EVANSTON, Ill. - Coming off back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16, Joe McKeown didn’t quite grasp the task at hand when he left George Washington to coach Northwestern in 2008.
He got quite an education.
“I just remember my first year, I was like, ‘Man, it’s gonna take a minute,’” McKeown said Tuesday.
It took quite a few minutes, actually. But look at the Wildcats now.
No. 11 Northwestern (26-3) comes rolling into the Big Ten Tournament with a share of its first regular-season championship in 30 years after going 16-2 in conference to tie sixth-ranked Maryland. Play starts Wednesday in Indianapolis, with Wisconsin meeting Illinois and Minnesota going against Penn State.
The second-seeded Wildcats have a quarterfinal matchup Friday against the Michigan-Nebraska winner, with top-seeded Maryland getting Michigan State or Purdue.
Northwestern set program records for overall and league wins. McKeown became the 13th active coach with 700 wins when the Wildcats beat East Carolina on Dec. 20. And a victory at home over Maryland on New Year’s Eve erased any doubts the players had that they were serious contenders in the Big Ten.
They come in on quite a roll with nine straight wins since a road loss to the Terrapins and a quite a bit of hardware, too.
McKeown is the program’s first Big Ten Coach of the Year since Don Perelli in 1987 and 1990. Guard Lindsey Pulliam was a unanimous first-team, all-conference pick by both the coaches and media. Forward Abi Scheid also earned first-team honors. And Veronica Burton joined Ashley Deary (2016 and 2017) as the only Wildcats selected Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
“We know we have more to give, and we know we’re not done yet,” guard Sydney Wood said. “We don’t just want to finish being Big Ten regular-season champs and then not show our best in the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament. We’ve set high expectations for ourselves and we want to go out and get them.”
Forward Abbie Wolf added: “(We have) full intentions of making it very far, to even April.”
Winning is nothing new to McKeown. He compiled a 509-174 record and made the NCAA Tournament 15 times in 19 seasons at George Washington. He spent three years before that at New Mexico State, where he went 68-20 and made two NCAA appearances.
But getting Northwestern turned around wasn’t easy.
The Wildcats went 24-95 overall and 7-59 in Big Ten play in four years under former coach Beth Combs. They had 11 straight losing seasons when McKeown took over and went 7-23 his first year — the first time a team he coached finished below .500.
But they won 18 and 19 games the next two seasons and made back-to-back WNIT appearances before two more sub-.500 finishes. In seven years since then, they’ve won 20 or more games four times. They made the NCAAs in 2015 for the first time since 1997 and are poised to make their second appearance under McKeown.
It hasn’t been an easy turnaround.
Northwestern had to spend a season playing at a local high school and practicing in various locations while Welsh-Ryan Arena underwent a massive transformation into a glistening facility.
Even when the program was struggling, McKeown could feel a “buzz about Northwestern athletics.”
The football team under Pat Fitzgerald was making regular bowl appearances. Coach Chris Collins led the men’s basketball team to an NCAA appearance that was a first for a school that hosted the first Final Four. Women’s lacrosse captured five straight championships from 2005-09 and added two more titles in 2011 and 2012.
Now, the women’s basketball team is winning big.
“We were used to winning,” McKeown said. “I can tell you that first year took a lot out of me because I’d never had a losing season before as a head coach. It kind of inspires you to say we’re not going to do this again, either. I just kind of felt like we were growing with Northwestern.”
Maryland comes in with 14 straight wins since a loss at Iowa on Jan. 9 and its sights set on a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. The Terps hope to go farther in the NCAAs this year after beating Radford and then losing to UCLA. They had six players earn all-conference honors, with Kaila Charles a unanimous first-team pick and Ashley Owusu selected Freshman of the Year.
While Maryland and Northwestern tied for the top spot, Iowa is also looking to make a big run.
The Hawkeyes finished third, just two games back, and they boast the Big Ten Player of the Year for the second straight season. Kathleen Doyle got it this year after Megan Gustafson won it in 2019.