Women’s basketball: 3 areas of confidence, 3 of concern
By Jacob Brown
This will be a B1G season for Northwestern women’s basketball in a variety of ways. The team’s got a ton of talent, but lots of question marks as well. After graduating Lindsey Pulliam, Northwestern also lost Jordan Hamilton to the Stanford Cardinal as a graduate transfer. Pulliam was second on the team with 15.5 ppg, with Hamilton clocking in at fourth with nine ppg. With the team averaging 67.36 per contest, that’s over a third of their production gone.
With that being said, Northwestern will return fifth-year guard Lauryn Satterwhite, get Jess Sancataldo back after she missed a season due to international regulations, and hope to have a healthy Laya Hartman. These three returns will welcome the tenth-ranked class of recruits in the nation, as highly touted recruits Caileigh Walsh, Hailey Weaver, Jillian Brown, Mel Daley and Mercy Ademusayo will make their debuts in Evanston.
There were a lot of high points last season, but ‘Cats fans were left with a sour taste in their mouths after a brutal loss to Louisville in the second round of the NCAA tournament. As we approach the 2021-22 season, there are many areas to be confident in this team, but plenty of areas for concern as well.
Areas of Confidence
As long as Joe McKeown is coaching at Northwestern, Wildcat fans will always be able to rest assured that his team will play great defense. For those who are unfamiliar with the Blizzard, it’s a matchup zone defense. It involves two defenders playing high, two defenders playing low, and then one defender “anchoring” the defense, playing a man-to-man type of role. In this defense, Northwestern’s defenders are constantly switching who they are guarding, playing to maximize their matchups, and quickly close passing and driving lanes. This defense frustrated opponents to the tune of 287 turnovers last year, landing NU ninth in the nation with 11.5 steals per game. This scheme is phenomenal to a point where on a recruiting visit to another B1G team, class of 2025 guard Jillian Brown was told that the Blizzard was difficult to play against (which clearly wasn’t an effective way of recruiting her to a non-Northwestern school).
Not only is the scheme effective, but Northwestern also has the defensive talent to slot into it. Veronica Burton led the NCAA last season with 96 total steals and 3.84 per game, while Sydney Wood was 22nd in the nation with 65 total steals and 38th in the country with 2.6 steals per game. Wood and Burton are both elite defenders. Wood received All-Big Ten Honorable Mentions in her sophomore and junior seasons due to her defensive play. Burton, who has led the Big Ten in steals for three years, won Big Ten Defensive Player of the year in both of the last two seasons.
Northwestern lost Lindsey Pulliam to Turkey and Jordan Hamilton to Stanford but effectively added seven players to its roster this year. Aside from Lauryn Satterwhite deciding to return for her COVID year, Jess Sancatlado will be rejoining the team after spending last season at home in Australia due to international COVID regulations. Last year, Laya Hartman was with the team but only saw time in nine games due to a lower-body injury and COVID.
This year, Northwestern gets Sancataldo and Hartman back fresh, in addition to the tenth-ranked recruiting class in the nation. The class includes three players who have four-star ratings and is a complete one-through-five lineup. With these new additions, NU’s depth chart will likely look something like this:
|Veronica Burton||Lauryn Satterwhite||Sydney Wood||Anna Morris||Courtney Shaw|
|Kaylah Rainey||Jillian Brown||Jess Sancataldo||Caileigh Walsh||Paige Mott|
|Mel Daley||Hayley Weaver||Jasmine McWilliams||Laya Hartman||Mercy Ademusayo|
*Note: This is a rough estimate, as Northwestern doesn’t usually play with the typical point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, center structure*
Honestly, any of the 10 players not starting could very likely contribute significantly off the bench. With so much young talent, I wouldn’t be shocked to McKeown do one of two things:
- Experiment with Walsh, Brown, Daley, Weaver and Morris early on to see who he likes in what situations
- Redshirt some amount of Brown, Weaver and Daley. With Burton, Satterwhite, Wood and Sancataldo all in their final seasons, Northwestern will need depth in the future.
Head coach Joe McKeown led the ‘Cats to an NIT runner-up finish in 2019, a B1G Championship in 2020 and the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. With the addition of the 10th rated recruiting class in the nation, it’s no wonder that McKeown’s contract was extended through the 2025 season. In addition, former Wildcat Kate Popovec was also promoted to associate head coach this season. When you add the WNBA experience of Tangela Smith, Preston Reid’s six years of experience at Akron and Ivy Abiona’s experience career of success at the college and professional levels, this staff is stacked from the top down.
Each staff member has their own strengths, and McKeown has put together a group that hits every base that he needs. Those at the helm of the NU team are a major reason to have confidence in the team.
