When the leaves change colors and the temperature turns cold, that means it's the perfect weather for everyone’s favorite sport. Not football, oh no. It’s women’s basketball weather. The Northwestern women’s basketball (2021: 17-12, 8-8 B1G) team will look to improve on a solid but still disappointing season last year. After two years of qualifying for the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats missed The Big Dance and opted out of the WNIT tournament. Now, as they hope to bounce back stronger, they’ll have new challenges to face, starting with who will be their point guard.

The most apparent missing piece is Veronica Burton. The team's star guard graduated after last season and was drafted to the WNBA, joining the Dallas Wings playoff squad. Burton was a three-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) and 2022 Naismith DPOY semifinalist. The Backcourt Burglar, as she was aptly dubbed, led the country in steals and finished as Northwestern’s second-all-time leader in steals with 394. Needless to say, she wasn’t just great. She was one of the best.

Burton is simply impossible to replace, but several Wildcat guards could potentially be her successor: fourth-year Kaylah Rainey, second-year Jillian Brown and first-year Caroline Lau. Rainey will most likely get the nod to start the season; the few times Burton needed a rest, it was Rainey who brought the ball up the court. Lau, a stellar high school point guard, won’t go quietly, however, and will provide some good competition for the spot.

Brown could also see an uptake in ball-handling responsibilities this year. In her first year, she started 25 of Northwestern’s 29 games and finished strong with double-digit scoring outings in six of her last nine games. Brown played like a young Burton on both sides of the court, always around the ball with 102 rebounds, 53 assists, and 23 steals. Now she may have to play like a veteran Burton.

Laya Hartman became one of the team’s go-to three-point shooters last year. She shot 40% or better from deep in 11 games, second only to Veronica Burton. Hartman also caught fire towards the season’s end, scoring at least 10 points in eight of the final dozen regular season games. She’ll have to shoot lights out to make up for the lost production of not only Burton, but former Wildcat Lauryn Satterwhite, too.

The two biggest returners for the 'Cats are graduate students: guard Sydney Wood and forward Courtney Shaw. Wood is coming off a season where she only played four games due to injury. Shaw is returning after a 30-block season where she also led the team in rebounds and was a huge reason the ’Cats were the fourth-best scoring defense in the Big Ten last year. Both veterans will provide experience and leadership in the absence of Burton.

If Northwestern is to improve, they’ll have a hell of a time with this schedule. In addition to the six ranked B1G teams they will face – including two games against No. 14 Ohio State (25-7, 14-4 B1G) and No. 22 Nebraska (24-9, 11-7 B1G) – they have matchups at #20 Oregon (20-12, 11-6 Pac 12) and versus #9 Notre Dame (24-9, 13-5 ACC) at home very early in the season. In fact, Oregon is their first non-exhibition game on November 7. The Wildcats will also face #25 Michigan (25-7, 13-4 B1G) in early December, nearly a month before the rest of conference play.

So what does that mean? It means the Wildcats will be tested early and often in their first Burton-less year since 2017. We’ll know quickly if they have prepared for that future or if they’ll need time to adjust. No matter the uncertainty that lies ahead, there’s one thing for sure. It’s good to be back.

Thumbnail photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern.