Paxton: Results under McKeown are frustrating, but he deserves his job


Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Joe McKeown gestures. The coach has led the Wildcats to two relatively disappointing seasons in the past two years.

Cole Paxton, Sports Editor

Women’s Basketball

The team accomplishments for the projected top picks in this week’s WNBA Draft are hard to miss: a magical Final Four run for Washington’s Kelsey Plum. A national title for South Carolina’s Allisha Gray. More than 120 career wins for Maryland’s Brionna Jones.

Then there’s Northwestern’s Nia Coffey, who made a single NCAA Tournament appearance and saw her college career officially end with a one-sentence statement announcing the Wildcats wouldn’t play in the WNIT this year.

That reflects immeasurably poorly on coach Joe McKeown. Armed with the best player and recruiting class in program history, NU was upset in the first round in 2015, then endured a pair of unfulfilling seasons that ended without the NCAA returns that should have come.

The natural reaction, then, would be to call for McKeown’s firing. Without any doubt, he has woefully underachieved over the past two years. A season ago, McKeown led the Cats to a dismal 4-14 conference mark. Then this year, his team nosedived in February, losing four straight ugly games and plummeting off the tournament bubble.

Both seasons, depth was an issue — a problem that falls squarely on the shoulders of the head coach, who has gotten little out of the two recruiting classes that followed Coffey’s. Last year, team chemistry seemed a concern, another poor look on McKeown. This year, the Cats’ offense was too often stuck in the mud.

All those signs indicate that McKeown should be gone, and NU should move on. But that argument is superficial, fails to realize the growth of the program and ignores extenuating circumstances.

When McKeown took over in 2008, he inherited a program firmly in the dumpster. His predecessor, Beth Combs, won seven Big Ten games — in her four seasons. June Olkowski was even worse, compiling a 7-73 conference mark in five years.

That makes McKeown’s accomplishments all the more impressive. He led his team to the postseason in just his second year in charge. The 2015 NCAA Tournament team was NU’s first since 1997. In the past three seasons, McKeown has won more games than his two most recent predecessors combined.

The Cats are not a perennial title contender, but they are a competent and respectable team. That’s because of McKeown, whose 15 NCAA Tournament appearances at George Washington are no fluke.

As Coffey said of the Cats on a teleconference previewing the WNBA Draft, “they still have a long way to go, but (they’re) showing people that it is a good place to go.”

There are few excuses for last season’s disaster. Untimely injuries have been a nagging concern, both an unfortunate circumstance and a bad look on McKeown’s recruiting.

Then, this season, McKeown was dealt the most challenging and trying event of his career: the suicide of sophomore guard Jordan Hankins on Jan. 9. Basketball immediately became a secondary concern; McKeown and his senior captains spoke often of the time they spent together off the court.

NU won its first two games after Hankins’ death, but the emotional weight of the situation appeared to take its toll as the season progressed. The Cats were listless in an offensive disaster at Indiana and were stunned at the buzzer against Purdue.

It is heinous, of course, to blame McKeown for those late-season on-court struggles. No coach could have squeezed more out of those players than him.

As tempting as it may be, it is wrong to judge McKeown’s tenure by the wins and losses of the last two seasons. They have been disappointing, without any doubt, but they do not tell the full story. McKeown’s program has been a success academically and, to some degree, on the court as well.

A fan suggested to me that NU has become stale, an argument difficult to rebut. Still, McKeown is bringing in the best recruiting class in the Big Ten next year and is probably a better coach than any replacement would have been.

It may be harsh to say that McKeown has failed in the last two seasons. Whether he has or has not, he is still building his program. It is the right decision that he be allowed to continue building.

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Twitter: @ckpaxton