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Northwestern women’s basketball winnability rankings: Counting down NU’s most difficult 2023-24 games from 28 to 1

There's no place quite like the Big Ten.

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Basketball season is now less than a month away, which means that it’s time to kick off our preseason content for the men’s and women’s teams. To start off, members of our staff ranked each of the games on both teams’ schedules by difficulty, with 1 being the toughest matchup. Here’s what the composite looked like for the women’s squad. A table with each individual’s rankings is at the bottom, so as not to spoil the fun.

Note: Northwestern’s second game of the four-team Ball Dawgs Classic in late November — which will take place against either Stanford or Belmont, depending on how the ‘Cats fare against Florida State in the first game — was not included here.

28. vs. Bradley (Average: 27.3)

The Braves went 4-28 in 2022-23, so this is pretty self-explanatory. It’s Northwestern’s last game at home before Big Ten play kicks into full gear, so this should definitely be a feel-good game.

27. vs. Loyola Chicago (Average: 26.7)

Loyola has never made the NCAA Tournament, and it has never beaten NU in the nine matchups between these two schools.

26. vs. Southeast Missouri State (Average: 25.8)

The Redhawks had a decent year in 2022-23, and return most of their core. They’ll get Northwestern a few days after one of its toughest road tests of the season (more on that later).

25. vs. Omaha (Average: 25.5)

Four members of its end-of-season starting five will be back.

24. vs. UIC (Average: 24.5)

The Flames faced off against the ‘Cats last December, and it was a dogfight. NU pulled out a 66-62 victory on the road. While Northwestern should take a step forward from 2022-23, UIC is still one of the better non-conference opponents on the slate.

23. at Minnesota (Average: 21.8)

The easiest Big Ten game comes against the Golden Gophers, who went just 4-14 in conference play last year. Northwestern handily beat Minnesota at home by 14 in the teams’ lone matchup last season. The game is on the road, and Dawn Plitzuweit’s team is even younger than NU’s, but this should definitely be a game the ‘Cats can win.

T-21. at Temple, vs. Georgetown (Average: 21.5)

Both teams struggled in conference play, but neither was awful. The game against the Owls, which is set for Dec. 21, should be a fun and potentially competitive holiday homecoming for Joe McKeown, who’s from Philadelphia.

20. vs. Wisconsin (Average: 20.2)

This was Northwestern’s other Big Ten win last year, and it was in Madison. The Badgers are going to lose Julie Pospisilova, their leading scorer and a two-time All-Big Ten Honorable Mention. Avery LaBarbera won’t be there either. Northwestern has a strong shot to win at home.

19. vs. Penn State (Average: 18.5)

Like Minnesota, PSU also went 4-14 in conference play in 2022-23. However, the Nittany Lions also beat the ‘Cats by 10 in State College. They’ll return star guard Makenna Marisa, who averaged 17.5 points per game last season and was named to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team a few weeks ago. Beating Penn State is certainly a possibility, especially given that Northwestern’s younger players could take some leaps in production, but this game being the 19th-hardest says a lot about how strong the Big Ten is.

18. at Wisconsin (Average: 18.3)

17. at DePaul (Average: 16.8)

DePaul came to Evanston last December and beat the ‘Cats by 18. Two of its top three scorers will be back. However, the Blue Demons could take a big hit with the loss of two-time All-American Aneesah Morrow, who transferred to defending champion LSU. Regardless, this is a solid team outside of Morrow, and going a few miles down the road could make this game a little tougher.

16. vs. Rutgers (Average: 16.3)

If you didn’t watch Kaylene Smikle tear up Northwestern’s defense (and offense!) twice last year, you need to go watch her play basketball this winter. The Wildcats still have three more seasons of dealing with the star guard, who averaged around 18 points and two steals a game on a 36.9% three-point clip as a first-year. Smikle could very well earn an All-Big Ten First Team nod as soon as this March.

