Women's basketball: Quarter-Season Review

With the women's basketball team off this week for finals and the season roughly one-fourth of the way through, I figured this was a good time to take a look at where the team stands.

Our Wildcats are 6-1 on the year, a solid mark against a decently tough schedule. Included in those wins are three against major conference opponents, highlighted by a 44-43 upset over then-No. 23 LSU. The lone loss came against No. 20 DePaul. NU is starting to get a smidge of attention, garnering two votes in each of the last two weeks' AP polls, both times courtesy of the Daily Herald's Patricia Babcock McGraw.

Here's my $0.02 on the season so far.

The freshmen guards have been everything advertised and then some. Morgan Jones came to NU as the ninth-rated prospect in the country, and in her brief time as a Wildcat, all she's done is rank second on the team in scoring, with 13.9 ppg, while leading the team in rebounding at 6.9 rpg. Already, she's had a 27-point game against NC State and hit several big shots in other games. She's also picked up the last two Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards, the most recent coming Monday.

The most promising aspect of this is that she's been able to stand out while somewhat struggling with her shot. Early on in the season, Jones seemed content to jack up contested shots early in the shot clock, with little success, but lately, her shooting percentage has improved as she's gotten more into the offensive flow. As she gets more comfortable in the offense, her numbers could get even better.

Meanwhile, point guard Karly Roser came in as a somewhat under-the-radar recruit, but the Canadian U-17 national teamer has ably filled the void left by four-year starter Beth Marshall, collecting a Big Ten Freshman of the Week award herself. Roser, who has two double-doubles on the season, has exhibited good savvy with the ball, ranking third in the NCAA with 7.1 assists per game, to go along with her 7.7 ppg. She does struggle somewhat against a press defense, leading the team in turnovers with 5.0 per game, but in coach Joe McKeown's up-tempo offense, she's had several plays using her speed to go coast-to-coast for a layup.

Danielle Diamant is the team's most improved player so far. There were a lot of questions coming into this season about how the Wildcats would replace All-American Amy Jaeschke in the middle, but Diamant has stepped up nicely after a down sophomore year. She looks a lot quicker on the court and confident in the post, while also demonstrating good range from behind the arc, going 10-19 on three-pointers. At the free throw line, she's shot 85.3% to lead the team, as well. Diamant is averaging 13.3 ppg and 6.0 rpg, and while those aren't up to Jaeschke's lofty All-American standards, she's been a pleasant surprise. Now, she just has to cut down on some of her fouls, as the team hasn't had much depth behind her.

The front court remains solid. Junior forward Kendall Hackney remains our best all-around and consistent scorer, leading the team with 14.4 ppg and ranking second with 6.4 rpg. She was somewhat muzzled against the Wildcats' two toughest opponents so far, scoring just 9 points in each game against LSU and DePaul, but outside of those games, she hasn't scored fewer than 14, with a season high of 20 coming against Missouri.

Senior forward Brittany Orban was having a great season, until she injured her knee against NC State. While in previous years Orban made her mark by burying that pocket three-pointer from the corner, this year she's transformed her game into an interior presence, collecting 22 offensive rebounds to lead the team. At the time of her injury, she was leading the team in scoring with 14.0 ppg. Her injury looked pretty bad, but she was able to travel with the team to its last game against Missouri, though she did not play. Hopefully she can make a speedy return.

Depth has been an issue. Head coach Joe McKeown has played with a short bench, with his starters accounting for 80% of the team's minutes so far. Only junior guard Tailor Jones has seen extended minutes as a reserve at 20.6 mpg, while senior guard Allison Mocchi got her first start in place of the injured Orban against Missouri, boosting her minutes average up to 12.8. Other than that, sophomore guard Meghan McKeown and freshman center/forward Alex Cohen have seen mostly token minutes.

With the up-tempo offense and pressure defense that McKeown likes to run, this lack of depth could be a concern, especially on the front line, with Orban's injury and Diamant's occasional foul trouble. Sophomore center Anna Cole and junior forward Kate Popovic have sat out all season so far. Cole, I believe, was injured to start the year, while Popovic has been out for undisclosed reasons. I've been trying to get an update on their status but have not heard anything yet. Maybe we'll get a chance to see them in action after finals are done. Guard La'Terria Taylor is also injured, while guard Inesha Hale has not seen any action this year, either.

The ‘Cats live by the pressure defense, die by the pressure defense. McKeown typically runs a three-quarter-court press that can wreak havoc on other teams, and we lead the Big Ten in steals. But our half-court defense sometimes leaves a bit to be desired, as we are dead last in the Big Ten in opponents' three-point percentage. NU got repeatedly burned by DePaul from long range in the loss, and against NC State, the Wildcats were similarly bad rotating over and closing out on three-point shooters, leaving several wide open. Fortunately, the Wolfpack was brickalicious, and NU still won handily.

Looking around the rest of the league, NU should be able to be competitive in the Big Ten. While I'm not sure we have the depth and athleticism to hang with the preseason favorites Purdue, Ohio State and Penn State, I think we compare favorably to the rest of the league, and a top-half finish should hopefully be enough to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Our RPI currently stands at 20.

The Big Ten appears pretty wide open this year. There are three ranked squads in the AP poll, the aforementioned 7-1 Purdue (#12), 7-0 OSU (#13) and 6-2 PSU (#17), and 8-1 Michigan sits just outside the top 25 in the "others receiving votes" category, while 7-1 Nebraska is the surprise of the league, also receiving votes in the poll. MichiganState at 6-3 and Iowa at 5-3 are also expected to be competitive, while 4-4 Minnesota, 3-5 Illinois, 3-5Wisconsin and 2-4 Indiana are off to slow starts.

Looking ahead for the Wildcats, they'll head down the Red Line to Loyola on Saturday, then host Morgan State on Dec. 14. Then comes a big three-games-in-three-days test at the Duel in the Desert tournament in Las Vegas starting Dec. 18, where they'll play UNLV, Kansas State and North Dakota State, before closing out the non-conference portion of the schedule on Nov. 27 against Toledo.

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