For a team that has produced monumental results this season, Northwestern has been anemic in the respect department.
Neither media nor Big Ten coaches picked the Wildcats to finish in the top half of the conference prior to the season. They went largely ignored as they blasted through their schedule, losing only two games before finally being voted into the AP top 25 poll – at No. 22 – on Jan. 20, for the first time in four years.
Yet, there stood each Northwestern player – plus coach Joe McKeown – atop a ladder last Saturday, cutting down the net to celebrate their first share of the Big Ten regular-season title in 30 years. They own a program-best 26-3 record, rank seventh in Division I RPI, and enter the conference tournament as a No. 2 seed, based on tiebreakers with top-seed Maryland.
McKeown, named conference coach of the year Monday, called the underrating of the Wildcats “frustrating,” but said the team “tries not to get caught up in that.”
“I’ve been a coach for 38 years, so they know me,” he said. “But I don’t know if they respect our program at the level that maybe it deserves.”
Top-scorer Lindsey Pulliam said she knew Northwestern would be successful this year, and that she and her teammates would likely be the only ones who understood that. So they used it as motivation.
“We know that nobody believed it when I said that we were going to win the Big Ten this year, and that we were going to make the NCAA tournament,” Pulliam said. “It just continues to grow that chip on our shoulder, even though we are ranked (a program-best 11th in this week’s AP top 25 poll) and we just won a Big Ten championship.”
“We’re still going to be overlooked and nobody’s going to believe in us, but that doesn’t matter, because we believe in us.”
Senior forward/center Abi Scheid agreed.
“It just fuels our fires,” she said of the Wildcats’ snub. “We want to prove people wrong. We don’t want to get too much caught up in it. We just let our playing do the talking, I guess.”
And talk, they did.
The Wildcats upset No. 14 Maryland on New Year’s Eve, took down No. 15 Indiana two weeks later, and has seen its key players elevate their games.
Pulliam, a junior, worked herself into being among the most dangerous guards in the conference by vastly improving her three-point shot over the summer. She now shoots 35 percent from beyond the arc, after going 18 percent last season.
“After the season last year I knew I had to stretch my game out, so people had to come in and respect me from the three point line,” Pulliam said. “It gives our team more spacing. It makes people have to focus on me, which gets my teammates open and gives them better shots.”
Scheid bookends Pulliam in both play and leadership. She transformed her game last summer by developing a three-point shot that is the most accurate in the nation this year. She improved her percentage more than 130 points, to .486. At 6-2, she forces post defenders to uncomfortable defensive positions and opens up the paint for 6-4 Abbie Wolf, who converts at a rate of .526 – among the best in the Big Ten.
“She really got into the gym in the off-season and really worked,” McKeown said. “This is something that showed a toughness, determination that was new.”
“She just decided, ‘I’m going to have a great senior year,’ and put the work in beyond the regular practice times. She’s able to stretch defenses now, because she is a forward and 6-2, 6-2 ½, usually the person who’s guarding her doesn’t want to go that far out.”
McKeown said Scheid is hard to guard.
“She’s really smart, plays really well without the ball. And she’s playing on a good passing team,” he said. “She doesn’t need a lot of room, she’s got a quick release, and these are the things that make her really dangerous.”
It is not as if the Wildcats came out of nowhere into this season. They went to the WNIT tournament last year after a series of injuries left a good team with a not-quite-good-enough 20-14 record. They won five rounds before losing in the final to Arizona.
The postseason journey inspired this year’s squad to reach greater heights.
“Even just going into the NIT, we thought ‘that’s not what we came to Northwestern to do,’” Pulliam said. “And then on top of that, losing in that championship game. Just coming into this year, having a focus on being a great team, we want to win the Big Ten, we want to make it to the NCAA tournament.”
Scheid felt the same way, and it changed the returning players’ mindset in subtle but important ways.
“It kind of started our momentum going into this current season,” she said. “But I think what we really thought was we just didn’t want to go to that tournament again. So we really set our minds to that. The next summer we came in determined.”
Pulliam said the team changed its approach and game preparation entirely.
“For us, it was more so focusing on every single game individually, and kind of just focusing on how we wanted to play, and not who we were playing,” she said. “Being ready to play every day, coming into practice, coming into games, and just being focused on the moment, for 40 minutes.”
This year’s squad, as a result, has shown an outstanding blend of balanced offense and excellent defense, and they have usually managed to stay focused throughout all four quarters.
McKeown plays just six deep in big games, led by Pulliam. The 5-10 shooting guard has been the driving force for her team all year averaging 19.1 points per game. But it is her leadership that stands out most to her coach and teammates.
“The biggest thing about Lindsey is confidence and leadership – two words that get overused – but she brings those every day,” McKeown said. “It makes her a great leader. She just exudes confidence when she walks on the court.”
“Great example: last week, she was maybe 1-11 against Nebraska, but we got her the ball for the last shot and she drilled it and won the game. That’s the confidence that everybody has in her, and she brings it every day.”
