The difference between the offense coach Joe McKeown has implemented this year and the one Northwestern ran before he arrived is night and day.
The Wildcats have made a lot of adjustments in a short period of time, from the type of plays to the sheer number of them. The transition has been hardest on the point guards, who have had to learn how to run the new sets as well as make sure everyone is on the same page.
In addition, McKeown is a former point guard himself and has coached enough good ones to know exactly what he wants from that position. Because of this, and the extra scrutiny that comes with playing the position, the point guards have faced an especially difficult challenge.
“I want them to be the coach on the court and I want them to control the flow of the game,” McKeown said. “It probably is the toughest position to play in basketball. They’ve been thrown into the fire this year, and I’m tough on them.”
For junior starter Jenny Eckhart, the responsibility has been almost overwhelming.
In trying to put her teammates in good positions to score, Eckhart’s own shooting has suffered. She is averaging 2.2 fewer shots per game entering Sunday’s conest at Iowa.
“I have been so focused on making sure I can run the team in the right way rather than necessarily looking for my own shot,” Eckhart said.
One of the biggest changes in the new system is the nature of the plays. The offense allows increased freedom within its sets, having multiple options for each one.
“There’s a lot more freelancing involved,” Eckhart said. “In the past we’ve almost been robotic – you have to go from A to B in order to run the play.”
For example, Eckhart said there are certain plays designed to get the ball inside to sophomore center Amy Jaeschke where everyone on the perimeter can also look to create their own shot. This allows there to be more dimensions to the offense than there were last season.
Senior Erin Dickerson, who plays the point when Eckhart is on the bench, said constant movement is emphasized in McKeown’s offense. Players are cutting with a purpose as opposed to just standing around.
The new schemes have allowed NU to distribute the scoring more evenly than it has previously.
“We rely on more than one or two people scoring this year,” Dickerson said. “Everybody at any given point in the game can be a scorer. That’s a really big difference – everybody knows that, if you’re on the court, you need to look to score.”
Dickerson is one of the players whose scoring output has increased this season. She has more than doubled her points per game (from 2.7 to 5.6) and ranks third in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage.
Another major adjustment has been the volume of plays the team has needed to execute. The Cats still have not run about half of the plays they have learned.
“We have so many different plays that we could go to,” Dickerson said. “We might not have run a play since the beginning of the year, but we ran it so much that we remember it. We just have a big variety of plays, whereas last year we ran two or three plays.”
This flexibility comes in handy during conference play. When NU faces teams for a second time, it has a lot of options that the opponent did not face in the first game.
Both point guards are still getting used to the system’s nuances and what their coach expects of them. Dickerson said she is trying to improve how she reads and reacts to what the defense gives her, and Eckhart said her biggest concern is when to push the ball versus when to slow it down.
The Cats – and especially the point guards – made many strides offensively in the overtime loss to Purdue. McKeown said it was Eckhart’s best game, particularly mentally. She also scored a season-high 12 points and did not miss from the field.
Eckhart said the offense flowed as well as it had all season against the Boilermakers, mainly because she is becoming more familiar with her role and thinking more like her coach.
We’re getting more in sync,” she said. “Sometimes I know he’s going to want to call the play and sometimes I’m comfortable enough to call the play myself.”