Goldsmith: Where Northwestern stands as it closes 2019 regular season


Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Lindsey Pulliam takes a jumper. The sophomore guard scored 15 points in NU’s WNIT win over West Virginia.

Charlie Goldsmith, Sports Editor

Women’s Basketball

It’s been a year and a day since the last home game of the 2017-18 season, and a year and a day since coach Joe McKeown guaranteed his team would become one of the top 20 ranked teams in the country.

In 2018-19, that didn’t happen, as such lofty expectations rarely do.

But on Thursday, Northwestern (16-12, 9-8 Big Ten) secured a .500 or better record in 2019 conference play with a 69-49 win over Indiana (18-11, 7-10).

Every step McKeown has taken since the 2017 offseason has been with the big picture in mind. That summer, McKeown took then-freshman guards Jordan Hamilton and Lindsey Pulliam and turned them into starters when the season began in November.

Before the 2017-18 season, he also named sophomore forward Abi Scheid a team captain and redesigned his offense to feature a post player who had little experience on the offensive end: Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah.

Last season was rough, and not just because the Cats played in a high school gym. They finished 4-12 in conference, with two of those wins against last-place Illinois. McKeown has said he “threw Hamilton and Pulliam into the fire,” and the guards finished their first year with a combined 22.7 points and 5.6 turnovers per game.

But Kunaiyi-Akpanah emerged as one of the best bigs in the conference, Scheid solidified herself as a deadly three-point shooter and McKeown finalized another highly touted recruiting class.

That was the rationale behind the guarantee. Then came the hard part — living up to it.

NU returned all five starters from last year and added another freshman, guard Veronica Burton, who’s been on the floor at the beginning of every game she’s played. In their sophomore years, Pulliam and Hamilton jumped to 26.3 combined points per game on better efficiency and only 4.6 turnovers per contest. Kunaiyi-Akpanah continued to average a double-double, Scheid shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc and a nine-player rotation quickly solidified.

The Cats opened this year 6-0, including victories over No. 21 Duke and Florida. Then things started to get weird — NU was held to 49 points in a loss against a poor Pittsburgh team and dropped a game to DePaul after leading by 16 points at the end of the first quarter.

In conference play, it got weirder. The Cats upset No. 15 Michigan State, 70-62, before classes were in session for Winter Quarter, but in the very next game NU missed two separate would-be buzzer beaters in an overtime loss to Michigan. The Cats had last-second chances to win four different conference games this year, and they lost all four.

Featuring Burton, Hamilton, Pulliam, Scheid and Kunaiyi-Akpanah in the starting lineup, NU opens every game when healthy with three underclassmen, a junior and a senior on the floor. It’s hard to say whether the Cats are young or old, inexperienced or experienced. With Kunaiyi-Akpanah leaving this offseason and no set replacement, it’s hard to say whether this year is as big as the picture will get.

McKeown took a major leap of faith on Senior Day last year. After NU played its final home game of 2018-19, it’s impossible to say if his overconfidence empowered the team over the year, or if it will end up leaving a sour taste in everyone’s mouths.

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Twitter: @2021_charlie