Northwestern crushed Illinois and Maryland to start conference play, showing the Big Ten that its ceiling may be pretty high.
Does Northwestern know that conference games are supposed to be hard? After beating Illinois and No. 12 Maryland by a combined 50 points in their first two Big Ten battles of the season, it’s not clear.
In spite of their wealth of talent on paper, the ‘Cats have seemingly been on the outside looking in of national relevance all season. While they largely took care of business in non-conference play, they fell just two points short of a massive win over DePaul, making their a 10-1 record feel a little hollow.
But, in beating the brakes off of the Illini 77-50 on Dec. 28, and the always formidable Terrapins 81-58 on Dec. 31, the ‘Cats left little doubt that they are aiming for a serious run at, and maybe through a few rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, if you’ve taken a gander at the NCAA’s RPI rankings this season, flawed as they may sometimes be, these results shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. NU entered its tilt with Maryland a full 12 spots ahead of their AP-ranked foes, but 19 virtual spots behind them in the AP’s “receiving votes” abyss. The ‘Cats now hold the 13th national RPI rank to start 2020, and should expect to see a similar number next to their name when the next AP rankings are released.
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Irregardless of the inner machinations of the minds of AP voters, which remain an enigma, how on earth did this team so thoroughly dominate Illinois and Maryland? It started, to be expected, with Lindsey Pulliam. The star guard scored 27 and 24 points in the first two conference games on a combined, slightly voluminous 17-for-40 shooting performance from the floor.
It’s become clear at this point that Pulliam is always going to take about a third of NU’s shots and that the ‘Cats are happy to ride with that, as long as she’s got a second fiddle beside her. Who plays that second fiddle, however, goes game-by-game. Against Illinois, it was center Abbie Wolf, who pitched in 18 points while gobbling up 10 rebounds. Against Maryland, it was fellow guard Veronica Burton who scored 23 thanks in large part to 14-for-15 free throw shooting. Burton has already nabbed 11 steals in the first two conference games, true to her brand as a front-court defensive menace. Forward Abi Scheid has also pitched in 11 and 12 point outputs this week, stretching the floor with her outside shooting ability and size.
NU’s shot distribution is, in some ways, a nod to the Russell Westbrook and friends era of Oklahoma City Thunder basketball, but it’s hard to argue with the results. As a team, Northwestern is shooting 47% in conference play thus far. The ‘Cats also continue to be a middling rebounding team, and lost that battle 42-26 to Maryland in an otherwise lopsided game. But their defense, which has held opponents to 34% shooting in conference, thus far has overshadowed the need for improvement in that area.
It’s fair to say that stats “in conference” are meaningless just two games in, and that the ‘Cats still have much left to prove. If you are of this belief, you’re in luck, because NU has a very tough test directly ahead on Sunday at 1 p.m. in Evanston: the Iowa Hawkeyes. On Tuesday, Iowa set a school record for points scored in a game against Illinois with 108. The most any team has scored on NU this year is 70.
It will be a classic matchup of unstoppable force against unmovable object, and it should prove to be excellent theatre. High Post Hoops will have live coverage from Welsh-Ryan Arena that afternoon.
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