Well, you couldn’t have dreamt of a worse start to the season than Northwestern’s 100-57 loss to No. 20 Oregon. The Ducks led from wire-to-wire, and looked like a top-20 team — dare I say a top-15 team — in nearly every way imaginable. However, losing by 43 is inexcusable for the ‘Cats, even if they’re adjusting to life without Veronica Burton. Here are three takeaways from Monday’s season opener in Eugene.
Northwestern needs a floor general, and fast
Veronica Burton is irreplaceable. That sentence has been repeated in nearly every piece published on this site over the last month previewing Northwestern women’s basketball, and it rang true against the Ducks. Kaylah Rainey and Jillian Brown, who both functioned as primary ball-handlers, had a combined assist-to-turnover ratio of two-to-10.
Sure, establishing a consistent rhythm against superstar first-years Chance Gray and Grace VanSlooten is difficult. But that ratio is inexcusable. Many of those turnovers came off of telegraphed passes from the top of the key to the wings, which gave Oregon interceptors free runs to the opposite basket time and time again. Even though the Ducks forced only eight more giveaways than Northwestern did, they outscored the ‘Cats 29-6 off turnovers.
It’s one thing to shoot poorly or struggle to move the ball, but handing opponents scoring opportunities on a platter is another. Oregon got out in transition off turnovers early and often, which put Northwestern away quickly. Of course, the ‘Cats will need time to adjust to life without Burton, but Rainey and Brown have to manage games more effectively for NU to have a fighting chance in Big Ten play.
Perimeter defense has to improve for NU to keep pace with elite opponents
Oregon almost scored as many points in the paint (52) as Northwestern did all game (57). In their collegiate debuts, VanSlooten, Gray, Jennah Isai and Te-Hina Papao were easily able to find lanes off the dribble and get to the rim. The guards combined for 63 points, and a grand total of 47 of those came on layups.
When the Blizzard collapsed on them, UO found openings for wide open three-pointers — the Ducks made over half of their shots from downtown. That’s not especially encouraging for the future, and many of NU’s opponents’ scoring efficiency in 2021-22 makes those weaknesses even more concerning.
Northwestern is going to play teams in the first quadrant at least nine times this season. It will head home to face one of those teams in eight days. For a team that takes pride in its defensive identity, NU cannot give opposing guards a head of steam if it wants to pull off upsets.
Playing through the bigs could be helpful, especially early on
One of the few bright spots from Northwestern’s loss was Caileigh Walsh’s offensive play. She led the team with 15 points and six rebounds on 6-of-11 shooting, flashing her scoring versatility along the way. From a layup on the right block where she bullied her way to the basket to her two three-pointers, Walsh showed she could score in a variety of ways. Even though she deposited 12 of her 15 points in the first half, it was an encouraging start for the sophomore, who shot 26.8% from beyond the arc last season.
Courtney Shaw was quiet as a scorer but made her presence felt across the board. She grabbed three offensive rebounds, racked up four assists and put on stretches of stellar interior defensive play, especially at the beginning of the second half. It reinforced that even if she isn’t the focal point of Northwestern’s offense, Shaw’s all-around skill makes her an invaluable piece.
With the struggles of the guards noted above, Joe McKeown could benefit from letting his forwards do some heavy lifting on offense in non-conference play. Shaw and Walsh don’t necessarily need to carry the scoring load, but they can free up the wings and corners for their teammates if they attract double-teams their way.