Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Daily file photo by Alyce Brown
Junior forward Caileigh Walsh. Walsh is one of several key cogs returning for Northwestern this season.

Northwestern sputtered to a 9-21 (2-16 Big Ten) finish last season, its first without Veronica Burton. The Wildcats are looking to move forward from last season’s struggles with several key returners, including leading scorer Caileigh Walsh, back in the fold. The Daily’s reporters give their thoughts on what to anticipate this season. 

1. Last season, NU finished below .500 for just the fifth time in the 15 years of the McKeown era so far. How do the ’Cats engineer a turnaround this season?

Jake Epstein: This starts and ends with consistency. Coach Joe McKeown repeated time and time again last year how the ’Cats were close to being very good. They’d be firmly in contention against highly ranked teams, then suddenly collapse with ice-cold quarters. For NU to win more games this year, McKeown will look to its sophomore captain and point guard Caroline Lau to engineer a far more efficient scoring attack. 

Lucas Kim: McKeown’s squad will look a whole lot different from last year’s. The departures of Sydney Wood, Courtney Shaw, Kaylah Rainey and Jillian Brown will leave a lot of playing time on the table, especially in the backcourt. This means that everyone will have to adopt a “do your job” mentality for the ’Cats to do some damage in the Big Ten. 

That starts with Walsh and senior forward Paige Mott handling the scoring burden and physicality of the frontcourt. Lau will be charged with facilitating the team’s offense. Other newcomers and returning players will have to carve out niche roles to make effective use of their time on the court.

Raj Ghanekar: NU can engineer a turnaround through a return to its lockdown defense. Burton, who led the conference in steals, has been gone for a season, and her successor Sydney Wood just graduated. Last season, the ’Cats ranked ninth in the conference in opponent points per game, but ranked top-five the previous two seasons with Burton and Wood on the roster. 

But a few upperclassmen have the experience and athleticism to fill those shoes. Look out for junior guard Hailey Weaver to be an absolute terror on perimeter defense — she tallied 14 steals in her final four games. Fellow junior guard Melannie Daley is another pesky defender in the fold, with several multi-steal games in her freshman season. Injuries shortened her sophomore year, but she should be ready to bring the pressure along with Weaver.

2. The Cats were hampered by severe 3-point shooting woes last season. Do you expect that mark to improve this season?

Epstein: When you shoot 26.7% from beyond the arc, that’s a recipe for disaster. The good thing for the ’Cats is that such a clip can’t get much worse. I expect graduate transfer guard Maggie Pina to alleviate some of these woes, while several other contributors may help pick up the slack. 

Kim: The ’Cats return only two players total who attempted over 50 3-pointers last season: Walsh and Lau. So despite their shooting struggles, they didn’t really shoot a lot from beyond the arc in the first place. Like many others, I look to Pina to fill in this vacancy of an ultra-reliable shooter. A career 34.4% 3-point shooter, Pina shot 37.5% on 136 attempts in her final season at Boston University, a mark that is significantly higher than any other player on NU’s roster.

Ghanekar: Given the team’s roster and pickups, I expect shooting to greatly improve. Lau assumes the starting point guard role, and even though she shot just 31.3% from deep last year, I predict that number will increase. Walsh should be a big threat off pick-and-pops and perimeter rotations — look no further than last year’s performance against Rutgers when she hit 6-of-9 from downtown.

On the bench, I’d keep an eye out for two players. The first is Pina. The Boston University transfer scored 939 points as a Terrier, including a 34.4% mark from distance in her career. NU’s rotation will also include a 3-point threat with a bit more stature in sophomore forward Alana Goodchild. After playing sparingly in 15 games as a freshman last year, Goodchild should slot in to take Shaw’s minutes, bringing a bit of a different offensive look with increased physicality.

3. What is the most important storyline for NU’s 2023-24 campaign?

Epstein: I touched on this earlier, but it has to be Lau. McKeown has raved about her “gym rat” presence in practice, but it’s time for the sophomore to take a major second-year leap. She started three games last year, providing a potent energy off the bench that the veteran coach counted on throughout the strenuous Big Ten stretch. With the keys to the offense, it’s Lau’s time to shine. Will she rise to the pantheon of great Wildcat guards of old? 

Kim: Team culture. At Big Ten Media Day, Mott mentioned team bonding will be significant to NU’s success this season, and this message was only amplified with the squad’s trip to Spain in the offseason. Leaders will have to step up and establish the team’s identity with the departure of several program mainstays. Everyone will have a role in determining what this identity means, but once the team culture is set, the results will follow. 

Ghanekar: The most important storyline for this year’s campaign is Lau’s continued growth. She had a good bit of hype coming into her freshman season and showed her maturity during that year. For a ’Cats team that does not have a clear-cut 20-points-per-game scorer, it will truly come down to a solid guard directing the offense, finding the open shooter and working well in tandem with the bigs. 

Lau is just a sophomore, but McKeown giving her one of the three captain roles means he believes in her leadership. It will be exciting to see how the underclassman performs with that increased responsibility on her shoulders.  

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @Jakeepste1n

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @lucaskim_15

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @Raj_Ghanekar1

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Women’s Basketball Notebook: McKeown, Mott and Walsh discuss preseason expectations and more at Big Ten Media Day

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