Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Women’s Basketball Cover Story: Program rebuilds, one player at a time

Joe McKeown is no stranger to the rebuilding process.

Taking over a George Washington team that finished 9-19 the year before his arrival, McKeown led the Colonials to a 14-14 record in his first season at the helm. George Washington improved to 23-7 during McKeown’s sophomore campaign, making its first NCAA tournament and earning him the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year award. The rest is history.

The year before McKeown took over the head coaching job at Northwestern, the Wildcats finished the season 5-26. Last year McKeown led the team to a 7-23 record. It might not have been as successful as his debut season at George Washington, but NU did win its most conference games in six years while finishing one win away from a .500 record at home.

“You’d like to win more games, but I wasn’t concerned about that,” McKeown said. “I felt like we played our best basketball at the end of the season.”

NU carried its momentum into the offseason. In the spring, the Cats worked with a new strength and conditioning coach, and this fall they welcomed a top-tier recruiting class.”We’ve made a lot of progress since last year, and we’ve established a foundation,” McKeown said. “That’s the biggest thing, establishing a foundation.”

Part of the reason for McKeown’s early success is good planning. When he arrived on campus, he made sure not to look too far into the future.

“He never laid out a five-year plan or anything,” senior Kristin Cartwright said. “It was always focusing on the teams he has now and what we as individuals and as a team can do this year.”

McKeown isn’t too concerned with wins and losses. Instead, he is focusing on steady improvement.

“When you’re a coach and you take over a program that is really down, which I did, and you’re used to winning at a high level, which I was, the biggest thing you want to see is progress,” he said.

NU still has a ways to go before it will be at George Washington’s level, but there is no rush.

Joe McKeown is building a basketball powerhouse, step by step.

READY, SET, RECRUIT

Developing a collegiate program starts with recruiting. And while the Cats struggled on the court last year, their new style of play attracted national attention.

“We were so competitive almost every game,” McKeown said. “What that helped us do was re-establish our recruiting to get some of the top players in the country to look at us.”NU signed three highly-touted recruits this offseason, adding much-needed depth to its roster.

“The depth of the team is going to help turn the corner,” Jaeschke said. “We can rely on more players to come out and play.”

It might take the newcomers a while to adjust to the college game, but Illinois coach Jolette Law said she knows it is only a matter of time before the Cats are competitive again.”Give (McKeown) a year or two to get his recruits in, and that Northwestern program is going to be a program to be reckoned with,” Law said at Big Ten Media Day in October.

FOCUS ON THE FINISH

McKeown is one of the most successful coaches in college basketball, and he has the record to prove it. His .724 winning percentage puts him 16th among active NCAA coaches with at least five years of experience. In 23 years of coaching, McKeown has racked up 516 wins. He had never finished below .500, until last year.

In 2008 the Cats lost five games by five points or less and 10 games by 10 points or less, including two overtime contests.

“Last year we were able to compete in a lot of games but we didn’t win as many as we’d like to,” junior Amy Jaeschke said. “This year is really about finishing out games and just beating teams.”

Part of being recognized as an elite program is having success in the postseason, and NU hasn’t had much recently. The Cats haven’t won a game in the Big Ten Tournament since 2000, and they haven’t won a game in the NCAA tournament since 1993.

If anyone knows how to get the Cats back to the NCAA tournament, it’s McKeown. At George Washington, he guided the Colonials to 15 NCAA berths, including four trips to the Sweet Sixteen and one Elite Eight appearance.

In order for the Cats to finish the season in style, they are going to have to learn to finish games.

“Maybe there’s a game along the way, like our overtime loss to Purdue last year, which you can take out some of the positives,” McKeown said. “But they don’t put you in the NCAA tournament for losing in overtime.”

A CONFIDENT ‘CAT’TITUDE

After NU proved it could compete with the other teams in its conference last year, the Cats have a different mindset coming into the 2009-2010 season.

“This year it’s not about catching up and getting back what we’ve lost,” Cartwright said. “It’s about establishing ourselves in the top of the Big Ten instead of working to get out of the bottom.”

McKeown said the Cats must adopt a confident attitude; a belief that no matter where they are, they have a chance to win.

“You have to have a certain swagger,” he said. “When I was at George Washington we walked in the gym and, no matter where we were, our kids thought we were going to win.”All the talent the Cats have isn’t enough for McKeown. To get to the next level they need to develop mental strength as well.

“Once you get the physical talent, we say college basketball is from the shoulders up,” McKeown said. “That’s what separates certain players. What separates great players is the mental part, the mental approach.”

With an elite recruiting class, a nationally renowned coaching staff and one year of experience under his belt, things are looking up for McKeown. In his time at NU, he has slowly managed to turn the program in the right direction, and the players have taken notice.

“The whole atmosphere is different,” Cartwright said. “Our confidence is sky high right now.”

Joe McKeown is in the process of changing NU’s women’s basketball program, and he’s doing it one step at a [email protected]

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Women’s Basketball Cover Story: Program rebuilds, one player at a time