Will Northwestern women’s basketball return to the NCAA Tournament this year? We present both sides of the argument:
Yes, the Wildcats are tournament bound:
As sophomores, Nia Coffey, Ashley Deary and Christen Inman helped lead the Wildcats to their first NCAA Tournament since 1997. The ‘Cats went 23-9 that year, their highest win total since 1995-96. As a result, NU was the No. 12 team in the nation at the beginning of last season, and after a 10-0 start, the junior trio was primed to bring NU even further. But disaster struck in the Big Ten as a 4-14 conference record derailed the season, handing the ‘Cats an eventual 18-17 record and WNIT first round exit.
Now seniors, Coffey, Deary and Inman will do everything they can to get back to the NCAA Tournament. All three have talked extensively about the legacy they want to leave, and it’s clear that there is a sense of urgency among NU’s veteran leaders. But they won’t be able to do it by themselves.
One of NU’s biggest problems last year was the lack of depth – after the big three, there really wasn’t much else. A pair of seniors, center Christen Johnson and guard Maggie Lyon, both failed to meet expectations, and whether it was due to poor play or injuries, the ‘Cats played better without them down the stretch.
In order to make the NCAA Tournament, NU needs its role players to step up. Through two games, it looks like some of them have. Junior Oceana Hamilton, a transfer from Alabama who sat out last year, has anchored the five, seeing heavy minutes while rebounding well and blocking shots. The ‘Cats sorely need a strong inside presence, and with Hamilton, it looks like they might have it.
Redshirt senior Lauren Douglas, who missed all of last season with an injury, put up 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting in her first game back. In addition, Junior Lydia Rohde is 7-of-10 from three-point range and has scored in double figures both games. Teams often single in on Coffey and Inman can be streaky, so an additional scoring punch would spread the ‘Cats out and make them way harder to guard.
Sophomores Jordan Hankins and Pallas-Kunaiyi Akpanah both impressed as freshmen last year, and while neither of their roles look to be increasing, they can contribute off the bench. Head coach Joe McKeown has also raved about three freshmen – Byrdy Galernik, Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf – all who will have the chance to play meaningful minutes this season.
With added depth, a strong inside presence and a newfound scoring punch, there are many reasons to believe the ‘Cats will make their way back to the NCAA Tournament. Albeit a small sample size, NU’s role players look to have taken a leap, and with Coffey, Deary and Inman hungry in their last season, the ‘Cats might even be able to win a few games in the big dance.
Nope, the ‘Cats will be in the WNIT for the second year in a row:
Despite the reasons for optimism, there are still a lot of questions surrounding NU. Sure, with decent contributions from role players, the ‘Cats might look more deep two games into the season, but games against Hampton and Oral Roberts aren’t great indicators. How will their role players fare in the middle of February during a tough week in the Big Ten? That’s when NU will need them most, and it’s unclear if they’re ready for that challenge.
Further, in its first two games, NU really hasn’t inspired much confidence. The ‘Cats looked out of sorts in the first quarter of their opener and trailed Hampton 18-10 before waking up and fighting back for the victory. Against Oral Roberts on Sunday, NU scratched out an ugly 64-55 win.
The Wildcats are at their best when they run in transition - Deary is one of the quickest guards in the nation, Inman is a talented finisher and Coffey’s rare combination of size and speed is almost scary. But when NU runs, it also can get really sloppy, and with 32 turnovers through two games, it has. The ‘Cats must take better care of the ball to win against tougher opponents.
Even more troubling is the play of Deary, who is 4-of-19 from the field this season with nine assists and seven turnovers. The point guard and captain, Deary is in many ways the heart-and-soul, the leader of the Wildcats – usually, they go how she goes. NU will absolutely need its leader to start knocking down shots, making plays and controlling the tempo of the game.
While Deary will probably shake off the rust, something NU can’t escape in its difficult strength of schedule. The ‘Cats have games against No. 6 Maryland, No. 7 Ohio State, No. 20 Depaul, No. 21 Florida and No. 23 Indiana, as well as the rest of their Big Ten slate, where wins are never easy.
What’s even to suggest that the Wildcats will bounce back from their collapse last year? They return the same core, have unproven role players and with an injury or two, could be even worse off than they were last year. The ‘Cats absolutely have the potential to return to the NCAA Tournament, but they will have to prove it on the court.