Asked to describe her leadership style, McKeown said, “I think half of [the players] are afraid of her, and half of them are in awe of her.”
“I think he meant they were afraid of me because I’m not afraid to get on my teammates,” she said. “They know that I absolutely love to win and I hate to lose, and I’m not afraid to be uncomfortable.”
‘Being uncomfortable,’ she explained, means “being able to own up to it when I mess up, because obviously, I’m not perfect.”
Pulliam said being a leader to her means being able to call both herself and her teammates out, if necessary. It can also mean providing encouragement.
“It’s being very vocal, and just trying to set an example, making sure I’m always talking, making sure I’m doing what I need to do,” Pulliam said. “And kind of pushing my teammates and pushing myself to be better.”
In discussing her work last summer, Scheid was matter-of-fact, but clearly proud.
“I mostly put more emphasis on learning about getting myself open on the court,” she said. “Learning how to read the defense, seeing what availability they give me.”
“I also focused on how to move, going off a double-stagger, things like that. I worked on getting my shot off faster, so I didn’t have a pause when I got the ball. Learning more about getting myself open. In the gym the emphasis was on . . . developing muscle memory, so I don’t even think about it when I’m in the game. It just comes naturally.”
Another player who has taken huge strides this season is Wolf. With the graduation of double-double machine Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah last year, Wolf became the mainstay in the paint for McKeown. The big center has surpassed expectations.
Playing 12 more minutes than last season, Wolf is averaging 11.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, and shooting a flashy .536, to go along with 43 blocks on the year. Defensively, she has been an effective anchor for an aggressive defense.
“[S]he has done a really much better job on the offensive post players in the league than we expected, making things really hard for them,” McKeown said.
It is on defense, though, that the team may have made its greatest strides. The credit for the effectiveness of the three-two match up zone is given to three lesser-known guards. That defense has held opponents to 37 percent shooting and 56.7 points (No. 27 nationally) on the season.
“Everybody on the floor plays a vital role in our defense,” Pulliam said. “Syd[ney Wood], Veronica [Burton], Jordan [Hamilton], they play a big part in getting their hands on balls and getting us a lot of steals during games”.
”Every piece is important. [Scheid], she’ll always be in the right spot when she needs to be. She’ll get a rebound, she’ll get a stop, whatever she needs to do. And obviously Wolf taking up the paint, deterring shots, getting rebounds. And then me, I try to be sure I’m always in the right place, talking and making sure everybody’s in the right place on the floor. It takes all of us, but Syd and Veronica have been a big part of our defense this year.”
Scheid said the Wildcats benefit from their strong bonds.
“So much of it is trust,” she said. “So we’re able to take those risks on defense.”
“Veronica and Syd and Jordan on that up-down guard position, they all take risks knowing that we’re going to have their backs on the back line. And also we said we just wanted to be super-aggressive this year.”
Along with the measurable improvement on both offense and defense, Northwestern also stands out for an intangible: team chemistry. McKeown summarizes that aspect of his team in the word “fun.” But the reality is more complex.
“We went through a lot,” he said. “We played a year of home games at Evanston High School (in 2017-2018, while their arena was being remodeled). We practiced a lot all over the area. It kind of pulled them together a bit. And they decided that winning is more fun than scoring a lot of points. They’ve just bought into that mentality.”
McKeown said his players have fully bought into team basketball.
“In our sport, there’s so much emphasis placed on ‘how many points did you score?’ and the group that we recruited really, they’re way past that mentality,” he said. “They think a great pass that leads to a layup gives them more pleasure than hitting a jumper. They just kind of play off each other, and don’t get caught up in stats, which is hard to do in this age of social media, games and TV.”
“They realize it’s much more fun to play together. . . .They’ll set a screen, dive on the floor, make an extra pass, block out so somebody else gets a rebound. We try to reward those kinds of things in practice.”
McKeown said the Wildcats’ off-court life seeps into their play.
“I think the biggest thing is our teamwork and our ability to share the ball,” he said. “This group’s really tight-knit, they enjoy each other off the court, and it really carries over on the court.”
Pulliam said the team has always been about chemistry.
“I think from the time I came in as a freshmen, the seniors right now did a great job of taking us in and just making it a family right here,” she said. “This team, we spend all of our time together, even when we don’t have to.”
“Whether that be watching a men’s game or going to the movies, we’re always spending time together. Even if it’s just in the locker room, doing homework together. And that extends onto the court because we trust each other and we love each other, so that has played a big role in our success this year.”
Northwestern opens Big Ten Tournament play in Friday’s quarterfinals, where they will play the winner of No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 10 Nebraska. They would like to host rounds 1 and 2 of the NCAA Tournament, which would be a program first.
But regardless of what happens this postseason, Wildcat players are doing their part to leave a legacy behind.
“We’re always going to be overlooked, and I knew that when I committed here,” Pulliam said. “And that’s something that I loved about being able to come here and change a program.”