Last season’s story of the women’s basketball team was undoubtedly the most interesting of every Northwestern sport. On Dec. 19, they were the no. 12 team in the country. On March 2, they were the no. 12 seed in the Big Ten tournament after a 4-14 Big Ten record. But when they got to the Big Ten tournament, they won three straight games and made it to the semifinals against Maryland. That roller coaster season earned them a WNIT bid, where they lost a close game to San Diego in the first round.
So this team was one of the best in the country and one of the worst Big Ten teams in the same season. What should their expectations be for this year?
The obvious answer is somewhere in the middle – a good, but not great team that could fight their way into an NCAA tournament bid. But a closer look at the core of this team shows that they could be closer to that December team than that March team.
First of all, they have one of the best players in the country entering her senior season in Nia Coffey. If this team has any hopes of being a top team in the country again, having Coffey in peak form all season is huge. She’s a dynamic playmaker who completely destroys the glass on rebounds – a truly special talent that will be sorely missed after this season. The first step to building a great team is having a superstar talent, and the ‘Cats will have that on the floor for ~35 minutes per game again.
Coffey’s fellow senior starters, Ashley Deary and Christen Inman, are also vital to the team’s success. Deary makes her presence known of the defensive end of the floor, leading the nation in steals last season. Early in her career she was sometimes too aggressive jumping into passing lanes for steals, but as she enters her fourth season she’s been able to better judge when to go for the steal and when to wait. She’s also one of the speedier players on the team, which is quite helpful when they start running in transition.
With Inman, the ‘Cats have another pure scorer in addition to Coffey. She’s an excellent shot creator who can consistently hit a mid-range jumper and get to the basket through traffic. With her and Coffey, the ‘Cats have two players who on any possession can take the ball themselves and score. Inman also has considerable defensive value as a long, athletic wing who can defend multiple positions.
But all of those players (and Maggie Lyon) were there last year, so how did they go 4-14 in conference play?
There were two fundamental flaws with last year’s team. One was a lack of depth outside of their four star players, and another was their lack of three-point shooting.
Regarding that first problem, the ‘Cats are looking like a significantly deeper team this season, especially in the frontcourt. Christen Johnson not only played last year, but STARTED 14 games. Her Northwestern career numbers: 0.5 points per game, 1.4 rebounds per game, and 27.7 percent field goal percentage. The ‘Cats won’t have to play anyone on that level this year.
They have Oceana Hamilton available after sitting out last season due to transfer rules, and she started at center in their exhibition game last Sunday. Hamilton provides valuable rim protection at 6-4, and was already a significant role player at Alabama before transferring. However even though she may start, she won’t get the majority of the minutes at center this year.
That will be the sophomore Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who started 20 games for the ‘Cats last year. Pallas provides most of her value on the boards, averaging 7.8 rebounds per game and 3.3 offensive rebounds per game last year. She was still rather raw overall last year, but her floor is still a valuable role player. Her move to the bench shouldn’t be seen as a demotion – she should still see close to 20 minutes per game, and her talent off the bench could provide a spark to a unit that struggled immensely last season.
The ‘Cats also have two top-100 freshman recruits in the frontcourt, Abbie Wolf and Abi Scheid. Wolf, a 6-4 center, is an imposing defensive presence who could develop into a key part of the team’s future. Wolf could take over for Hamilton in that starting center role, possibly later this season, as she gets more experience.
Redshirt senior Lauren Douglas is also back this year after missing all of last season with an injury. Douglas is smaller than Wolf and Hamilton, but she gives the ‘Cats a reasonable option to spare Coffey and Inman at the forward spots. Douglas provides valuable shot blocking, a little three-point shooting, and decent rebounding as well. Most importantly she can come off the bench and play extended minutes at multiple positions, something the ‘Cats really didn’t have last year.
With these fresh, talented bodies in the frontcourt, the lack of depth shouldn’t be as much of a problem, but with regards to the three-point shooting problem, the ‘Cats seem to have gotten worse in that category. They haven’t added any true shooters, and they lost one of their better ones in Maggie Lyon. So how much of a problem is this lack of perimeter shooting?
It’s not great, but it’s not a death sentence. Last year, Michigan State was a slightly better three-point shooting team than Northwestern. They shot 31.5 percent from deep (12th in the Big Ten) while the ‘Cats shot 30.6 percent. The Spartans went 13-5 in Big Ten play and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament, and had success riding their star post player (Aerial Powers) and building a strong defense.
Northwestern can try to follow a similar model riding Nia Coffey for ~20 points and 10 rebounds per game. On defense, having a reliable post defender (Hamilton, Wolf or an improved Pallas) will be huge, and they have an elite perimeter defender in Deary. It certainly makes things more difficult, but teams can still have success without great three-point shooting. The ‘Cats have the right combination of elite senior talent and promising youth to put together an interesting season.