By Ben Krieger
If you’ve moved the 2018-2019 winter sports season to the back of your mind, we understand. There was an entire quarter of sports in the spring, the sun is now shining here in August, and the thrill of fall sports is just around the corner.
Let us refresh your memory.
Northwestern Women’s Basketball came 14 points shy of a national championship. In a special two-and-a-half-week run at the end of March, the Wildcats rolled through the WNIT bracket, winning twice in Evanston and three times in enemy territory before falling to Arizona in front of a record-breaking crowd in Tucson.
With just one senior graduating (albeit a huge loss – more on that later) and an ever-growing group of talented young players, Coach Joe McKeown’s squad has a chance to be even better this year.
2018-2019 Season in Review
Now we all remember how the story ended in 2019, but the journey was remarkable in its own right. Coming into the year with only one senior on the roster and just three total underclassmen in the starting lineup, Northwestern had plenty of talent but lacked experience in what would prove to be a rollercoaster of a season.
Facing a difficult non-conference schedule that featured three top-25 teams, Northwestern came out of the gates on fire with a hard-fought win on the road at Green Bay and a complete dismantling of the 21st-ranked Duke Blue Devils at home en route to a 5-0 start to the season.
After stumbling against Pitt, No. 20 DePaul, and No. 18 Marquette, the Wildcats closed out the non-con slate with two wins and a loss to enter Big Ten play with a solid 7-4 record.
Northwestern looked strong through its first nine conference matchups, going 6-3 with wins over No. 15 Michigan State and No. 25 Indiana while losing by no more than four in any game. A strong second half to the Big Ten schedule would have positioned the Wildcats to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2014-2015 season.
The Wildcats’ NCAA hopes took a major hit on the last night of January, when a floundering Minnesota team (although they finished 9-9 in the conference, the Golden Gophers were 2-7 at the time with their only wins coming against 13th-place Wisconsin) eked out an overtime win in Evanston. Northwestern would then lose four of its next six, finish the regular season at 16-13 (9-9 Big Ten) and fall to Michigan State in their first Big Ten Tournament matchup.
Missing the NCAA Tournament turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though, as it made their unforgettable WNIT run possible. Dayton, Toledo, West Virginia, Ohio and James Madison all proved incapable of taking down the Wildcats. Although the ‘Cats were unable to take down Arizona in the finals, Northwestern demonstrated the kind of grit – their last three wins came by a combined 10 points – that should excite Wildcat fans for the upcoming season.
Northwestern’s success this season rests largely on the shoulders of its returning triumvirate of starting guards: Lindsey Pulliam, Jordan Hamilton and Veronica Burton.
Pulliam enters her junior season as one of the Big Ten’s elite scoring threats, coming off a First Team All-Big Ten season in which she ranked fifth in the conference with 16.5 points per game. She has the ability to carry an offense by herself but has to improve her efficiency after shooting 40.4 percent and 36.8 percent from the floor in her first two campaigns. If Pulliam can lift that figure to 45 percent, she will have very few weaknesses in her already strong game. Either way, her appearance with Team USA in the Pan-American games next week should be a boon to her development.
Hamilton also enters her third year as an entrenched starter in the backcourt looking to take the next step. After serving primarily as a distributor in 2017-2018, she worked a bit more off the ball last year with Burton’s addition to the lineup. While Hamilton’s scoring and field goal percentage both increased from her first season, her three-point efficiency and assist totals decreased. To her credit, she remained one of the team’s most tenacious defenders and showed impressive resolve in battling through an injury suffered in mid-February. A healthy Hamilton with shooting range similar to her first year in Evanston will be a force on both ends of the floor.
The third member of last year’s starting backcourt, Burton earned a spot in the starting lineup early in the season and shared lead-guard duties with Hamilton throughout. She averaged a solid 8.6 points per game while directing the offense with a 2.4 assist/turnover ratio, the latter good for second-best in the conference. Burton also demonstrated a nose for the basketball, posting a conference-best 2.6 steals per game, as well as a pure shooting stroke, knocking down 85.5 percent from the charity stripe and a team-best 36.8 percent from beyond the arc.
The Wildcats also have several intriguing options off the bench. Sydney Wood averaged 17.2 minutes in 34 games last year, as the ESPN top-100 recruit impressed on the defensive end in her first season wearing purple and white. Seniors Byrdy Galernik, who can run the point and shot 92.3 percent from the free-throw line in 2018-2019, and Amber Jamison, who has the most experience of any player on the roster, can provide steady play late in games. Lauryn Satterwhite and Jess Sancataldo will look to earn more playing time in their sophomore campaigns, as will Brooke Pikiell in her junior season. Northwestern also adds a pair of well-regarded recruits in the backcourt in Laya Hartman and Kaylah Rainey.
