The Northwestern women's basketball team gets its 2012-13 season rolling Sunday with an exhibition game at home against NAIA school St. Francis, as the program seeks that elusive NCAA tournament berth.
The Wildcats are looking to rebound from a disappointing season, in which they finished 14-16 overall and missed out on the postseason after two straight WNIT berths. Things had looked bright after a 10-3 non-conference performance, which included a win over then-No. 23 LSU. But injuries wrecked the team, and ragged play down the stretch led to an ugly 4-13 Big Ten record.
The blows kept coming in the offseason, with second-leading scorer and highly touted freshman Morgan Jones transferring to Florida State, and the loss of two assistant coaches, including well-regarded Ali Jacques, who took the head coaching job at Siena.
But with a preseason team trip to Italy, the return of honorable mention All-Big Ten selection Kendall Hackney and the arrival of five new freshmen, head coach Joe McKeown hopes for a better result this season, in his fifth year of rebuilding the once-moribund Wildcat program. For SoP's first look at the 2012-13 Wildcats, I got a chance to talk to him about the program's push to make the NCAAs and what we can expect from the Wildcats this year.
SoP: Last year, you guys got off to a good start in nonconference, hit a wall during conference play and ended up barely missing out on being eligible for the WNIT, which I know was a huge disappointment. What happened last year, and how can some of things that went wrong be corrected this year?
JM: We had four new starters last year, so in some respects, we were doing rebuilding on the fly. We had some key injuries that held us back and came at different times during the year. We just couldn't get traction off of our nonconference success. Going into this year, we have five freshmen, so I think it's exciting just to move forward, and we had an opportunity to take our team to Italy at the end of August with our freshmen. That really, I think, has given us a lot of steam going into this year.
SoP: Your second leading scorer from last year, Morgan Jones, ended up transferring. Can you talk about what happened there?
JM: I think Morgan, more than anything else, grew up in Florida, was a terrific high school player in Florida. I think there was probably a little bit of, I don't want to say homesickness, but maybe wanting to get back to Florida, and she ended up picking Florida State. She obviously had a terrific year for us, but you want her to be happy and be in the right situation. She thinks that's best for her, and no bitterness. Just wish her the best and hope everything works out there.
SoP: She was a big contributor for you guys last year. Where are you going to replace her 14 points per game?
JM: Like any team, when a player graduates or leaves that played a lot, it creates opportunities for other players. Right now, looking at the team moving forward, it's going to be people who are going to have opportunities to play a lot more and to play a lot for the first time in their careers.
SoP: I know you're still in the early stages of practice, but have you begun setting your lineup yet and figuring out your rotation?
JM: [Center] Dannielle Diamant, [forward] Kendall Hackney, and [point guard] Karly Roser all logged a lot of minutes last year. So you're going to look at them and say, you're going to be a year better. But I do think we're going to be a lot deeper if we can stay healthy. Some of the freshmen and sophomores last year that really played well and contributed in their own way -- Alex Cohen, Meghan McKeown -- they're going to have opportunities. The five freshmen are going to have a lot of opportunities. I don't have a set lineup yet, but I do think we're going to be in a position to play maybe eight, nine, 10 people at times.
SoP: You mentioned Dannielle Diamant and Kendall Hackney. They're your most experienced players, your top two returning scorers, and they're going to be leaders on the court. As they enter their senior season, what can we expect from them?
JM: I think what you want more than anything else as a coach is consistency. Not that you want to make every shot but train to know that it's your last year as a collegiate player, and you've had a big impact on changing the culture of an entire program. They've averaged 17 wins a year since they've been here. In the 14 years before, I think the program averaged three or four wins, finished last every year. They've had a huge impact in the turnaround that we've had, and I think you just want them to be consistent in their attitude and their energy, knowing that they have an influence on the younger players in the program.
SoP: At guard, Karly Roser was your starter as a freshman. And then you had some role players, like Meghan McKeown whom you mentioned, and Inesha Hale got some playing time later in the season. How do you feel about your guards?
JM: There's a lot of playing time up for grabs right now. Karly played 30-something minutes a game last year and I thought did a great job. We threw her in the fire a lot. Inesha was hurt a lot, had surgery after the season. She's helped us play well in Italy, and we're just trying to keep her healthy. We have a freshman from Israel named Nof Kedem, a point guard who did not go to Italy with us, wasn't here this summer for that, but we think she's going to give us more depth at point guard. And then our freshmen besides Nof, Maggie Lyons from New Trier, a local kid, a terrific high school career, a highly sought after recruit, and Lauren Douglas from Memphis really is a talented player. Those two along with Nof are going to give us a lot of options on the perimeter.
SoP: Back up front, behind Dannielle and Kendall, you had Alex Cohen who came in off the bench. Kate Popovec and Anna Cole played some but had some injuries. What are you expecting from your front court role players?
JM: Everybody is at a position to compete. Our freshmen, too. Devon Brookshire, I've been really impressed with, and we've got Christen Johnson in there. This team is going to be a lot deeper, and we've got players that can play interchangeable positions. Lauren Douglas can be a post player. I just think we'll be more balanced, not one dimensional.
SoP: The one question everybody wants to know is, can this team make the tournament? You built the foundation, with players like Amy Jaeschke, and got close with her, took a slight step backwards last year. Can you guys rebound and be in tournament contention this year?
JM: More than anything else, we've done a lot in changing the culture in a program that was just embedded in finishing last. I think we've done so many things to change that. I know at George Washington, if we didn't make it to the tournament, we were really disappointed. That didn't happen very often. I know there's a lot of pressure on men's basketball with the NCAA Tournament issue, so you know that's going to be brought up in the same breath when people talk about our program. I'm not that concerned. I do think if we have a good year in the Big Ten, those things will take care of themselves, because last year seven teams got in.
SoP: Speaking of the Big Ten, how's the league shaping up to you? Penn State and Purdue are always strong, Ohio State is always there, Michigan State.
JM: I tell you, it's a crazy league. Everybody can beat everybody on a given night. We proved that the last couple of years. It's just every night is a snowball fight, really. It's a great league, and we're going to be really competitive. We're excited to get going.