Basketball: Season starts for both teams at Northwestern

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year for college sports fans: Football is reaching the crux of its season and basketball is just beginning its long journey to March.

November basketball balances the interests of coaches, who still want to get more practice time in before playing games that matter, and the players, who are anxious to play against other competitors. This tight line is something coaches struggle with at the beginning of each season.

“When you’re a basketball coach you love this time of year and you hate this time of year,” women’s basketball coach Joe McKeown said. “Our players really want to play games and coaches want to practice, so there’s always that compromise that comes up.”

The middle ground may be the exhibition games schools schedule for early in the season. Northwestern’s women’s team won all five of its exhibitions – four in Italy and one at Welsh-Ryan Arena – and the men’s team faces the University of Chicago on Wednesday in its only exhibition match of the preseason.

Despite the fact that it will not count in the actual standings, coach Bill Carmody said he refuses to treat the matchup with the Maroons any differently than a game against Ohio State or Michigan later in the season.

“Wednesday’s going to be important for us and I’ll treat it like a game,” Carmody said. “I’ll do what I would do during a game. If a guy has a couple of fouls I may put him on the bench and try someone else.”

The women’s team’s 10-day trip to Italy was a success both on and off the court. The team won all of its games against the Italian competition. McKeown said the biggest benefit of the trip was the bonding the players did on what he called a “once in a lifetime” experience. He cited the new NCAA rule allowing freshmen to go on the trip, which he said benefitted the five new players who were able to spend time with the veterans and become a part of the team.

McKeown is counting on senior forward Kendall Hackney to improve from last season, when she was named an All-Big Ten honorable mention by the media. She has scored more than 1,000 points in her career, and McKeown said she should be ready to combat defenses that are now focusing in on her as the prominent player on the NU offense.

“She’s one of the top players coming back in the Big Ten,” McKeown said. “She had a tough time last year in a lot of ways because we lost an All-American in Amy Jaeschke, and Kendall had the luxury of being able to play off of that for her freshman and sophomore year and then last year, everybody’s defense loaded up against her so she’ll be much prepared for that this year.”

For the men, the pressure to make the NCAA Tournament will once again rear its ugly head. Players have said they ignore the preseason hype and discussion surrounding the team and instead focus on improvement.

“All we care about is the expectations in our own locker room,” sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski said at Big Ten Media Day on Oct. 25. “We try to stay away from those rankings and those media predictions as much as possible. We’re just trying to get better each day and trying to win as many games as we can.”

Much of the pressure this season will fall on the four returning players who saw significant action last season. Carmody will need to lean heavily on Sobolewski and seniors Drew Crawford, Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio to lead the way for his team.

For the new players Carmody is trying to help adjust to the team, the process has been long and arduous. Trying to teach the six new players has been a challenge for Carmody, who said he has resorted to teaching people one-on-one to help them understand the offense better. Carmody said although he expects to have a strong rotation, he still hopes for additional improvement.

“As a coach, I’m trying to bring all these new guys around, so you run the risk of trying to cover everything and not cover anything well,” Carmody said. “It’s still early and you hope you get better and better in a month.”