Q&A: Northwestern Women’s Basketball Assistant Coach Kate Popovec

By Eric Rynston-Lobel

Northwestern women’s basketball sits at 8-3 in the Big Ten standings over halfway through the 2020-21 season. We caught up with Assistant Coach Kate Popovec to get her thoughts on playing during COVID-19, where the team is right now and how national discourse on racial injustice has influenced the program.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Eric Rynston-Lobel: What’ve been a couple of the biggest challenges for you coaching this season during COVID-19?

Kate Popovec: The biggest challenge is definitely the lack of unity that we can have in normal situations. The things that our team does that every coach dreams of––they’re always eating together, hanging out together, in the locker room together––all of those things that build camaraderie off the court that translate to those on-the-court moments, we’ve had to halt. That’s been by far the biggest challenge because you’re trying to create your team identity, and especially because we have new players, they just don’t get the full experience. At one point in time we weren’t allowed to have any team meals together. They weren’t allowed to use the locker room. Credit to our girls who are doing the absolute best that they can. It’s definitely been an adjustment, but I think now, we’re really starting to see that vibe come into our team. At no fault of anyone, they just couldn’t be together, and it was really, really hard. Our team is literally a coach’s dream because they just love each other so much, and we’re like, ‘But you can’t…” and that sucked.

ER: Before the season, if someone would’ve told you the team would be 8-3 through the first 11 games, how would you have felt about that?

KP: I think if you told me we’d be 8-3, I wouldn’t have been surprised either way. I felt like if you had asked us last year if this was our record at this time last year, I would’ve felt the same way. It’s just so hard to predict. I think what’s also made it really hard this year is you’re gonna see different teams come to life at different times just because of what’s happening with COVID. You can tell teams couldn’t practice for a month. I think some teams that really struggled at the beginning are now starting to find a groove because they’ve gotten games, they’ve gotten practices, and maybe some teams that were doing really well at the beginning are struggling because they’ve hit a COVID pause or because other teams are finding their rhythm. 

We had some losses that were lessons, Nebraska being a really big one for us. Understanding that we are beatable and you have to be prepared was big, and Nebraska definitely gave it to us. I think Indiana was a learning lesson for us too because when we couldn’t generate offense, you saw our defense collapse. That can’t be our identity. I thought our kids did a really good job against Iowa not letting that same thing happen again. I think we’ve had some lessons, and I think you just gotta battle it out. 

ER: The other loss in there was Michigan, and I’m sure you probably don’t want to relive much of that, but it seemed like they had an energy that Northwestern just didn’t have that day. What do you take from that game because I don’t think this team has lost a game like that in the last two years?

KP: Michigan treated that game like it was a national title game. For our kids, that’s a big lesson: teams wanna really kick your butt. There’s not a team in our conference that isn’t gunning for you and that’s not going to give you their best game. Not only was Michigan ready to beat us, Michigan is a talented team. They have a lot of pieces on the floor that can do a lot of things. When you have that level of confidence, that chip on your shoulder and you have talent, you gotta bring your A game. It was a definite lesson for our kids. They hated it. We hated it as coaches. I think more than anything it forced us to go back to the drawing board as coaches and as a team to really tweak bits of our identity that we needed to tweak and to fix moving forward. We lost some size, that doesn’t mean we’ve lost any level of talent. We’re just different than we were last year. We have to keep adjusting to those differences that we have.

ER: A couple of those differences you mentioned earlier are having the first-years now coming in. Particularly the last couple games Paige Mott and Anna Morris have played a lot with Courtney Shaw out. Where have you seen them develop the most the last couple weeks?

KP: They’ve gotten so much better. I think even Jazz (Jasmine McWilliams) gave us huge minutes against Iowa. I think she’s another player you can expect to probably see a little bit more of as we move through. For them, it’s just confidence. You need the games to get the confidence and to learn the lessons. One of the things I’ve been really proud of––and I can speak to Paige and Anna because Coach Tang (Tangela Smith) and I work directly with them every day and watch film with them––they’re taking corrections I make on film to the next game and making those corrections that we want them to make. As coaches, that’s the best thing you can ask for. I’m showing a kid who’s been here for six months, who’s had the most unorthodox experience in the country, and I’m asking her to step up and play against some of the best post players in the country right now. Their first two games with Courtney going down were against probably two of the best post players in the conference, and they weren’t afraid. One thing I’ve really been excited to see is Courtney, even though she’s not on the court, she’s really trying to be a voice with them. She takes them aside before every game, and they have a little huddle. In practice she’ll try to pull them aside when she can. She really has taken ownership and is trying to mentor them which I love to see, too. 

