Rollins: The absence of Lauren Douglas is the Wildcats’ real problem

Rollins: The absence of Lauren Douglas is the Wildcats real problem

Khadrice Rollins, Managing Editor

Northwestern women’s basketball has been struggling of late, and with games against No. 5 Ohio State and No. 8 Maryland on the horizon, it looks like the Wildcats will drop five of their first six conference games.

NU (12-4, 1-3 Big Ten) was bounced from the AP Top 25 this week and is unranked for the first time all season. The Cats have lost four of their last six games, the most recent a 23-point drubbing at the hands of No. 18 Michigan State.

To say the team has issues right now would be an understatement. But pinpointing what needs to change is not that simple, because the biggest problem is not what is happening on the court.

One clear flaw right now is the team’s rebounding. NU has been outrebounded in 11 games and has the second worst rebounding margin in the Big Ten at -2.9. But this isn’t a new problem for the Cats. Last year’s team, the first to make the NCAA Tournament since 1997, also had trouble on the glass. That unit had a -3.5 rebounding differential.

So, although rebounding struggles are a problem that puts a team in a tough position and can be a clear reason why losses pile up, it’s hard to believe this team has forgotten how to win while getting beat on the boards. This year’s team has actually been better on the glass than last year’s, so rebounding is probably not the biggest issue.

The Cats have had some changes in the starting lineup from last season to this one, so it would be plausible the loss of former center Alex Cohen has finally caught up to the Cats. Cohen averaged 8.8 points per game last season to go along with 4.9 rebounds per contest and finished the season tied for the team-high in blocks per game at 1.8. Going into the year, there were questions about how NU would replace Cohen’s production, particularly as a rim protector and rebounder.

So far, everyone on the team has helped to pick up the load. Junior forward Nia Coffey has become an even more dominating presence on the inside, boosting her rebounding and shot blocking numbers from last season. Coffey is currently the best rebounder in the conference pulling down 11.1 boards a night and the team as a whole is second in the conference in blocks per game.

Senior forward Christen Johnson and freshman forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah have combined for 104 rebounds already this season, meaning the Cats are getting about 6.5 rebounds per game from Cohen’s successors in the middle. And although Johnson and Kunaiyi-Akpanah have not been real scoring options, Coffey, senior guard Maggie Lyon, and junior guards Ashley Deary and Christen Inman are all posting career-highs in scoring, making up for the loss of Cohen on the offensive end.

The Cats’ recent struggles are not about who has been playing — they’re about a player who has yet to suit up for NU: senior forward Lauren Douglas. Last season, Douglas was the Cats’ third leading scorer, posting 10.1 points per game while only playing around 20 minutes per contest. Along with that, Douglas grabbed an average of 4.3 rebounds per game, good enough for fourth on the team.

But Douglas was more than just instant offense for NU last season, she was a swiss army knife for coach Joe McKeown and allowed him to get more creative with his lineups. At 6 foot 2, Douglas gave McKeown the ability to play smaller, more athletic lineups without sacrificing too much on the rebounding end. The Cats could also put five legitimate scorers on the court in crucial moments, with Douglas also being able to take players off the dribble and play from either inside or outside. Douglas also gave McKeown the option to sit Coffey and Lyon more often without having to worry about where offensive production would come from. And when Douglas was unavailable for NU last season, there was a drop in play, as the team went 1-3, including a loss to a lackluster Penn State team and a loss to Arkansas in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Unfortunately for the Cats, Douglas is officially day-to-day with an injury, and her return seems nowhere in sight. And as she remains sidelined, McKeown has relied even more heavily on Coffey, Deary, Inman and Lyon, all of whom average over 30 minutes per game as no other player averages more than 16.5 minutes per game.

NU is asking a lot of its stars and role players, and they have all answered the call. But as long as Douglas remains banged up on the bench, there is nothing more this team can do to improve.

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Twitter: @KhadriceRollins