15. at Penn State (Average: 15.2)

14. vs. Purdue (Average: 13.8)

Caitlyn Harper and Abbey Ellis are back for their sixth and fifth years, respectively. Both played big roles in Purdue’s two wins over NU last year. Turnovers plagued the Wildcats in an 11-point home loss, and the Boilermakers lit it up offensively en route to a 15-point win when the two teams played at Mackey Arena.

13. at Rutgers (Average: 12.8)

12. at Nebraska (Average: 12)

Had the Huskers not born the brunt of the Big Ten gauntlet — playing Iowa, Michigan and Maryland twice — there’s a very real chance they could have gone dancing last year. Star guard and leading scorer Jaz Shelley is using her fifth year of eligibility. With her and Alexis Markowski — both of whom were named to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team — in the fold, Nebraska could be in a really good spot. Going to Lincoln will certainly be a tough task.

11. at Michigan State (Average: 11.5)

MSU controlled the game throughout its win in Evanston last year. It will lose a decent number of seniors, but this was one of the best offenses in the nation last year; the Spartans averaged 78.2 points a contest. East Lansing is also one of the tougher places to play.

10. vs. Illinois (Average: 10.3)

Northwestern actually played the Illini close in both games last year, almost pulling off a massive comeback in Champaign. But Illinois’ entire starting lineup is returning, and this is a team that finished fifth in the Big Ten. Makira Cook is a name to watch; after leading the way with 18.3 points and 1.2 steals per game last year, she could be a sleeper All-American pick if her team can somehow jump into the top echelon of the conference with Iowa and Indiana.

9. vs. Michigan (Average: 9.2)

Laila Phelia is back and was named as a unanimous All-Big Ten Preseason honoree by the coaches. She should be terrific. The Wolverines are losing a decent amount of talent (particularly WNBA-bound Leigha Brown), which gives NU a sneaky-decent chance to pull off an upset at Welsh-Ryan Arena as it did in 2021-22. Regardless, this is still a team that finished as the No. 18 squad in the country and probably could have advanced farther than the Round of 32 had it not run into LSU. It still has an elite player leading the way. This is a very good team.

8. at Illinois (Average: 8)

7. vs. Florida State in Las Vegas (Average: 6.8)

FSU’s top three scorers are returning. Its best player was a first-year, Ta’Niya Latson, who enjoyed one of the greatest freshman seasons in the history of women’s college basketball. Latson averaged 21.5 points per game, was an All-ACC First Teamer and was named the National Freshman of the Year by most major outlets.

She’ll also have forward Mikayla Timpson, who averaged an eye-popping 2.1 blocks and 1.1 steals a contest, to form one of the nation’s most dynamic duos. The Athletic named the ‘Noles as its No. 16-ranked team. Assuming Latson improves even more, Florida State is an ACC title contender. Plus, with an opportunity to play Stanford potentially on the line in a tournament setting, there’s almost no chance Northwestern will be a trap game for FSU.

6. vs. Ohio State (Average: 6)

It’s pretty insane to think that Northwestern’s schedule isn’t as difficult as it could be, but that’s not a ridiculous statement to make because it will only face off against four of the top five opponents on this list once. The Big Ten is just so talented at the top, and OSU is no exception. The Buckeyes put up points like nobody’s business, and their press overwhelmed Northwestern in their two 30-point wins over McKeown and Co.

Ohio State had a whopping six (!!) scorers who averaged double figures in 2022-23, and five of them are coming back. Cotie McMahon should spearhead that offensive output. Like the next five teams, OSU could make a serious run at the Final Four. An upset over the Buckeyes on Jan. 5, which will be Northwestern's first home Big Ten game with students back on campus after break, would be a season-defining victory.

