May 2, 2023 

State of the Program: After finishing in the basement of the Big Ten, Northwestern banks on player development

The Wildcats are coming off a last-place Big Ten finish in 2022-23

After losing Veronica Burton to the WNBA after the 2021-22 season, everything needed to go right for Northwestern to be competitive in the Big Ten this year.

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Seemingly everything went wrong.

The Wildcats received an initial jolt last offseason when seniors Courtney Shaw and Sydney Wood announced they’d return for a fifth year, providing some experience on an otherwise very young roster. Their presence wasn’t enough.

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“We had a lot of injuries. People couldn’t practice, and I feel like we were out of sync because of that,” head coach Joe McKeown said. “We didn’t shoot the ball very well. … Defensively, we didn’t rebound.”

2022-23 was Northwestern’s worst since McKeown took over the program before the 2008-09 season, but he doesn’t have to look back far to remember the success he’s had in Evanston: From 2018-19 through 2021-22, the Wildcats reached the WNIT championship game, won a Big Ten regular season title and reached the NCAA tournament, winning their first game in the big dance in 28 years.

How’d they do it? Quite simply: strong recruiting, player development and a defensive system that throws a wrinkle in any opponents’ game planning.

While a last-place finish and an offseason with more talent departing than coming in might not inspire a ton of confidence in Northwestern’s trajectory, McKeown’s expectations haven’t deviated.

“That’s the standard that I am going to hold them to,” he said, referring to the previous four-year stretch. “This is who we are. This is what our expectations are. I think this year’s an anomaly. For us, I’m not as concerned about the record itself, the wins and losses, but how we play. I think that’s going to be really important, that we play with a lot more passion.

“We were really young this year. Players looked at each other like, ‘Oh, I thought you were cutting. I thought you were going backdoor,’ or whatever. Just to get people back on the court that now have played together a little bit, I think, will help us there.”

2022-23 record: 9-21 (2-16 Big Ten)

Big Ten finish: 14th

Notable wins: None

Departures: Courtney Shaw (graduation), Sydney Wood (graduation), Kaylah Rainey (graduation), Laya Hartman (graduation), Anna Morris (transferring to Ohio State to play volleyball), Jillian Brown (transferring).

Additions: Casey Harter (first-year), Rachel Mutombo (first-year), Crystal Wang (first-year).

Key Returners: Caileigh Walsh, Caroline Lau, Paige Mott, Melannie Daley.

In addition to losing Shaw and Wood who both, when healthy, were stabilizing forces for the program, the Wildcats have also lost Anna Morris and Jillian Brown to the transfer portal. Morris, who struggled to carve out a role for herself in her first three years, announced last week that she’s transferring to Ohio State to play volleyball. Brown also entered the portal, though hasn’t yet announced a destination.

Brown’s departure serves as quite a blow for McKeown. Though she struggled mightily in her sophomore season, averaging just 6.6 points per game, shooting 19.8% from beyond the arc and 29% from the field overall, she showed flashes during her first year that she could be a key cog to the Wildcats’ future post Burton, Wood and Shaw.

Instead, she’s decided to move on.

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“We talked right after the season ended because she had a frustrating year,” McKeown said. “The expectations even that she puts on herself didn’t get equaled, and I think she was frustrated. We had a couple of different conversations, and I think at the end of the day, she’s like, ‘I want to get a fresh start,’ so that’s basically it.”

On the reverse end, McKeown can’t necessarily recruit players out of the transfer portal as easily as other programs, with Northwestern’s more stringent academic requirements. That only puts more pressure on his and his coaching staff’s ability to land strong recruits.

“We’ve been a great program for 10 years built on player development, built on classes coming in and getting better as a group, as a unit,” McKeown said. “When you leave, there’s somebody behind you that has the experience or now the opportunity. That’s been our calling card. We’ve been very fortunate. Academically, to come to a school like this, it’s hard to transfer in, whether it’s a certain major we don’t have or an admissions standard that the player we’re interested in doesn’t have the kind of grades at their current school.”

If the Wildcats do turn things around in 2023-24, Caileigh Walsh, Caroline Lau and Mel Daley will likely be at the center of it. Walsh led the team in scoring this past season (12.1 points per game) and finished second in rebounding (4.7 rebounds per game). As the season progressed, she found more success scoring around the rim than she’d had previously, and she’s also shown the ability to stretch the floor.

Combining those two skill sets could help her elevate her game to the level McKeown expects.

“I feel like she’s really gifted, and I think it helped her to get all that experience this year to have the ball go through her a lot in our offense,” McKeown said. “Confidence-wise, I think you’re going to see her ready to have a big year next year.”

Meanwhile, Lau and Daley are two guards to keep an eye on. Lau, coming off an uneven first season, steadily progressed throughout the year: She shot just 23% over the first two months before raising that to a stronger 39% in the 2023 segment of the season.

“I was really happy with her progress and the way she picked up our system,” McKeown said. “She’s a freshman. It was an old league this year. It was so deep. She played against great players every night, competed, and got better. I feel like she’s ready. She wants the basketball. She has a lot of confidence in her game, and I’ve seen her evolve into a really good teammate and has their respect. I’m excited for her.”

As for Daley, 2022-23 brought tremendous on-and off-the-court challenges. Her mother passed away in the middle of the season, and she dealt with a concussion that limited her playing time. When healthy, she’s shown the ability to fit seamlessly into the Wildcats’ “Blizzard” defense and be a go-to scorer on offense.

“One thing that Mel does is she can create her own shot, especially late in the shot clock,” McKeown said. “We missed that. We depended so much on ball movement to get shots, where she can break you down and get to the rim.”

Northwestern also welcomes three first years into the fold ahead of next season: Casey Harter, a guard from Philadelphia, who has “Burton-like qualities,” per McKeown, noting her high basketball IQ; Crystal Wang, a potential stretch-four from Sierra Canyon in Los Angeles who can knock down 3-pointers, an area the Wildcats struggled mightily in; and Rachel Mutombo, an Olney, Maryland native, who plays the post and should bring “a physical, rebounding presence,” as McKeown described her.

Of course, he added, it’ll be hard to know how much each of them will be able to contribute right away. But with playing time up for grabs, they’ll likely have the opportunity to make a name for themselves early in their careers in Evanston.

It’s unclear how high Northwestern’s ceiling can realistically be in 2023-24 with an insanely deep conference and a lack of proven talent, but with some better injury luck and positive player development, especially from Walsh, Lau and Daley, it’s not out of the question that this could be a WNIT team next season.

Look no further than how the Wildcats followed up a 12-20 season in 2017-18 with a string of success. Still, it’ll be no easy task, thanks to the arduous schedule every Big Ten team has to deal with every night.

“We expect them to win on the road and compete at the highest level in the league because we’ve proven we can do it,” McKeown said. “But, I’ve been here 15 years, (and) this was the deepest I’ve ever seen (the Big Ten). We might’ve had some teams over the years that stood out, but as far as 1 through 14, it was crazy.”

Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel

Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

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