Suffice it to say, this season has not gone according to plan for the Northwestern women's basketball team. Just over halfway through the regular season, the Wildcats are an ugly 8-7 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten, in a year in which they had hoped to at least be on the bubble for NCAA tournament consideration.
Inconsistency has been the team's biggest bugaboo. As with the men's team, injuries have played a role, as well. Senior center Dannielle Diamant and freshman forward Maggie Lyon, both starters, have missed a few games, and key reserve guard Meghan McKeown has been lost to the season with hip surgery.
The season started swimmingly enough, with a 6-0 start that included a solid road win in the Big Ten/ACC challenge against Boston College. But then the wheels came off. A loss to crosstown rival DePaul was followed by inexplicable losses to Illinois State and Bowling Green, the latter at home, in which the Wildcats scored just 36 points.
Just when you thought the 'Cats were about to fold, they had a great game against No. 8 Cal, taking the Golden Bears down to the wire, before losing 71-65. Northwestern followed this up with a win against Mississippi, so maybe all was back on track, right? Not so fast. A loss to Hofstra, followed by an easy win against Chicago State, closed out non-conference play.
NU's first conference game came on the road against No. 9 Penn State, and just as they did against Cal, the Wildcats came oh-so-close to the upset, falling 73-69. And then another road loss, 68-64, to Indiana, which is not expected to be among the top half of the Big Ten.
So, the Wildcats find themselves with an uphill road to climb, if they want to make the postseason. The Big Ten isn't a real juggernaut this year, with just two teams ranked in the top 25 (No. 9 Penn State and No. 12 Purdue), but four others are receiving votes in the AP poll. NU's RPI sits at a lowly 109. At this point, making the NIT would be a pretty good accomplishment for this squad.
I don't mean to be a total downer, as there are some bright spots. Senior forward Kendall Hackney, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection last year, has come on lately after a bit of a slow start. She's leading the team with 14.6 points per game, and is second with 6.7 rebounds per game.
The two freshmen forward starters, Maggie Lyon and Lauren Douglas, have looked like they belong in the Big Ten from day one. Lyon is second on the team in scoring at 13.1 points per game and adds 4.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists, demonstrating her all-around skills. Douglas scores 11.3 points per game, with 4.2 rebounds.
As it always seems with McKeown's teams, turnovers are a problem. The Wildcats average 17.9 turnovers per game, ranking them 185th in Division 1. On a team that doesn't have a ton of offensive firepower, giving the opposition all those extra possessions is killer. Case in point-- against Indiana, with the team 66-64 with 32 seconds left, Hackney committed a unforced turnover, and that pretty much snuffed out the Wildcats' hopes. Against Penn State, a turnover by Karly Roser with 1:05 left and the Wildcats trailing 66-65, out of a timeout, was a similar killer.
Looking ahead, NU plays two of its next three games against Illinois, who are very beatable. If they can sweep those games, then steal a win against either No. 12 Purdue or conference co-leader Michigan, and then beat Indiana at home in the rematch, that would put NU back into postseason consideration.
As McKeown likes to say, the freshmen will need to play like sophomores, and the Wildcats will need Hackney and Diamant to step up even more. It won't be easy, but there's still a lot of basketball to be played.