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It’s now or never for the Wildcats

After a hot start to the season, the ‘Cats have cooled down. Now, they’ll need to improve in a number of areas to reach the NCAA Tournament.

The Northwestern Wildcats are in a rut.

Since their biggest win of the season — a 77-69 road victory over then-No. 22 Iowa on Jan. 6 — they’ve lost five of their last six, including four in a row for the first time since the 2017-2018 season. The team stands at 11-8 overall and 3-5 in the conference with just 10 games remaining to right the ship.

The Wildcats offense has been pedestrian all season long, ranking in the bottom third of the conference in all major shooting categories. It’s no secret that their offense normally goes as far as Veronica Burton can take them: She averages 19.0 points on 45.0 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from downtown in their eleven wins but only 13.6 points on 34.6 percent shooting and 25.8 percent from distance in their losses.

But the team’s overall numbers show that there are other reasons driving their decline, and the most obvious is in the turnover department. Over the last six games, Northwestern is averaging 16.5 turnovers, nearly three turnovers more than during their first 13 contests. While the Wildcats remain elite at forcing their opponents to cough up the rock, their net turnover advantage is just +1.0 in this six-game stretch versus +5.5 prior. Given their shooting woes, the extra possessions gained by winning the turnover battle were key to their hot start.

The Wildcats did show improvement in their last game against Iowa, forcing 25 turnovers and committing only 12 themselves despite five extra minutes of play. However, head coach Joe McKeown still pointed out the costly turnovers in the fourth quarter that helped swing the tide the Hawkeyes’ way during the postgame press conference.

McKeown also mentioned the team’s lack of inside scoring as its achilles heel at the moment, and it shows in the fact that they’ve scored below their season average in points in the paint in each of their last five games. NU’s aversion for inside scoring can also be indirectly seen through its decline in free throw attempts. Northwestern is shooting almost six attempts less than they did during their hot start, a stat normally indicative of a team’s aggressiveness and willingness to attack the basket.

But the reason for the Wildcats’ struggles inside may be predicated off their poor outside shooting. Teams are packing the paint against Northwestern, daring them to shoot threes, which they convert at a rate of only 30.3 percent.

Laya Hartman launches from three against Maryland. Hartman has been inserted into the starting line-up over the last three games to provide more shooting and spacing for the Wildcats.

Over the last couple of games, McKeown has doubled down on his outside shooters, replacing Caileigh Walsh and Melannie Daley in the starting line-up with Laya Hartman and Lauryn Satterwhite. Of the new insertions, the former is the better floor spacer — she’s hit multiple threes in each of her three games as a starter. The latter can knock down the occasional three, and more importantly, allows Burton, the team’s best shooter, to play off the ball.

However, since Hartman was put into the line-up against Penn State, the team’s three-point accuracy hasn’t changed much. They’re still 29.3 percent from beyond the arc over the last three games. If the Wildcats are going to open up the paint, they’re going to have to actually knock down their threes at a higher clip. Otherwise, they’ll have to find another way to generate the game’s most efficient shots.

The insertion of Hartman, a junior, and Satterwhite, a graduate student, into the starting line-up also indicates an injection of more veteran play. McKeown had previously started three freshmen in Walsh, Daley and Jillian Brown, but he’s pointed to the team’s youth and inexperience as a cause for their struggles amid uncertain schedules and cancelled practices.

“We’re young, we haven’t played a lot of basketball together,” McKeown said. “We’ve got to find ways to get better while [we’re] thrown into the fire.”

The ‘Cats’ rookie class was ranked No. 10 in the nation by ESPN and second in the Big Ten, so their talent is undeniable. The solution to the team’s struggles may be as simple as learning and gaining experience from each game, a sentiment echoed by senior Courtney Shaw.

“[We have] a lot of young and old players,” Shaw said. “[We’re] trying to get through the growing pains that goes with that. Sometimes the process takes a while.”

However, if the Wildcats want to make a case to be selected for the Big Dance for the second straight year, they’re going to have to hope they grow into optimal form sooner than later.