Northwestern women’s basketball began its season with an exhibition victory over Lewis last night! With that, we’ll wrap up our player preview series with Caileigh Walsh, who was the team’s best offensive player last year and should play that role again.
Who is she?
Junior; forward/center; 6-foot-3; from Sparta, New Jersey
30 games played, 29 starts, 24.6 minutes per game, 12.1 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game, 1.1 assists per game, 0.6 steals per game, 1.2 blocks per game, 39.3% FG%, 29.8% 3PT%, 76.3% FT%
While Veronica Burton’s loss obviously left a hole, it became pretty clear early on that Walsh would take her place as Northwestern’s No. 1 scoring threat. She showed out with 24 points in 22 minutes to lead NU to an early-season win over Southern Illinois, and took it off from there. That’s not to say that Walsh was really consistent shooting the ball, because that’s an area where she struggled, but she was almost always the team’s go-to option to get a bucket.
When Walsh was on, she was on. You can make the case that NU could have gone winless in Big Ten play had she not starred against Minnesota (22 points and two steals in 25 minutes on 8-of-13 shooting) or on the road at Wisconsin (18 points, 3-of-5 from three-point land). That’s not even including Northwestern’s tight Big Ten Tournament loss to Rutgers, when Walsh almost pulled a Tracy McGrady with two threes in the final 75 seconds to cap off a 24-point, eight-rebound game.
And when she was off, Northwestern was off. Walsh especially struggled in both blowout losses to Ohio State when it came to shooting, ball security and foul trouble. As the team’s primary source of perimeter offense, she had to take on lots of defensive attention without getting to work inside as much as she could have, which probably hurt her numbers. Walsh’s scoring average of 12.1 points per game doesn’t express how much the offense revolved around getting her good looks.
Walsh is a really talented scorer who can dominate at all three levels on a great night. Northwestern especially thrived when Joe McKeown ran smaller lineups and sets that were focused on giving No. 10 room in the post to operate. When Walsh did so efficiently early in games, it unlocked her perimeter game and gave NU’s offense a dimension that many of the Big Ten’s best teams don’t have. She was at her best when playing “inside-out,” as McKeown liked to put it, getting buckets in the post before finding deeper looks.
At 6-foot-3, Walsh is also a really good rim protector. Her 1.2 blocks per game speak to her prowess as a paint defender. As a tenacious rebounder on both ends, Walsh is also immensely valuable to a Northwestern team that seems like it’ll embrace a fast pace of play dependent on generating extra possessions. Simply put, she’s one of the more versatile bigs in the Big Ten, and she improved in nearly every area of her game in her sophomore season.
In a word: inconsistency. One could chalk up nearly every single one of Walsh’s struggles last year to that. She never strung together two straight games where she shot over 45% from the field. Attributing that to her high usage in the offense is a valid argument, but it’s really tough to string together consecutive wins in Big Ten play when your top scorer is inefficient.
Giveaways and foul trouble also hurt Walsh. She played eight games where she committed four or more turnovers. Especially for a post player, that’s extremely rough. That mark has to improve for NU to get better.
When it came to fouls, Walsh fouled out four times and had a number of four-foul games. Obviously, she’s Northwestern’s last line of paint defense, which makes it unreasonable to expect her to cut down on the fouls. However, avoiding foul trouble early could be crucial. Even in games where she shined on both ends but picked up multiple fouls early, McKeown limited Walsh’s minutes a little more than you’d expect for a star player to ensure she’d be available later on. That could have made it much more difficult for Walsh — and the entire team — to find a rhythm early on in games.
Chances are that Walsh will be the team’s best player once again. If she can take the same statistical jumps that she did from Year One to Year Two while also becoming a more efficient player, then Northwestern might be in for a treat. The ‘Cats struggled mightily from beyond the arc in 2022-23, and their best player could very well be the focal point in the effort to turn that around. Some shooting around Walsh would allow McKeown to utilize her in a more post-centric role, which in turn would open up the floor for her. Ultimately, though, the improvements Northwestern will make as a team start with her development.