Walfish: Joe McKeown makes Northwestern relevant

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

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To say Northwestern women’s basketball was irrelevant before Joe McKeown wouldn’t be completely accurate.

The Wildcats have made the NCAA Tournament six times, five of which came under the tutelage of Don Perrelli from 1987-1997. However, since NU lost to McKeown’s George Washington team in 1997, it won more than three Big Ten games in 1998 and didn’t do it again until McKeown’s second season as coach. So for the most part, since women’s basketball went mainstream, the Cats haven’t put themselves into the national spotlight.

That was until athletic director Jim Phillips made the call and hired McKeown to lead the women’s team. McKeown won 74.5 percent of the games he coached from 1986 to 2008 and made 17 appearances in the NCAA Tournament.

The first season under McKeown was rough, and the Cats only won seven games. But there was some hope: In his four seasons in Evanston, NU has won 20 Big Ten games, which is six more than the Cats had since Perrelli retired after the 1999 season.

However, the biggest way McKeown has made NU relevant is on the recruiting trails. The coach has brought in top-class recruits and the level of talent has hit an all-time high. Though all of these recruits may not like it in Evanston — yes, I’m looking at you, Morgan Jones — the fact McKeown was able to get her to come to NU is impressive. For the longest time, only luck would bring such high-profile recruits to the Cats, but with McKeown, NU has gotten lucky again and again.

This season marks the first time the entire team consists of McKeown recruits, and so far the Cats have started out perfectly with two wins in two games. The freshmen are leading the way. Kendall Hackney is still the team’s top scorer as a senior, but the forward is getting a lot of help from the younger players around her. The early stat sheet places three underclassmen in the top-five in scoring, a positive for this team moving forward.

Most importantly, McKeown has the team believing it can contend for a Big Ten title. In one of my first reporting experiences for The Daily, I trekked to Welsh-Ryan Arena to talk to McKeown about changing the culture at NU. The first thing he mentioned was the players believing in themselves more than ever. The same sentiment was expressed by Amy Jaeschke, who is one of NU’s all-time best players. She told me when she first got here losing was accepted — but under McKeown, it is no longer acceptable.

I could ramble about how that is now true across all the sports at NU, but I won’t. The point of the matter is McKeown has made women’s basketball relevant at NU. That is no easy feat in a sports world where women’s athletics are still fighting for a place in the national spotlight. The coach knows there is still a lot more that needs to be done to make women’s basketball more popular to the national audience, but he has certainly accomplished that goal in Evanston.