The Big Ten looks pretty wide open this year, which bodes well for NU's chances of making some noise in the conference, though most prognosticators have the Wildcats a step or two behind five expected contenders for the title: No. 14 Penn State, No. 21 Purdue, No. 25 Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa.
NU is coming off two straight WNIT appearances, and even despite losing its best player, All-American Amy Jaeschke, to graduation, the Wildcats are expected to be a bubble team for the NCAA tournament. That's a testament to the improved recruiting under head coach Joe McKeown, who had a dominant run at George Washington University and has rebuilt this NU program from its Dark Ages of the 2000s.
As he prepares for his fourth season in Evanston, with the Wildcats opening up the season Friday at Central Michigan, I got a chance to talk to McKeown on how he thinks his team will do this year. Expect a different style of offense without Jaeschke, improved depth and balance throughout the lineup, and the freshmen to play big roles.
SoP: How's the team look so far?
JM: Like everybody else this time of year, real sloppy, but we have some talent, some young talent, and we feel if we can keep everybody healthy we can be competitive.
SoP: Talk about your lineup. Who's in your starting five, and how does the rest of your rotation shape up?
JM: I'll let you know Friday. We're still mixing and matching as we speak. I'm not sure myself. By the time we get to Friday, and then we play at home next Tuesday and Thursday, some of those things will sort themselves out.
SoP: Obviously the big question mark coming into this season is how you're going to replace Amy Jaeschke. How is your team adjusting to life after Amy?
JM: Well, you don't just replace someone who scored 2,000 points. It does open up opportunities for other people. She was an unbelievable player for us, and an incredible person too. You gotta replace her in pieces.
SoP: What is Amy up to now? Last I heard, she was playing in Russia.
JM: She broke her hand in Russia in training camp, so she came back to Chicago for a while, and now she's playing in China. [ed note: She appears to be playing for the Jiangsu Phoenix, where she is listed on the roster as the mononym "Amy."] She's doing really well there, and really excited about being there. We're happy for her. She just scored 25 points the other day. Hopefully this will open up some opportunities for her. You gotta pay your dues sometimes.
SoP: You've got a lot of newcomers on the team this year, with the three freshmen and the two transfers. How are they fitting in, and how's the chemistry?
JM: The chemistry has been great. This is one of those teams that you can't just walk onto the floor. You have to be united as a team, and they're all buying into that. That's the most important thing. Anna Cole, a transfer from Kentucky, and Kate Popovic, a transfer from Pitt, they're going to be good players, and they're great additions as people, too. I like the chemistry of this team.
SoP: How about the freshmen? How have they looked?
JM: All three have been better than advertised. The way they're adjusting to Northwestern, I'm really pleased. When you've been coaching for 30 years, you look at freshmen, and you can gauge progress in different ways. Sometimes you measure it hourly and daily, rather than by years. I feel they're all going to contribute at a high level. You need to give them some opportunities and get some time under their wings a little bit. It'll be fun to watch their progress. Morgan Jones is highly acclaimed, but she's very unselfish. All three of them are unselfish, and that's the best way to describe the class. For all the accolades they received coming out of high school, they're team players, and you appreciate that as a coach.
SoP: You said at Big Ten media day that you might run a gun a little more this season. Talk about your ideal offensive philosophy.
JM: When we were at GW, you look at our team the last 4-5 years, we opened the floor up, were really athletic, able to score. I think that was the reason we were in the top 10 and made the Sweet 16. Just being able to get out and run, being able to penetrate and use defense to create easy baskets on offense, I'd like to get back to that. Especially the defense, where we can really be so disruptive that it leads to our offense. I think we started to do that last year, so hopefully it'll continue.
SoP: The NCAA moved back the three-point line this year to match the men's line. What impact do you see that having on your team?
JM: My own opinion right now, we all need to get a year under our belt and see how the stats work themselves out. The great shooters were well beyond that line anyway. I don't think it'll affect them. I think the players who were borderline [shooters], it might affect them. For me, I'm curious to see what happens. It'll be easier for the referees because it clears up a lot of confusion with the two lines.
SoP: What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the team?
JM: If we can stay healthy, I think our depth will be the best it's been since I've been at Northwestern. Our gap between our best players and our players who haven't had as much experience has closed. That's our biggest strength. On the flip side, that might be our weakness, too. When you lose a great player like Amy, and also Beth Marshall and Meisha Reed, who did great things for us, you're taking over 3,000 points out of your lineup. But I feel like our depth, we can play more people more minutes.
SoP: You've made the WNIT the last two years, with 19 and 18 wins. What's it going to take for this team and this program to finally get over that hump and make the NCAAs?
JM: For us, it has to be the way people mature and handle situations. The way our freshmen grow up, they're going to need to be sophomores in mid-February. And if they do that, we have a chance. My greatest theme we try to hammer home is, we want to be the best team we can be in March, not November and December. For our freshmen to go through the battles of nonconference, and then be really playing our best basketball in February and March, that gives us the best chance.
SoP: Looking around the conference, how do you see the Big Ten race shaping up, and who are going to be the teams to beat?
JM: When you've been around a long time, I don't pay that much attention to preseason notoriety. On paper, I think Penn State really returns almost their entire starting lineup, and Purdue looks like a strong team. Our league is so balanced, anybody can bounce up.
SoP: When you got to NU, this program wasn't in good shape, and now you've been able to steadily build it into a competitive team. What's the biggest difference between the program now and when you first got to Evanston?
JM: I think one of the things we had to do when we got here is you have to win some games. They had years where they won one conference game. As much as my track record at GW was for people who have followed us, that's one thing, but we had to win some games. And I think back-to-back winning seasons really helps. It's attracted the caliber of student athlete that we want to recruit. We feel like we're in the mix with some of the best players in the country, and that's where Northwestern should be. I took this job based on the potential of this school. We're very similar to Stanford, Duke, GW. These are great women's programs and great academic institutions. Having Chicago and the Big Ten Network, all the advantages that we have, to me, those have been the things that we focused on.
SoP: Going on a bit of a tangent, as a women's basketball coach, what is your take on the whole debate over whether student athletes ought to be paid?
JM: I'll get back to you when things are decided. There's so many formulas and ideas out there, and there are two key issues: conference realignment and what's going to happen with the superpowers. They go hand in hand with all the money in college athletics right now. Until that is settled, most coaches are like, let me know what I'm dealing with. That's how I look at it. I do think women's basketball players should be treated like the men's basketball players, in my opinion. I've been doing this for 30 years, so I've seen both sides of that.
SoP: And one last question, what's it like to coach your daughter? [Meghan McKeown is a sophomore guard.]
JM: Oh man, I tell you. You know, when she grew up in DC, I could never coach her, because of all the NCAA rules. To be able to coach her now, I'm really proud of her. She does a great job in school. She's a typical coach's kid. She dives on the floor, hustles all over the place, never complains about things. Obviously it has its set of challenges. Our team has really accepted her in the locker room and the dorm for who she is. And she's very independent. Everything that comes her way, she's earned. She wants to do that by herself. I'm really proud of her in that respect. It's not an easy thing. We both understand that. She's handled it, probably better than I have.