Big Ten Women's Basketball Preview: No. 5 Northwestern

Veronica Burton turns a flurry into the Blizzard

This is the eighth of an ongoing series of previews for all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-22 season. This is the sixth full preview of one team, and focuses on my projected No. 5 team in the conference.

Here is last week’s preview of No. 6 Ohio State

Two things I wanted to say before I talk about Northwestern:

  1. My bad on this coming out even later than the late day I had said on Thursday. I was tired and didn’t want to send out a half-assed preview for a very good, interesting team. And look, now you get back-to-back days of Hoopla, how exciting!

  2. My good friend Jake Rahe has started a video game newsletter called A Few Bits. He has an excellent post up about the beauty of Rocket League, and the way he talks about it reminds me so much of how I feel about Overwatch. I would highly recommend subscribing, and he was even nice enough to make it free as well.

Now, let’s talk about some Wildcats.

Northwestern

Last year’s record: 11-7 Big Ten | 16-9 Overall

Head coach Joe McKeown has been at Northwestern since 2008, but he brought the team unprecedented success for the first time in the 2019-20 season, where the Wildcats went 26-4 overall and earned a share of the Big Ten title (with Maryland) with a 16-2 conference record.

That was the first time Northwestern has ever won a Big Ten regular season crown, and yet that Wildcats team never got a chance to cash in on that history after COVID wiped out the NCAA Tournament.

The 2020-21 season was a chance for Northwestern to run it back and show what the team was still made of, and it did some of that, finishing fifth in the Big Ten and entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed. Then, the Wildcats did what was expected from them: they took down UCF and fell to No. 2 Louisville, but man, did they give Louisville absolutely everything they could.

Northwestern jumped out to a 16-2 lead that ballooned to 25-7 before the first quarter was up. The Cardinals added a three to make it a 15-point lead 10 minutes in. But then the Wildcats did not score for the first 5:22 of the second quarter, yet still held a 32-20 lead at halftime.

The lead remained 12 for much of the third quarter, but a 12-0 Louisville run tied the game at 40 going into the fourth, and that’s where the Cardinals slammed the door on Northwestern, winning 62-53. The Wildcats followed up 25 points in the first 8:43 of the game with 28 points in the final 31:17.

Much of Northwestern’s success the last two seasons has not been its offensive prowess, with the Wildcats scoring just 67.4 points per game in 2020-21, fourth-fewest in the Big Ten. Instead, it has been the defense that has led them to victories, allowing the third-fewest points in the conference (61.1 per game) last season.

The lack of scoring allowed is not because of causing missed shots, something Northwestern was in the middle of the pack at last year. It is also not because of rebounding, which the Wildcats were dead last in (34.4 per game) for the Big Ten.

No, instead it is the fabled “Blizzard” defense’s ability to force turnovers at an unbelievable rate. The Wildcats forced 20.7 turnovers per game last season, most in the conference and No. 12 in the country. The Northwestern offense is also specifically good at avoiding turnovers, committing just 11.4 per game, No. 2 in the conference and No. 9 in the nation.

That plus-9.28 turnover margin was by far and away the best in college basketball last season, almost a full one per game over No. 2 Grand Canyon at plus-8.4.

Will Northwestern be able to make that happen again this season? Maybe, but it will be without a few key players.

Both Jordan Hamilton and Lindsey Pulliam are big subtractions to the core that has built Northwestern’s recent run of success. Both players started every game for the Wildcats a year ago, and it will be hard to replace that level of production on a team that already struggled to find offense.

The silver lining for Northwestern, however, is that what these two brought in pure output, they each lacked in efficiency. Pulliam and Hamilton shot 36.0 percent and 35.5 percent from the field respectively on their combined 26.6 attempts per game, and those numbers were even worse from deep.

Despite the duo finishing second and third on the team in three-point attempts, Pulliam shot 24.5 percent and Hamilton shot 26.4 percent from behind the arc, and it dragged the team down to being one of the worst three-point shooting teams in college basketball (26.8 percent, No. 299 in the country).

Even with that said, both were key players in more than just shooting, and Pulliam had been the team’s star during its magical run the year prior, so these still remain as pivotal losses. But, the Wildcats still have their star from 2020-21.

Veronica Burton was undoubtedly one of the best players in the Big Ten last season, improving both as a scorer and as a defender, something she was already elite at.

You are indeed reading correctly that she finished the year averaging 3.8 steals per contest, the most of any player in the country. She was also an exceptional playmaker and added over five rebounds per game, making her one of the few consistent triple-double threats at the collegiate level.

Much like Pulliam, her efficiency has room to improve. Burton shot 39.9 percent from the field overall and 30.7 percent from three, and if those can go up even a few percents, she can be in talks for the conference’s player of the year.

Sydney Wood and Courtney Shaw are also important contributors returning. Shaw missed nine games last season and was a strong interior presence when she was there, while Wood is another exceptional defender that still gives Northwestern complementary scoring outside of Burton.

This Northwestern offseason was unlike other teams in the Big Ten, as the Wildcats did not use the portal, but instead did it old-fashioned way: through recruiting.

McKeown has brought in a very impressive 2021 class that ranked 10th in the country according to ESPN. The class is highlighted by a trio of four-star prospects, including guards Hailey Weaver and Jillian Brown, both of which were on the Naismith High School Trophy watch list this past season.

Caileigh Walsh was not far behind the top 50 guards at No. 56, and could get some key minutes with how much Northwestern struggled to rebound last season. The same could be said for Mercy Ademusayo, who was a strong shot blocker in high school and brings excellent size as a freshman.

Melannie Daley looks like a player that could also fit right into the Blizzard defense with her excellent defensive ability, something that she put on display plenty out of Hastings, N.Y.

All in all, it’s hard to see this team regressing much, even without Pulliam as a key scorer. Burton should be good enough to do far more than just keep Northwestern afloat, and the vast amount of experience the team’s top players possess should only help keep things going in an insanely deep Big Ten.

Is this a team worth watching? It depends what you want to see. Northwestern is not doing what a lot of Big Ten teams are, and by that I mean scoring the ball a lot. Instead, the Wildcats want to mug you, leave you out to die in the freezing cold and then beat you with 55 points on 28 percent shooting. They almost did that to freaking Louisville, and they still have the capability do it to any team in the country if they are firing on all cylinders.

Next week, we will look at the No. 4 ranked team for the Big Ten preview. Before that, I will have a new post on a random topic for you tomorrow.

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