It’s a story that’s been told countless times. A legendary athlete, towards the end of their career with a team, puts everything on the line to give their crew one last chance at a championship and glory. Legendary status already cemented, the athlete continues to put themselves on the line, and somehow, some way, the final ride is enjoyed with a heartwarming twist that elevates the star to another level of skill and story.
And now, Northwestern women’s basketball (11-5, 3-2 B1G) gets to enjoy that kind of story. Led by senior point guard Veronica Burton, the ’Cats are trying to pull off the impossible and keep themselves relevant in the top realm of competition, despite losing some of their best players in recent memory. Yet with storylines and plenty of critics around the country against them, Northwestern is managing to rise up to this narrative, already looking to keep itself in the heat of Big Ten play.
The real question, however, is can the ’Cats keep this up? What should fans look for down the stretch? And, in the absence of other superstars, who has risen to the challenge of being Burton’s second option?
Jump on the bandwagon now… there’s always seats available for this team.
The Last Dance
There’s no need to sugarcoat or hyperbolize the impact Veronica Burton has on this team: the stats do that themselves.
The two-time reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Burton appears eager to defend her crown; she currently sits at third in the country with 4.25 steals per game and 68 overall, good for third in the nation. If that’s not enough for you, Burton is also ranked 10th in the Big Ten for blocked shots, swatting away roughly one per game.
Good defense turns into good offense, and Burton’s no stranger to this either. She sits at second in the conference – and is tied for 12th in the country – in assists per game, dishing roughly 6.0 per game and holding an astounding 2.74 assist-to-turnover ratio, also good for second in the conference. What’s more, Burton’s not afraid of throwing up her own shot: she’s currently 10th in the conference in points per game, picking up a whopping 17.4 points per game, with an almost uncanny ability to pick up the final shot.
In short: Burton is absolutely insane on both sides of the ball. While she is certainly the focal point of the team, there are still four other players on the floor helping her out.
For example, senior forward Courtney Shaw. Shaw is the presence in the paint every team wishes it had, picking up critical points and rebounds on every possession. Shaw is currently third in the conference in total rebounds – picking up roughly 9.4 per game – and is even more impressive on the offensive front, picking up 4.3 rebounds per game in the scoring end, good for 12th in the country. Shaw has also got a nice shooting finish, as she’s currently third on the team with 8.4 points per game.
The surprise of the season, however, is the emergence of first-year forward Caileigh Walsh. After being recruited as the No. 4 high school player at her position, Walsh has grown into the scoring threat Northwestern desperately needs, currently sitting at second on the team with 9.9 points per game. Even more impressive, however, is how she’s adjusted to the furious “blizzard” defense the ’Cats are famous for; Walsh leads the conference with 2.1 blocked shots per game, acting as a much-needed panic button for Northwestern.
This, unfortunately, leaves off the contributions of countless other players. First-year forward Melanie Daley, for example, scores 7.6 points per game and has come up clutch for the team in several situations.
There’s also first-year guard Jillian Brown, junior guard Laya Hartman and sophomore forward Paige Mott, who are currently becoming future superstars themselves. But to dwell on all of them would just reveal one thing. Besides Burton, this is a team that’s young, scrappy and hungry.
And they’re not throwing away their shot.
Before we get into specifics, we need to explain an important distinction for Northwestern: under head coach Joe McKeown, they have never been about scoring. As the saying goes, defense wins championships, and McKeown’s “blizzard” defense is some of the best in the business.
It should come as no surprise then that the ’Cats currently host the fourth best-scoring defense in the Big Ten, allowing just 60.3 points per game, and come within just 3.2 points of top team Rutgers. It gets even better when you consider their field goal defense, which is second-best in the conference in allowing just 37% of shots, and their turnover margin – Northwestern has forced 301 turnovers to their own 234 this year, good for third in the conference. In short, Northwestern’s stymieing defense is the key to their success.
That isn’t to say, however, that the ’Cats are completely incompetent when it comes to scoring. Northwestern scores roughly 66.7 points per game, just behind some of the middling teams in the Big Ten, and have one of the better rebounding squads in the game, as Shaw’s statistics would imply. With 37.6 rebounds per game, the team manages to pick up second chances and force themselves back into the paint.
Where Northwestern falls short, however, is their inability to finish offensively. The ’Cats host the worst shooting percentage in the Big Ten, making just 39.3% of their shots per game. While their defense is more than able to pick up the slack, the Wildcats are going to have to amp it up offensively if they want to hang with some of the top contenders in the Big Ten, especially as they get into the heat of their schedule.
Speaking of which…
It’s been a rocky start to the season for the ’Cats, but it’s not entirely their fault. The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has impacted plenty of teams around the country, and Northwestern could not escape its grasp, losing tons of practice time and some memorable games on the schedule. For example, the ’Cats were originally scheduled to take on top-tier program Oregon (10-5, 2-1 Pac-12) on December 21, but due to an outbreak, the teams mutually agreed to cancel the contest.
Now the ’Cats are back, and they’re facing a stretch of conference play for the rest of the season. The good news? They’ll be facing a couple basement-dwellers over the next few weeks, with games against Michigan State (9-8, 3-3 B1G) and Penn State (8-7, 2-3 B1G). The bad news? They then have to take on some of the best teams in the country, including No. 5 Maryland (12-5, 4-2 B1G), Iowa (10-4, 4-1 B1G) and eventually, No. 11 Michigan (15-2, 6-1 B1G), and No. 1 Indiana (12-2, 4-0 B1G).
The problem with these games is that it's been a series of coin-flips so far for Northwestern. They either face adversity head-on and match their opponents basket-for-basket – like they did in their 77-69 win over Iowa – or fall on cold shooting spells, like they did in their 74-61 loss against Ohio State (11-3, 5-2 B1G). While some players like Burton have been incredibly consistent in their performances during this stretch, others – like Daley or Walsh – sometimes get left off the scoresheet. With no word on when senior Sydney Wood could be returning from injury, another player needs to step up for the ’Cats consistently, especially from the players we already mentioned.
In short, the pieces are there; the team just needs to put them together. Like in years past, however – see the 2019 NIT team, 2020 Big Ten Champion and 2021 NCAA Tournament Qualifier – this is a team that won’t quit until the final buzzer sounds.
Let’s put up one more shot.