Women’s Basketball: Five things to watch in the 2015-2016 season


Daily file photo by Luke Vogelzang

Nia Coffey lines up a three-point shot. The junior forward led the Wildcats with 12 double-doubles last season and owns 20 over her career.

Will Ragatz, Reporter

Women’s Basketball

Northwestern enters this season with some of the loftiest expectations in program history.

The Wildcats are ranked 19th in the preseason AP Top 25 and are projected by Big Ten media members and ESPN to finish third in the conference. The attention isn’t surprising, as NU returns with the top five scorers from last season’s NCAA tournament team.

Led by junior forward Nia Coffey, a preseason All-Big Ten Team selection, and senior guard Maggie Lyon, these Cats have loads of potential. However, there are also several uncertainties heading into the campaign.

Here are five things to watch in the 2015-16 season:

1. Nia Coffey
If this seems obvious, that’s because it is. Nia Coffey is the best player on NU’s roster and has the ability to put up 20 points and 10 rebounds every time she takes the floor. Coach Joe McKeown says she’s one of the best players in not just the Big Ten, but the entire country. Her stats are a given, but there are several reasons to monitor Coffey’s play this season. Will she take on more of a leadership role? Can she become more of a threat from long range? A 29-point effort in the exhibition game against Seton Hill is a promising sign that Coffey could have a huge season.

2. Who will replace the graduated seniors?
McKeown has to replace two important players from last year’s team, center Alex Cohen and guard Karly Roser. Losing the 6’5” Cohen especially hurts for a team that already struggled on the glass. Allie Tuttle is the only true center on the roster, but she isn’t expected to play significant minutes. Rebounding may be an issue for NU’s starting lineup, which doesn’t feature a player taller than 6’2”. Roser was the second ball handler behind Ashley Deary last season and it is unclear who will fill that role this year.

3. The freshmen
Some of the holes left behind by Cohen and Roser could be filled by a trio of new additions to the roster. Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, a nationally ranked forward recruit, will get the best opportunity of the three to contribute immediately. She is a physical presence and will provide defense and rebounding as part of the rotation McKeown will use to replace Cohen. The other freshmen are guards Jordan Hankins and Amber Jamison, each of whom should get a chance to handle the ball off the bench.

4. Two non-conference tests
NU’s non-conference schedule is littered with opponents that they should beat handily. Teams like Idaho State, Loyola, and Missouri-Kansas City won’t offer much of a challenge. However, there are two games that will be excellent tests for the Cats before they begin conference play. On Dec. 2, NU travels to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to face the 22nd-ranked Tar Heels. Seventeen days later, the DePaul Blue Demons, who fell to NU in two overtimes a year ago, visit Welsh-Ryan Arena. These early-season matchups could reveal a lot about this basketball team.

5. Health
Arguably the most important factor toward the success of NU this year is staying healthy. Since McKeown relies so heavily on his starters, any injuries to that group would be tough to overcome. That was the case at times last season, as Lauren Douglas and Christen Inman each missed multiple games. NU went 1-3 without Douglas, including a loss to the worst team in the Big Ten, Penn State. She also missed the Cats’ NCAA Tournament loss to Arkansas. If Douglas and Inman can stay healthy, along with Coffey, Deary and Lyon, NU should be headed back to the NCAA tournament for the second-straight year.

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Twitter: @willragatz