Women’s Basketball Roundtable: 2015-2016 Season Recap and Big Ten Tournament Preview


Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson

Joe McKeown surveys the action on the court. The coach is preparing the Wildcats for the Big Ten Tournament after the team slumped to a 4-14 record in conference play this season.

Cole Paxton and Will Ragatz

Women’s Basketball

With Northwestern beginning its run in the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday, our women’s basketball writers recap the 2015-2016 season and look ahead to the conference tourney.

The Wildcats won 23 games last year and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997. This year, they finished at .500 (15-15, 4-14 Big Ten). What were the biggest reasons for this year’s disappointment?

Paxton: Several little things went wrong for NU, and they combined to spell disaster. Heavily reliant on their starters, the Cats seemed to wear down both at the end of games and towards the end of the season. Injuries to role players Lauren Douglas and Maya Jonas cut into the team’s depth. NU also struggled to rebound, and although it improved in that area as the season went on, allowing offensive rebounds really hurt the Cats. Half-court defense was never a strength for this team, so not being able to finish off a defensive stop with a rebound really cost NU. Beyond that, the Cats often struggled shooting the ball, had some turnover problems and failed to execute in late-game situations. Too often, NU couldn’t get a stop when it really needed to.

Ragatz: There were a number of reasons for the major step back NU took this season, but the biggest one was that the Cats were unable to replace the production of three key players from last year’s tournament team: Douglas and graduated seniors Alex Cohen and Karly Roser. The 6-foot-5-inch Cohen was the biggest loss, as the Cats had no players of her size to fill the void at the center position. Douglas, listed at 6-foot-2, would’ve tied for the tallest of NU’s regular rotation players, and her versatility was sorely missed. Roser gave last year’s team a reliable guard option to compliment then-sophomore Ashley Deary, a role that was missing on the 2015-16 squad. No newcomers or returning players developed into the roles vacated by those three players, which put too much pressure on the starters and ultimately did the Cats in.

Was this NU team better than its 4-14 Big Ten record?

Ragatz: This is a tough question to answer. Yes, I think NU’s roster and coaching staff, as currently constructed, should have won 7 or 8 Big Ten games rather than 4. Going 1-9 in conference games decided by single digits, as this year’s team did, requires at least a few unlucky bounces, questionable calls by the referees or unstoppable performances by opposing players (see Banham, Rachel). On the other hand, I am a firm believer that good teams make their own luck. What caused defeats in so many of NU’s close games was more than unfortunate breaks; the Cats didn’t do enough to really deserve to win any of those games. They struggled defensively and on the glass down the stretch in tight contests, and made mental mistakes such as junior forward Nia Coffey not waiting to take the last shot in NU’s loss to Rutgers.

Paxton: Yes and no. The Cats lost nine games by 9 points or fewer and they had a legitimate chance to win in each of those games. NU often played really well for 25 or 30 minutes, but allowed a couple of big runs or had a terrible quarter, like when Maryland raced to a 25-5 lead after the first a couple weeks ago. With that said, the Cats very rarely did what they needed to do to win. It’s easy to say that simple bad luck hurt NU significantly, especially considering last season’s 9-4 record in conference games decided by single digits, but this year’s Cats just didn’t deliver in crunch time. They blew too many leads and went cold at the wrong time too much. Although NU probably played better than a 4-14 team, there isn’t, in my mind, a single game in which the Cats were robbed of victory.

What are some positives that can be taken away from the tough season?

Paxton: The Cats only looked truly overmatched on three occasions, so with an offseason of growth and fine-tuning, it’s quite possible NU can reverse its fortunes. Each of the big four — Coffey, Deary, junior guard Christen Inman and senior guard Maggie Lyon — improved statistically from last year, and with only Lyon graduating, the trio of rising seniors are in position to help the Cats improve their record. Beyond that, however, there are few silver linings from this season. The bench, though thinned by injuries, looked overmatched against nearly every conference opponent. NU failed to win consecutive Big Ten games all season. The Cats won just twice on their home floor in league play. Though a bounce-back next year is not out of the question, this season was unquestionably a disaster.

Ragatz: There are almost always positives that can be taken from a season, even one as disappointing as NU’s 2015-16 campaign. There were fun moments, which included rising to No. 12 in the country in nonconference play, shocking No. 5 Ohio State at home, and beating in-state rival Illinois. Fans can take comfort in knowing that three of the big four will be back next season. But, the silver lining I want to focus on is the development of freshman forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah. Kunaiyi-Akpanah came in as a raw player and didn’t see the court often during non-conference play. But, as the Cats began to take on more athletic teams in the Big Ten, coach Joe McKeown started the freshman with more regularity, and she stuck. Kunaiyi-Akpanah finished second on the team in rebounding and showed a knack for grabbing offensive boards. As the season progressed, her offensive skills began to develop, and she recorded four double-doubles. With another offseason under her belt, Kunaiyi-Akpanah should be even more of a key player next year.

NU is the No. 12 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which begins this Wednesday when they take on No. 13 seed Wisconsin. How far will the Cats go? Can they make a run?

Ragatz: It’s tough to expect a run from a team that won just four games in conference play, but it’s possible. I fully expect NU to open the tournament with a win over Wisconsin on Wednesday. The Cats took down the Badgers by 18 points in Madison the last time the teams met and NU should come out hungry and utilize its superior talent to advance to the second round. There, it’ll meet Big Ten Player of the Year Rachel Banham and No. 5 seed Minnesota.  In two high-scoring contests against the Golden Gophers this year, the Cats lost by 3 points on the road and fell in double overtime at home simply because Banham dropped 60 points. It will be close again, and I could see NU pulling off the upset. Next would come No. 4 Indiana, who beat the Cats by 7 earlier this year. Obviously, the odds of a run are low for a team that failed to win consecutive Big Ten games all season, but crazier things have happened in March.

Paxton: I expect NU’s stay in Indianapolis to be a short one, as they’ll fall to the Badgers. It might seem an odd prediction as the Cats won at Wisconsin just a couple weeks ago and the Badgers have lost six straight, but I don’t have any confidence in NU right now. The Cats did not beat anyone twice this season, and though they only played five teams on two occasions, I don’t see that changing against Wisconsin. If they do get past the Badgers, however, NU has somewhat of a favorable bracket. No. 5 seed Minnesota, a team the Cats played two very close games against, would come next, followed by a potential quarterfinal against No. 4 seed Indiana. NU wouldn’t run into a particularly scary team until top-seeded Maryland in the semifinals, but the Cats aren’t head-and-shoulders better than anyone in the Big Ten. Because of that, I see a quick exit, one final heartache in a season full of disappointment.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @ckpaxton

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @WillRagatz