With Burton, Pulliam and Hamilton backed up by impressive depth, the Wildcats have a lot of ability in the backcourt this season, but it’s anyone’s guess as to who will emerge as key contributors.
While Northwestern lost only one senior from last year’s team, Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah was not just any senior. The 6-2 forward, who started every game over the last two seasons, averaged 10.9 points and 11.2 rebounds while adding 1.5 blocks and 1.8 steals per game en route to a First Team All-Big Ten selection. Kunaiyi-Akpanah was an absolute force on the glass and an anchor for the Wildcats defensively, and there are very few players who can replace her unique skillset.
That said, Northwestern still retains a talented group of forwards with ample experience to contribute this season. Abi Scheid has played significant minutes and shown an ability to stretch the floor, shooting 41.4 percent from three as a first-year and averaging 10.9 points per game in her last two seasons. The Wildcats will need her to provide spacing on offense, but also to serve as the primary paint defender at times, which would be a new role for the rising senior.
Abbie Wolf was a highly-touted recruit out of high school and shot 58 percent backing up Kunaiyi-Akpanah last year. She figures to see significant playing time as the most natural 5 on the roster, and the Wildcats will need her to perform when they face the conference’s best interior scorers.
Bry Hopkins, the 2018-2019 Big Ten Sportsmanship Award recipient, is an unbelievable team player who has earned the trust of the coaching staff. Finally, Courtney Shaw is expected to play a much larger role after playing 19 minutes in her first year.
Three Biggest Questions:
1. Forward/center depth
The Wildcats are very, very thin at the forward position. Northwestern figures to play a three-guard lineup all season, but to have just four forwards on the roster is surprising. While Scheid and Wolf are likely to see the most minutes, they probably won’t see many of those minutes come together, considering that neither Hopkins nor Shaw would be a fit at the 5 in the second unit.
Although Scheid can play center when Wolf is off the floor (and in fact could draw the starting nod there depending on how position battles play out), she has mostly been a stretch-4 alongside Kunaiyi-Akpanah the last two years. There’s certainly nothing wrong with going small, but Northwestern will essentially always have their small lineup on the floor and could run into problems if any of their forwards get into foul trouble or they face a team with dominant bigs.
2. Three-point shooting
Despite the talent and production Northwestern’s guards displayed last year, the Wildcats struggled mightily from beyond the arc, finishing 11th of 14 in the Big Ten at 31.1 percent from downtown. Outside of Burton (36.8 percent), Scheid (36.7 percent) and Sancataldo (7-17), no Wildcats topped the 34 percent mark. As dynamic as Hamilton and Pulliam are, they made just 32.4 percent and 18.2 percent of their threes, respectively.
With the aforementioned lack of depth at forward, Northwestern will likely lean on perimeter production more heavily. If their efficiency from beyond the arc remains the same as last season, they will at times struggle to score consistently. That said, if the Wildcats can improve their three-point shooting to the 33-35 percent range, their offense can be one of the better ones in the Big Ten.
3. Determining the rotation
I preface this section by saying that there is no such thing as too much talent. Figuring out how to divvy up playing time among too many good players is a problem most coaches dream of having.
That said, Northwestern is so deep at guard that I have no idea how Coach McKeown is going to allocate minutes outside of starting Burton, Hamilton and Pulliam. As many as seven different players could factor in off the bench, ranging from the experienced options like Galernik and Jamison to the first years in Hartman and Rainey. Expect to see a lot of tinkering during the non-conference schedule as the Northwestern coaching staff tries to figure out what works best.
This season in the Big Ten will be fascinating. Outside of Maryland, the teams at the top all figure to take a step back: Iowa loses one of the best players in the country in Megan Gustafson, Rutgers exceeded expectations last year and is likely to regress somewhat and Michigan graduates two of its top three scorers in Hallie Thome and Nicole Munger.
Meanwhile, most of the teams in the middle of the pack figure to improve: Northwestern and Nebraska boast young cores that will have another year of experience, Minnesota looked dominant down the stretch last season and Purdue brings back all three of its key pieces. As many as 10 teams could potentially be vying for 2nd place in the conference this year – some are more likely than others, but there really is that much competition.
Northwestern will be more consistent in 2019-2020, but the improvement across the Big Ten will likely make it difficult for the Wildcats to post a drastically better record without a significant jump in three-point shooting. Northwestern finishes 20-9 overall, 11-7 in the Big Ten and is firmly in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament bid.