Eleven games into a so-far tumultuous season, Northwestern’s women’s basketball team is readying itself for a mountainous slate of conference games. The first third of the season has been smeared with blowout losses to several Power Five schools and populated with (mostly) dominating wins against lackluster competition.
Before moving onto Big Ten play, it’s worth reflecting on the team’s non-conference performance in order to assess NU’s odds moving forward.
The offensive scheme needs fixing
Whatever head coach Joe McKeown has been doing through 11 games isn’t working. Despite playing teams as weak as the Wisconsin-Parkside Rangers and the Niagara Purple Eagles, the Wildcats rank second to last in the Big Ten in total offense. Averaging just 66.2 points per game, Northwestern has some introspection to do before heading over to play conference foes.
What immediately comes to mind is the unit’s shot selection. The ‘Cats shoot just 27% from beyond the arc, yet three-point attempts account for over 28% of the team’s shots. For reference, Illinois, the Big Ten’s best deep shooting squad through non-conference play at over 42%, puts up only 30% of its shots from three.
The most striking case of poor shot selection this season was against Duke, when the team went 4-for-21 from long range. Three of those makes came when Northwestern’s deficit hovered around 20 points. Why McKeown hasn’t hampered that aspect of the Wildcats’ game plan defies most logical strategy.
Aside from actual offensive tactics, turnovers have proven detrimental for NU. The roster has combined for an average of 18.1 per game. The good news is that opponents have only managed to score around 17 points per contest off these missteps. The bad news is higher-caliber, Big Ten opponents will not be as forgiving.
Home-court advantage is real
Look, I know that all of the Wildcats’ weakest opponents have visited Welsh-Ryan Arena for their matchup. I know that, in terms of adding to the win column, NU has merely met expectations at home.
Still, it’s apparent when reviewing games that Northwestern plays with more kick in Evanston. Whereas against the Blue Devils, who welcomed the ‘Cats to Cameron Indoor, the cohesive energy of the group was abysmal. In its one road win, NU took on University of Illinois Chicago — a whopping 35-minute bus ride away from Sheridan Road. Even then, the team only secured a four-point victory.
The average attendance of home games currently sits at 1,006. Typically, that figure rises during conference play, when competition improves and games matter more. Expect that spectator figure to go up in the coming weeks, and Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan kick to only become stronger.
Conference play is going to be rough
To start the season, Northwestern has lost all three of its games to ranked opponents. The average margin of defeat has been 29.33 points. Beyond that demoralizing stat, NU has yet to come close to beating an unranked Power Five opponent or one similar in status, with Duke and DePaul handing the ‘Cats hefty L’s.
The common theme in these losses has been poor defense and inefficient shooting. Rebounding has been spotty, especially on the offensive end. Caileigh Walsh and Jillian Brown have been consistent bright spots for the Wildcats in these outings, with both eclipsing nine points or more in two of their three ranked square-offs.
The road ahead doesn’t get easier for Northwestern — not by a longshot. Four of the squad’s first seven conference games are against ranked opponents, visiting No. 3 Ohio State twice, No. 4 Indiana and No. 13 Iowa all before February. To take on what will be the most challenging part of the season, McKeown and Co. will have to make all-around improvements.