Sadly, it’s almost expected at this point. Turn on the game, check the score and odds are that Northwestern Women’s Basketball (6-13, 0-9 B1G) is down too many points with too little time left to make it up. In their first season since 2017 without an obvious star player, the team has faced a string of difficult matchups that have culminated in an eight-game losing streak.
But are the 'Cats really as lackluster as their record implies?
Let’s start with conference play. Northwestern has lost every B1G game to date this season, a feat that’s been tough to watch. The losses have ranged from a three-point deficit against Illinois (16-4, 6-3 B1G) to a margin of 33 points against Ohio State (19-1, 8-1 B1G).
It’s worth noting that seven of the nine B1G games the 'Cats have played this season have been against ranked teams. In fact, all but three of Northwestern’s losses, both conference and non-conference, have been to opposing teams ranked in the top 25 in the nation. It’s a tougher schedule than Northwestern is used to. Last year, they played only six ranked teams in total; this year, they hit that number just over halfway through the season.
The 'Cats have had moments of success in B1G play – an 11-0 run during their game against Purdue (13-6, 4-5 B1G) comes to mind – but when going head-to-head with some of the best teams in the country, the weak points of Northwestern’s game become fatal shortcomings.
One of the biggest difficulties the 'Cats have faced is in their shooting game. They rank last in the B1G in overall shooting percentage, as well as in three-point percentage, with 38.7% and 27.0%, respectively.
The 'Cats have struggled offensively in the past, but the major difference this year is that their defense hasn’t managed to pick up the slack. This season, Northwestern has displayed elements of the usually successful “blizzard” defense they run under head coach Joe McKeown, ranking second in blocks in the B1G and sixth in steals.
Aside from these elements, however, their defense is less than impressive: they rank fourth-to-last in the B1G in points allowed per game with 71.7, a far cry from the 2021-22 season when they gave up only 63.9 points per game. If the 'Cats are to turn their season around, fixing up their defense may be the best place to start.
On an individual level, several players have stepped up since last year, most notably second-year forward Caileigh Walsh and graduate guard Sydney Wood.
Walsh is tough to beat on both ends of the court, leading the 'Cats in points per game with 11.7, and rebounds per game with five. During Northwestern’s game against UIC (11-8, 3-5 Missouri Valley), Walsh recorded her first collegiate double-double, scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. She’s also blocked 24 shots this season, good for first on the team and fifth in the B1G in that category.
Wood, who played only four games last season due to injury, is one of the team's key returners. She puts up an average of 11.1 points per game, a close second to Walsh. She’s quick in the backcourt as well, racking up 45 steals for an average of 2.37 per game, putting her second in the B1G and 42nd in the nation.
Also a major presence on the team is fourth-year guard Kaylah Rainey, who has displayed considerable improvement since last year. Rainey, who didn’t start once during the 2021-22 season and averaged only 7.3 minutes per game, now leads the team in assists while shooting 37.1% from the three-point stripe.
Other key returners include third-year forward Paige Mott, second-year guard Jillian Brown and graduate student forward Courtney Shaw. Mott shoots 54.1% from the field, the highest on the team, while Shaw excels in snatching offensive rebounds and has racked up 39 so far this season. Brown works on both sides of the ball, averaging 7.1 points per game and ranking third on the team in steals with 23.
First-year guard Caroline Lau has also made strides, playing in every game thus far and making her first start against UIC in mid-December. She’s a welcome asset to the 'Cats on offense, shooting 35.1% from the three-point line and ranking third on the team in assists with 40. Lau recorded a season-high 13 points and led her team with five rebounds during Northwestern’s Jan. 19 game against Ohio State.
The individual success of many of the 'Cats bodes well for the future of the team. With Wood, Shaw and Rainey likely leaving after this season, Northwestern will need players like Walsh and Lau to continue stepping up.
The 'Cats will round out the season with the rest of their conference games, and they’re likely to pick up their first B1G win in the coming weeks. The docket for the next month includes Wisconsin (6-14, 2-7 B1G), Rutgers (8-13, 2-7 B1G) and Minnesota (9-11, 2-7 B1G), all teams that rank near the bottom of the B1G and that the 'Cats have yet to face this season. With the exception of #11 Maryland (16-4, 7-2 B1G), none of Northwestern's upcoming games will be against ranked teams, a welcome change from the taxing schedule of earlier weeks.
Ultimately, the outlook for the rest of the year, while not all sunshine and rainbows, is perhaps not as stormy as the first half of Northwestern’s tumultuous season. Have the 'Cats been unlucky? Probably. Are they struggling to find the right mesh as a team? Also very likely. But they have talent and drive, and while the pieces may not completely come together this season, the 'Cats aren’t known for going down without a fight.
Thumbnail photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern