Schott: The 2021-22 season will be a defining campaign for Northwestern women’s basketball


Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Joe McKeown stands on the sideline. Northwestern’s head coach is looking to help the Wildcats reach new heights in his 14th season.

Drew Schott, Gameday Editor

Women’s Basketball

After the past two seasons, Northwestern women’s basketball has demonstrated that playing in the postseason is now the expectation. 

In 2020, the Wildcats won a share of the Big Ten regular season title for the first time since 1990. They were poised for a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament before its cancellation. A year later, NU made it to the semifinals of the conference tournament and nearly upset No. 2 Louisville as a seven-seed in March Madness. 

The past two seasons show an upward trend for the Cats under coach Joe McKeown, who signed a contract extension this fall, extending his stay through the 2024-25 campaign. With assistant Kate Popevec — a former player for the purple and white — elevated to associate head coach, NU is locking down its coaching staff and showcasing stability on the way to bigger goals. 

But can the Cats reach them? The Big Ten is one of the best conferences in college basketball, with five teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll, including four in the top 11. NU faces No. 10 Oregon — a No. 6 seed in last year’s Big Dance — and DePaul, which earned 17 straight March Madness appearances from 2003-19. 

The pressure is on for NU to show that its Big Ten championship season was not a one-off. That the second round of the NCAA Tournament is not their pinnacle. That the team can maintain momentum without 2,000-point scorer Lindsey Pulliam, who was selected in the 2021 WNBA Draft. 

Both the Big Ten’s coaches and media did not select the Cats to finish among the conference’s top five teams. If NU has any hopes of cracking this top echelon, last year’s three upset losses to unranked Nebraska and Rutgers can’t repeat themselves. Blowing a 13-point third quarter lead — which happened last January against No. 16 Indiana — can’t happen either. 

Currently, the Hoosiers are ranked No. 8. Maryland, who has beaten the Cats in three of four games across two seasons, is the No. 4 team in the country. Michigan, who spoiled NU’s quest for a Big Ten Tournament championship in 2020, is No. 11. 

The margin for error is slim this season. So, NU’s returning pieces need to step up. 

Senior guard Veronica Burton is back. The Preseason All-Big Ten Team member and reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year will likely lead the scoring charge after averaging 16.2 points per game last year. 

Top rebounder and senior forward Courtney Shaw returns, along with sophomore forwards Anna Morris and Paige Mott, who are poised for larger roles in the frontcourt. Double-digit scorer and senior guard Sydney Wood will provide experience alongside Burton in the backcourt. 

NU’s 14th-year head coach also brought in the No. 10 recruiting class in the country and the second-best group in the Big Ten. ESPN wrote it could be McKeown’s “deepest class ever.”

With the tip-off of the upcoming season just days away, the excitement is palpable for a Cats program seeking more than the Round of 32. However, questions still remain: Will the Cats contend for a conference regular season title? A Big Ten tournament title? An NCAA Tournament bid? 

NU has the players and the experience to do so, yet the squad’s success will come down to how it performs on the court against both top opposition and average opponents. 

It will make the difference as to whether the Cats can continue their climb into the national spotlight or fall back into the middle tier of the Big Ten. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @dschott328

Related Stories:

Basketball Preview: 22 reasons you should be hyped for Northwestern basketball

Men’s Basketball: Northwestern’s three first-years look for ways to make an impact

Women’s Basketball: How the ‘Backcourt Burglar’ created a name for herself to become the face of Northwestern women’s basketball