When Northwestern women’s basketball head coach Joe McKeown said early in the 2022-23 season that he was spoiled with Veronica Burton for the last four years, he may have underestimated just how the Wildcats were with the seventh pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft.
After going 17-12 in the 2021-22 season, the Wildcats came crashing down to 9-21 for their 2022-23 campaign. It was the ‘Cats’ worst record since McKeown’s first season at the helm, and their 2-16 Big Ten record was the worst since 2008.
Northwestern’s signature win was a 15-point, second-half comeback at Wisconsin to pick up its first Big Ten win of the season after losing its first nine. The only other Big Ten victory came in dominant fashion over Minnesota, which was Coach McKeown’s 250th win as head coach in Evanston; however, the rest of the Wildcats' schedule would not be as nice to them.
Of NU's 21 losses, 16 came by double digits, and six were by 20+ points. In fact, Northwestern’s 100-57 debacle in Eugene, Oregon to open the season was the widest margin of defeat in McKeown’s 14 years in Evanston.
After missing most of last season with an injury, graduate Sydney Wood led the ‘Cats this season. The two-time Big Ten All-Defensive Team honoree never came off the floor, averaging 34.2 minutes a game. Wood stepped into Burton's role for the past four years, guiding the team's offense from the shooting guard position. The senior jumped up on the scoring charts in her expanded position, averaging 10.4 points per game compared to just 3.8 ppg last season. She also spread the wealth all around the court, having 83 assists on the season. On the defensive end, the Maryland native showed why she deserved to be on the Big Ten All-Defensive team. She was second in the conference with 75 steals and added 38 blocks to her resume.
After a strong first campaign, sophomore Caileigh Walsh emerged as a foundational piece for Joe McKeown and the Wildcats for the coming years. Walsh was a dual threat, both down on the low block and from beyond the arc. The 6-foot-3 sophomore was the ‘Cats’ top scorer, averaging 12.4 points a game. Using her size, Walsh grabbed the most rebounds for NU with 141.
As the season slipped away from Northwestern, another young star surfaced in Evanston. First-year Caroline Lau became a key contributor down the stretch for NU, taking a larger role as Coach McKeown wanted to see what he had in his future. While her numbers may not jump off the stat sheet, only averaging 5.7 PPG and 2.6 assists per game, expect those figures to grow exponentially as she most likely joins the starting five. Lau is explosive off the dribble, but can also expand her range and fire from deep as well as any other shooter in the conference. The Westport, Connecticut native should take a big leap into her sophomore season, and if she does, the Wildcats will be in much better shape to be a competitive team.
On the other hand, Northwestern did not get as much help from its more experienced players as Coach McKeown had hoped for. Graduate Courtney Shaw, who nearly averaged a double-double last year, was not the caliber player that was exprcted for the ‘Cats this season. Shaw only averaged 5.5 PPG and 4.4 rebounds per contest and was pulled from the starting lineup only five games into the season. Later in the year, Shaw missed time with an ankle injury. Coming off such a successful year, Shaw’s lack of productivity hurt Northwestern’s ability to win inside the paint.
Although the team saw strong individual performances, the ‘Cats just could not put all the pieces together. They had the second-worst average point differential in the entire Big Ten at -7.4 and had the lowest field goal percentage in the conference, shooting a mere 38.3% from the field. NU also struggled to take of the basketball, turning it over, on average, 17.5 times a game. These factors compiling made it very difficult to win games, and the Wildcats were unable to overcome their struggles to score enough points.
Losing a superstar is never easy, but losing a top-ten draft pick is even harder. For the Wildcats, there was not enough firepower to compete with the other high-octane offenses in the Big Ten. However, this young team played valuable minutes and learned the differences in the colligate game, and those lessons will carry over as the team matures and gets better. Although this season was lost to a rebuild, it would not be surprising to see Northwestern take a massive leap forward for the 2023-2024 season.