ER: You talked before about how the style of this team is a little bit different than last year––much smaller, trying to play quicker. What does the absence of someone like Abi Scheid force you to do differently because you don’t necessarily have that one shooter who’s going to knock down 50% of her three-pointers?

KP: A lot of teams are trying to pack it in and make it really junky on the inside for us and limit our ability to get to the lane. We’ve had to adjust our defensive rotations, and we’ve also had to really look to push in our transition opportunities because when we can, we are super fast and we have a ton of weapons. Scoring in transition is a unique skill, and I think that we have four of the best guards on the court in transition. Jordan Hamilton, Sydney Wood, Veronica Burton are all lightning-quick downhill, change-of-pace and can finish through contact. Pulliam, with her ability to finish in the mid-range on a dime, is a really, really unique skill set. One of the things that we’ve had to emphasize is we have to generate those opportunities through great stops on the defensive end. Last year we were a great defensive team, but I think we could get away with a little bit more because we had a lot more size and you also had someone like Scheid who could stretch the floor, but also someone like Wolf who you could just pound it in to. 

ER: I want to ask you about Burton. I think I say this every broadcast we do that you just run out of things to say about her because she does everything so well. Where can she continue to get better, or has she just reached her peak at this point?

KP: I don’t think there is a peak in Veronica Burton’s world. Every year she adds something to the arsenal. Joe (McKeown) looked at me from her freshman to sophomore year and was like, “The kid got frickin’ faster.” People don’t just gain a lot of speed. She got a lot faster getting downhill and her change of pace. Preston (Reid) works with her position group, and one thing you’ll constantly hear him on the bench say is, “V, the mid-range. You can score in the mid-range.” That’s an area of her game that she has, but she doesn’t always show. She’s just so elite right now at getting downhill that I don’t think her mind goes there. That’s where you’re gonna continue to see her improve. 

Coaching Veronica is just a special experience. I think you look at a kid like that and you’re like, “Dang, you don’t know how many times you’re gonna get to coach a kid like her.” Everyone always talks about, “She’s such a great kid. She’s such a hard worker. She just seems so sweet,” and it’s totally true. There’s not one bad thing you could say about her.

ER: I wanted to also talk to you about what’s gone on in the world with racial injustice protests. I know the team this year has decided not to come out for the national anthem. Can you speak to the way that what’s happening has impacted conversations the team has or just things the team does that you may not have done in previous seasons?

KP: The biggest thing for our players to understand is that to us, they’re more than just basketball players. That’s something that we have to constantly reiterate. Our job as coaches is to continue to emphasize critical thinking. That’s what we want. Our voice isn’t their voice. We want them to have the voice and have the knowledge to express themselves however they feel it’s important. They are role models. They are strong women. We are a majority Black team, so just to give them the support that they need to feel how they want to express themselves and the things that matter to them. I’ve been really proud of our team because I just think they approach everything with tremendous poise. They’re super intelligent. They research. They’re invested. They are complex in their thought process. 

You can learn a lot as a coach from them, and I think that’s something that I’ve had to step back and look at––how can I be better in supporting our Black female athletes? They are the most underrepresented group in the country. They are constantly at the slew of racial injustice and injustice everywhere. Having those conversations can be challenging, especially in the midst of a season. You can get so caught up in the basketball world, and you don’t want to forget that there’s a lot more that’s bigger than basketball. 

ER: Last year, you said the ceiling for the team was whatever they wanted it to be. I assume you feel the same about this group this year?

KP: Oh, absolutely. We have some really talented and amazing leaders on our team. You could say the world about Pulliam. This kid’s unreal. She just loves the game, and she’s just a really good-hearted person and leader. She’s tough as nails. She’s vocal. She’s incredible. You’ve seen V (Burton) rise up. Speaks for itself. Sydney Wood is always the unsung hero, but her leadership has really increased. She’s stepped up. She’s become a lot more vocal. The one thing I’ve seen in Jordan the most is she tries to play mother hen to the younger kids. She doesn’t ever let them get lost in the shuffle. We have to socially distance and you can only have so many at a table in team meal–you’ll see Jordan go sit with some of the younger players and goof around and make them feel comfortable. The leadership is there, and I think you’re continuing to see the evolution now that our first-years are starting to get playing time, they’re getting better every game and they’re going to continue to help us. We need that. Hopefully our best basketball is ahead of us, and I feel the same way I did last year for sure.