Coming off a deep run in the NIT tournament in the 2013-2014 season, the 'Cats return all five starters, including first-team All-Big Ten player Nia Coffey. Head coach Joe McKeown opens up about Coffey, the team and coaching a Wildcat team that doesn't include his daughter.
First of all, how’s the team looking this year?
It’s exciting. I think it’s like spring training. Everybody’s 0-0 going into the season. We just had Big Ten meetings, media day. We just feel like we’re ready to get going. With five starters back and two starters from the year before that, we have seven that have played a lot of basketball here, and it’s going to be fun.
Were you happy with the way that last year ended, with the NIT appearance?
Yeah, you wish you had a couple minutes back here and there, but they were great games, great experiences for our players. To be in a one and done tournament where you get beat and your season’s over, it’s good for them to experience that. And with everybody coming back, hopefully we’ll give them something to build off of.
Last year, you had a pretty young team. How have some of the freshmen from last year stepped up this year, both in terms of leadership and stepping up their game in general?
I think they’ve worked really hard over the summer. That was a big thing. We have a saying, April to October, great players are made. And November to March, great teams are made. They really worked on their game individually. They really took that to heart.
Has anyone in particular so far, while y’all have been practicing, really stood out to you?
I think everybody’s doing what they should do. Everybody has come back better than they were at the end of last year. We’re integrating three freshmen. I think everybody is doing what they should be doing, they’re at where I expected them to be at this point. Some days, Nia [Coffey] will do some things that will stand out, other days it will be Maggie Lyon or Lauren Douglas. It’s been good. We have some depth.
Is it weird to not have [your daughter] Meghan on the team anymore?
Yeah, it is weird. Surreal. It was one of those incredible experiences as a coach that not many people get to do. For her, too, there were probably some hard times that she had to deal with having her father as the coach, but I was really proud of the way she handled it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. She’s doing really well in the sports journalism field, so I’m happy for her.
What do you consider this year to be a successful season?
I think sometimes, other people’s version of success can be different. When you’re in the locker room every day with your team, and you’re on the court with them every day, my definition of success is “Did we play together, stay together.” Sometimes, there are things you can’t control. Some of the best teams, the most fun teams I’ve ever coached maybe didn’t play in the NCAA tournament or get to the Sweet 16, like some of the other teams I’ve coached. I enjoyed the first team moreso, maybe, because of different personalities. And, staying healthy would make it successful. We had some injuries the last couple years that I think held us back a little bit. But like any team, that’s part of basketball. I think for us, a successful season would just be to play hard and to enjoy playing together, be fun to watch. Just play with a purpose.
Nia Coffey was first team All-Big Ten last year. Did you expect that level of production from her as a freshman?
There were a couple of days last October where I was like, “Whoa.” She can do some things that no one else in the gym can do. I saw some bits and pieces. Then, as we got into games into November and December, I saw a competitiveness that you don’t know until you get into some of these situations. I saw that she was humble, unselfish, and just wanted to win. That really stood out in my mind. I think it carried over when she was named first-team All-Conference as a freshman, which has never happened here before. She handled it. Some freshmen might let it go to their head. She handled it as well as anybody I’ve seen in a long time.
What do you think is the identity of this team?
As it plays itself out, I think the identity will be just a really unselfish team. We have a lot of players that have had a lot of accolades in their careers, whether that be high school, different national teams in different countries, like Karly Roser. All-Big Ten, All-Conference, Maggie Lyon was Big Ten freshman of the year. For them to be able to be unselfish and put their team above the individual part, I think that will hopefully be the identity of this group.
Are we going to make the NCAA tournament this year?
I’m not on the committee. If I were, I’d put us in. I think all those things will play themselves out. You’ve got to put yourself in position in the non-conference by scheduling correctly. In the conference, we just added Rutgers and Maryland, one a final four team and one played for the national championship a couple years ago, so you’re talking about elite women’s basketball programs that are coming in. That’ll do two things. That’ll make it more competitive and that will also hopefully give the committee more teams in the Big Ten to look at. They’re the last two games of the year for us.