really do something because they’re the ones out there playing. We try to guide them as coaches, but in the moment, in the heat of battle, in those tight games, they need to be the ones to get together and say this is what we need to do to win.”
Q: The frontcourt is the question mark, give us a sense of how that group is coming together.
Collins: “There are going to be guys that haven't really been thrust into those roles. The last three years, you’ve had Pete [Nance] and Ryan [Young] manning the up-front, the minutes, the production. And those guys were terrific players for us. We don’t expect any of our guys, whether it be Tydus Verhoeven, a transfer from UTEP, Matt Nicholson, who’s a young big guy who really hasn’t had a chance to play a lot playing in those guys’ shadow, we have a freshman in Luke Hunger that we really like, nobody’s going to really do what Pete did or Ryan did. But, can they collectively play to their strengths, can they give us physicality, can they defend, can they rebound, can they be opportunistic offensively and help compliment what we feel is our strength, which is our backcourt.”
Q: So what are the strengths of those guys? Give us a sense of their games.
Collins: “Matt Nicholson, he’s 7-foot-1 270 pounds. So when you play against Zach Edey, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Hunter Dickinson, and Cliff Omoruyi and all those guys in the league, you need physicality, you need big guys and I think he gives us that physical presence. Tydus Verhoeven, he’s been a three-year starter, he’s 23 years old, he’s a sixth-year senior, he's a terrific defender, he’s a very mobile, big guy. And Luke Hunger is a very skilled big, he can pick and pop, he can make threes. Very skilled, inside-out type of big guy. We feel like the collection of those guys can really complement what we have on the perimeter, and hopefully, the minutes they’ll get early in the year will help them really be ready when we get to conference play.”
Q: What about guys who were on the team last year, who do you think has taken a big jump?
Audige: “Man, depends on how much time we got to be honest. Brooks Barnhizer is one that jumps to mind right now, he’s had a great offseason. I think he really took a step with his confidence, his leadership and his impact. He's really going to be special. Ty Berry, he’s been shooting the lights out in practice. He’s a guy who had some ups and downs through his career at Northwestern, last year he was starting and got his starting position taken. I think he really responded well, and I think a lot of people in that situation would have went a different type of route, but he was so positive and I’m proud of him as a teammate, even as a person how far he’s come.
“Robbie Berran, when Robbie’s good, we’re good, to be honest. His energy, his defense, when he’s hitting shots, I think that’s something that really can take us over the edge as a team. I mean, I could go down the list, as coach said, Matt Nicholson, his improvement. Over the summer, if I could give an MVP award it would be to [him], just his energy, how much he’s gotten better, listening to coaches, listening to teammates. I’m excited, I think everybody’s really taken a step in what they need to do with toughness, mentally, physically, and I think this year is going to be one to show for us.”
Q: You’ve made some interesting changes in your staff, Bryant Macintosh now a full-time assistant coach and Chris Lowery, an experienced head coach. Tell me about those changes and what it means to your staff.
Collins: “I think at the end of every year as a head coach, you evaluate where you’re at, where do you need help, where can you be better. I felt like it was the right time for Bryant. These guys being older players now, he was the guy that led a team to what we’re trying to achieve. For him at his age, to be in his late 20s, but to be able to bring the knowledge onto the floor, his energy, that youth.
“Adding a guy like Chris Lowery, who has been a head coach, he’s taken teams to the NCAA tournament. He was with coach [Bruce] Weber for 10 years at Kansas State, they did great things in the Big 12. Adding those two guys’ voices to an already strong staff, in my opinion, has already made us better.”
Q: “With the backcourt, you guys last year it felt like at times struggled a little bit with shot selection. What’s the balancing act of being aggressive but knowing when's the right time to pull it back?
Buie: “As Chase and I have played together, we’ve started to figure each other out, where we like the ball and when. I would just say shot selection and always making the right play, when I have the ball I’m always trying to make the right play, whether that be me shooting it, passing it or whatever. If I have two on me, there’s an open man and that ball needs to be swung. As long as someone’s making a shot, that means we’re all scoring. That’s been the focus this year, getting the best shot every possession.”
Audige: “I think Boo hit it right on the head. I’ve really tried to make an emphasis on moving the ball, when I have two people on me or even just seeing a defender step over, moving it to the open guy. I think learning over the years, it’s not about my shot, it’s a team shot, it’s about making the right play. I think last year I had done a much better job, but looking forward to this year to continue that and continue making the right plays.”