By Kevin Sweeney
Coming off an exciting run to the WNIT Championship Game a season ago, Northwestern women’s basketball is in its final stages of preparation for the 2019-20 season. With four starters and all but one rotation player returning from a season ago, expectations are very high for this team as they look to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015 and just the second time since the turn of the millennium.
“It gives us a little bit of a head start,” head coach Joe McKeown said Friday. “Some of the things we had to put in the past couple of years, they already know.”
The lone departure is an important one: Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah was perhaps the best center in the Big Ten, an absolute force on the inside who also set the tone for this team with her energy and leadership. The First Team All-Big Ten honoree wrapped up her Wildcat career as the second-best rebounder in program history, and no one player can replicate what she brought to the table.
While McKeown was quick to note that he has never coached anyone like Kunaiyi-Akpanah, he did express excitement about having a deeper, more athletic team with lots of lineup versatility. Here are some notes from our Friday conversation with him, as well as sophomores Veronica Burton and Courtney Shaw:
Making Sense of the Frontcourt
With three potential All-Big Ten caliber guards returning in Burton, Lindsey Pulliam, and Jordan Hamilton, the ‘Cats shouldn’t have much difficulty putting the ball in the basket. However, the graduation of Kunaiyi-Akpanah leaves a gigantic hole in the frontcourt, and working through different options up front will be a large part of McKeown’s goals for non-conference play.
“We feel like we have a couple of different lineups that we like,” McKeown said. “But until you get battle-tested, you just don’t know.”
Senior Abbie Wolf seems like the early favorite to start at center next to fellow senior Abi Scheid, and for good reason. Wolf played very well down the stretch for the ‘Cats, including back-to-back games with 15 points in March against Iowa and Michigan State.
“She’s the one player we have that can defend in the Big Ten inside the paint, block shots, and she’s really skilled offensively,” McKeown said. “We expect a lot from her.”
McKeown also discussed the possibility of playing some smaller lineups with Scheid at center. While it wouldn’t be Northwestern’s best defensive lineup, putting her at the five would create all kinds of mismatches and open things up for Northwestern’s guards to have open driving lanes.
Shaw a Potential X-Factor
Another frontcourt option is sophomore forward Courtney Shaw, who played sparingly in her first year on campus. McKeown raved about Shaw’s growth this summer, calling her “probably the most improved player in our program”.
“She has a little bit of that Pallas ‘I’m going to try to get every rebound’ in her,” McKeown said. “When she goes after the ball, it’s like a hurricane coming through.”
In the short amount of practice time we watched, Shaw certainly looked impressive. She’s clearly an elite athlete who can really run the floor, and seemed to be playing with a lot more confidence than she had a season ago.
“I always thought I had the physical ability to play at this level,” Shaw said. “I learned from Pallas and the other older players on my team is you have to come ready to practice every day.”
Shaw’s role seems to be centered on giving the ‘Cats a boost on the glass and running the floor. McKeown noted that she can step out to about 15 feet with her jump shot, but that playing around the rim remains her strength.
Defenses Wins Championships
Northwestern rated as the best defense in the Big Ten in conference games a season ago, and optimism is high that the defense can continue to play at a high level into the 2019-20 season. McKeown’s patented “Blizzard” defense is a matchup zone that thrives on forcing turnovers, and the ‘Cats have plenty of defensive playmakers in the backcourt that can help turn defense into offense.
It has been something that’s been crucial for me ever since I was growing up,” Burton said. “Getting points off turnovers really gets the momentum going and helps getting us flow.”
Pulliam, Hamilton, Burton, and sophomore wing Sydney Wood all return having collected over 30 steals a season ago. While the first three get most of the praise, Wood has a chance to be a key player thanks to her abilities on the defensive end.
“She’s one of the best defensive players in the conference,” McKeown said. “I feel like she can guard anybody.”
Being able to bring a lockdown defender off the bench is a huge luxury, and Wood’s versatility also makes her an asset– McKeown said he’s comfortable playing her at three different positions.
Finishing possessions with defensive rebounds will be critical, but McKeown is confident that the ‘Cats can remain one of the best defenses in the conference.
The Wildcats’ season gets underway on November 6 as the ‘Cats host Lewis in an exhibition game. WNUR Sports is your flagship home for Northwestern women’s basketball all season long!