5. at Maryland (Average: 5.2)

The Terps might be a little worse than Ohio State, but they're still an elite team. Plus, Northwestern has gone 1-13 against Maryland, and the XFINITY Center has been a house of horrors. Not only has NU never won in College Park, it's only lost by fewer than 10 points on the road just once. There are different players on both sides, obviously, but it would be remarkable if the 'Cats managed to beat a team that advanced to the Elite Eight and hasn't lost at home since Dec. 4, 2022.

4. vs. Indiana (Average: 3.7)

More on the Hoosiers later...

3. at Notre Dame (Average: 3.5)

I mean... it's Notre Dame, in South Bend. Sonia Citron and Olivia Miles are both back, and both could make All-American teams. Miles already has. The Irish have improved each year since head coach Niele Ivey took over for Muffet McGraw in 2020, and that shouldn't change this season. If that wasn't discouraging enough, Ivey is also bringing in three of the 24 players in the Class of 2023 that ESPN rated as five-star recruits. Hannah Hidalgo (No. 5), Cassandre Prosper (No. 16) and Emma Risch (No. 20) should add to an already loaded core.

ND crushed Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan in a 34-point blowout last November, so hopefully it's not that rough this time around.

2. vs. Iowa (Average: 1.8)

Please do yourself a favor, and go watch one of the greatest players in the history of college basketball put on a show at Welsh-Ryan on Jan. 31.

1. at Indiana (Average: 1.3)

Unanimous All-American Mackenzie Holmes is back, as is virtually her entire supporting cast sans Grace Berger. There's no reason to think that the Hoosiers can't replicate their incredible 2022-23 season, in which they peaked at No. 2 and went 16-2 in Big Ten play. They lost a grand total of one game in Bloomington, which happened to come at the worst possible time against Miami in the Round of 32 to prematurely end their season. Indiana routinely draws incredible crowds, and last year's success should make Assembly Hall the toughest environment Northwestern will face this upcoming season.

Staff Rankings

Inside NU Staff Winnability Rankings

Game Composite Average Iggy Dowling Bradley Locker Natalie Wells David Gold Brendan Preisman Ascher Levin
Game Composite Average Iggy Dowling Bradley Locker Natalie Wells David Gold Brendan Preisman Ascher Levin
at Indiana 1 1.33 1 1 1 1 2 2
vs. Iowa 2 1.83 2 3 2 2 1 1
at Notre Dame 3 3.50 4 2 3 4 4 4
vs. Indiana 4 3.67 3 6 4 3 3 3
at Maryland 5 5.17 5 5 5 5 6 5
vs. Ohio State 6 6.00 6 7 6 6 5 6
FSU (Las Vegas) 7 6.83 7 4 8 7 7 8
at Illinois 8 8.00 8 8 9 8 8 7
vs. Michigan 9 9.17 10 9 7 10 10 9
vs. Illinois 10 10.33 9 13 12 9 9 10
at Michigan State 11 11.50 12 12 11 11 11 12
at Nebraska 12 12.00 13 14 10 12 12 11
at Rutgers 13 12.83 11 10 16 13 14 13
vs. Purdue 14 13.83 14 15 13 14 13 14
at Penn State 15 15.17 18 11 15 15 17 15
vs. Rutgers 16 16.33 15 17 18 16 16 16
at DePaul 17 16.83 16 22 14 17 15 17
at Wisconsin 18 18.33 17 19 19 18 19 18
vs. Penn State 19 18.50 20 18 17 19 18 19
vs. Wisconsin 20 20.17 19 21 20 20 21 20
vs. Georgetown 21 21.50 22 23 22 21 20 21
at Temple 22 21.50 24 16 21 23 22 23
at Minnesota 23 21.83 21 20 23 22 23 22
vs. UIC 24 24.50 23 27 24 24 25 24
vs. Omaha 25 25.50 26 28 25 25 24 25
vs. SE Missouri St 26 25.83 25 26 26 26 26 26
vs. Loyola 27 26.67 27 25 27 27 27 27
vs. Bradley 28 27.33 28 24 28 28 28 28