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Deep Dive: What’s behind the turnover troubles that have tanked the Wildcats’ season thus far?

This team is making history, and not in a good way. Could Wednesday mark a permanent shift in the right direction?

Mary Grace Grabill/Northwestern Athletics

On Wednesday night, the Northwestern Wildcats stared down the barrel of a three-point deficit just two minutes into the third quarter. After building a five-point lead against the Wisconsin Badgers just before halftime, the team watched it slowly slip away thanks to cold shooting. A jumper by Wisconsin’s Ronnie Porter pushed the run to 8-0, and it seemed as though yet another win was about to elude the Wildcats.

But then a funny thing happened: rather than fold, Northwestern started pushing back against the Badgers’ run, and it worked. There are many stats that could be used to explain how the Wildcats turned that deficit into a 57-49 lead in under eight minutes (rebounding success, three-point shooting and so on), but this is the key: From 8:18 left in the third frame to 45 seconds left in the third frame, the Wildcats committed just one turnover. It was a major milestone for a team that has been plagued by giveaways all season long.

Here’s some quick stats for you: this season, Northwestern has played 16 games. Fifteen of those games have seen the Wildcats commit double-digit turnovers. Six of those 15 have seen the Wildcats break the 20-turnover plateau. The Wildcats surpassed 25 turnovers in an astounding three of those six games, including two of the team’s last three.

Now, those numbers may not seem too bad at first glance. After all, just one Division I team (shoutout Colorado State) currently averages under 10 turnovers per game. But when you look at recent Wildcat history, you see how jaw-dropping those numbers are. For example, the years between 2015 and 2021 mark arguably the golden age of Wildcat basketball under Joe McKeown. During that stretch, the team made a pair of WNITs, a pair of NCAA Tournaments (it would have been three if not for the COVID-19-induced cancellation in 2020), and tallied six winning seasons. That era saw star players like Maggie Lyon, Nia Coffey, Abi Scheid and Veronica Burton come through Evanston. It was an era to remember.

One example of the beauty of that era is how good the Wildcats were at keeping turnovers manageable. From tipoff in late 2014 to the final buzzer in spring of 2022, Northwestern women’s basketball had just three games in which it committed 25 or more turnovers. Keep in mind, the current iteration of the Wildcats squad pulled off that inauspicious number in just 15 games.

Even last season, without a doubt the worst turnover season on record (Note: turnover records, at least on Northwestern Athletics’ website, start in 2014-15), saw just three games in which the Wildcats went 25 or over in giveaways. Also, that team at least won the turnover battle 11 times. Currently, this year’s squad is on pace for nine wins of the turnover battle. That would be the first time a Northwestern team failed to win the turnover battle double-digit times since 2017-18, the only year from 2013 to 2022 in which the Wildcats failed to post a winning record.

So, this year’s Wildcats team is on pace to shatter McKeown-era turnover numbers. If current trends hold, the team will close the season with five games with 25+ giveaways (easily the worst mark of the past decade, if not longer), 11 games with 20 or more turnovers (also a record for at least the last decade), and an astounding 27 games with 10 or more turnovers (not including Big Ten Tournament play). That mark would tie for third-worst on record, and if the team committed double-digit turnovers at all in postseason play, that game would move it to a tie for second-worst on record. But what’s behind this historic level of failure to keep the ball in purple-and-white hands during games?

A big part of it is the lack of experience on this team. The current top six in minutes played are Caroline Lau, Melannie Daley, Paige Mott, Casey Harter, Caileigh Walsh and Hailey Weaver. Mott is the only senior, and Walsh is the only junior with two full seasons under her belt (Weaver played only sparingly as a first-year, and Daley dealt with injuries as a sophomore). Combine that with the fact that Harter is a first-year and Lau is a sophomore, and you get a Wildcats top six that had roughly seven-and-a-half combined years of collegiate experience when the season kicked off.

But how does that compare to the last decade of the McKeown era? Well, since 2014-15, it’s the fifth year in which the team’s top six has combined for fewer than 10 full collegiate seasons, and only the third year in which the team’s top six combined for fewer than eight seasons. The other two years that qualified were 2017-18 and 2018-19. Those years are standouts for obvious reasons: 2018 was the only below-.500 campaign in that aforementioned golden age of McKeown basketball at Northwestern, and 2019 marked the freshman year of one Veronica Burton.

So, lack of experience definitely plays a role in the massive turnover numbers. Another factor is even simpler: this team has dealt with a gauntlet of a schedule. In non-conference play alone, the Wildcats faced five teams ranked in the top 100 nationally in turnovers forced per game. There are also five different Big Ten teams ranked in that same top 100. The Wildcats have already played Penn State and Ohio State (losing by a combined 70 points), and they still have to face Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan State and Penn State again. Eleven of 29 games coming against defenses of that caliber is not a recipe for success, especially when combined with an inexperienced team.

Luckily for the Wildcats, things may be starting to turn. Lau and Harter combined for just three turnovers in 59 minutes against Wisconsin, and no player on the roster tallied more than two giveaways in the road victory. Offensively, the team is starting to gel, and Northwestern has broken the 70-point barrier in four of its last six games. The Wildcats are 6-0 this year when that mark is reached, so garnering this offensive consistency and momentum right as Big Ten play begins to truly heat up is great news.

Those last six games have also seen the Wildcats win the turnover battle three times. In the last six games, Northwestern has already had more turnover battle victories than it did in the first 10 games. That pace of turnover battle winning is far more conducive to success, and if the Wildcats can keep it up, it could prove to be a major shift in their fortunes.

Being 333rd in the country (in other words, bottom 20) in turnovers forced and 265th in the country (bottom 100) in turnovers committed has been a recipe for disaster this season. But as the new year kicks into full swing, it looks as though at least one of those ingredients might be about to shift. If that is indeed the case, then the Wildcats will be able to put together a season (and a turnover margin) that’s a lot more palatable than previously expected.