Areas of Concern
As good as NU’s offense is in transition, the team often struggled to run the offense otherwise. It seemed that for much of the season, the offense plan was:
- Run a play to get Veronica Burton to the hoop
- Try to get Pulliam a midrange shot
With a limited variety in what the offense did, other teams could adjust quickly and slow the ‘Cats. Take, for example, the Louisville loss. Northwestern scored 25 points in the first quarter, fueled primarily by Jordan Hamilton’s 12-point burst. But the Cardinals quickly adjusted, limiting Hamilton. Northwestern proceeded to score 15 points in the second and third quarters COMBINED, letting a 25-10 first-quarter lead slip away. Louisville made a point of limiting Northwestern in transition — hampering Veronica Burton, and with Pulliam struggling mightily (four points on 1-11 shooting), Northwestern’s offense went stone cold.
In games in which Northwestern shot at least .400 from the field, they were 11-0. In games in which they shot under .400, they were 5-9, with two of those wins coming by single digits. The team must find a way to create offense in the half-court. Three ways that they can do that:
- Pick-and-roll with Burton and Shaw:
Burton has the speed and finishing ability to make her an elite playmaker in this set, and Shaw’s athleticism and ability to finish around the hoop will make it hard for teams to defend both. Pairing them with Sancataldo, Satterwhite and other shooters to capitalize when defenders crash will allow NU to space the floor effectively.
- Off-ball pick-and-pop with Walsh/Morris and Wood:
Sydney Wood showed an increased willingness to drive to the hoop last year, attempting 211 shots and 85 free throws last year after taking just 231 shots and 95 free throws her first two years combined. With that said, Wood tends to put her head down and go to the hoop without looking for her teammates. Sending her on a cut-off screen from a shooting big will give her an easy secondary option if the defense rotates towards her. With Wood’s improved finishing ability, if she can keep her eyes up and find her teammates in the corner or elbows when the defense collapses, this could be a lethal set for the Wildcats.
- Five out:
This set is incredibly lineup-dependent, as neither Paige Mott nor Courtney Shaw is a phenomenal shooter. An interesting lineup for the ‘Cats could consist of Burton-Wood-Sancataldo-Walsh-Morris. This lineup is incredibly dependent on Morris or Walsh being able to guard opposing bigs, but if they can, this lineup has the size to wreak havoc defensively. The primary plan on the offensive end would be to isolate Burton at the top of the key. In the scenario in which she gets past her defender (which is likely), she will have an easy finish at the hoop; in the scenario in which the defense collapses, she will have a kick out for an open three. If that plan fails, off-ball screens to free up Wood for a cut (as mentioned above) or make space for a shooter will be an effective way for NU to create spacing on the offensive end.
Courtney Shaw is immensely talented, thanks in part to her elite athleticism. But Shaw and Paige Mott struggled at times to be effective in the post. Defensively, Shaw sometimes struggles to compensate for her lack of size. Strength is also an issue for her in the post, as bigs like Michigan’s Naz Hillmon and Illinois’ Kennedi Miles can overpower her. Conversely, Mott possesses the strength that Shaw lacks but suffers in the mobility department, allowing the fluid bigs in the conference like Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes and Maryland’s Angel Reese to out-manoeuver her.
Last year, the team allowed Iowa’s Monika Czinano to score 62 points in two matchups, Maryland’s Diamond Miller 30 in two matchups and Hillmon 71 in three games. This year, the ‘Cats will face Sedona Prince of Oregon; in the Big Ten, they’ll play Iowa and Czinano twice and face Michigan and Hillmon, Indiana and Holmes and Maryland once. If NU can’t lock it down in the post defensively, those will be some challenging games.
Rebounding is also an area in which NU’s post abilities are up in the air. Northwestern was out-rebounded by opponents 861-948 last year and 612-683 in conference play. Northwestern allowed opponents to corral 10 or more offensive rebounds in 15 games, with six of those games resulting in losses for the ‘Cats. In fact, in NU’s final 15 games, they were out-rebounded 13 times. Getting an entire season with a healthy Courtney Shaw will help for sure, as she led the Cats with 7.4 rebounds per game. Veronica Burton averaged 5.1 rebounds per game, while Paige Mott averaged just 3.4 rebounds per game, despite being four inches taller than Burton. Northwestern will need Mott, Morris and Walsh to step up on the boards to limit the opponents’ second chance opportunities while creating them for Northwestern
Last year Northwestern shot 65% from the line as a team, last in the Big Ten. Aside from Burton, no one on the team shot above 70%. The squad is losing two of their top free-throw shooters, and when you take Pulliam and Hamilton out of the equation, Northwestern hit just 244 of their 369 attempts. Northwestern loves to attack the paint, to a point where they ranked 30th in the NCAA with 507 free throw attempts, averaging around 20 attempts per game. At a 66% free throw percentage, that’s about six points per game Northwestern is leaving at the stripe. And those points MATTER.
Northwestern had eight games that resulted in a difference in 10 or less, going 4-4 in those games. In Northwestern’s first loss to Nebraska, the Huskers won by two on a last-second buzzer-beater. In that game, the Cats missed 12 from the stripe. In the loss to Louisville, Northwestern went 7-13 from the line and lost by nine. Although that wouldn’t have made the entire difference, making another three or four free throws changes the complexion of the game late for Northwestern, especially when the offense was struggling the way it was. All in all, free throws should be just that: FREE. Northwestern needs to improve its shooting from the line to win close games.