McKeown, Northwestern come full circle with NCAA Tournament selection
EVANSTON – In a small way, he’s the one who triggered the rebuilding of his current program.
There’s no way that Joe McKeown knew that 18 years ago.
He was at the peak of his career as head coach of George Washington women’s basketball when his team faced Northwestern in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament on March 15, 1997. The Colonels ended the Wildcats season with a 61-46 win en route to an appearance in Elite Eight-McKeown’s best in his 19 years at George Washington.
Little did he know what that would mean for the team he defeated and himself almost 18 years to the day later.
On Monday (March 16th) McKeown sat down in the “N” Club at Welsh Ryan Arena awaiting another memorable moment of his career as the head coach of the Wildcats. Not since that day he defeated them with George Washington had the program returned to the “Big Dance.”
After seven years of work that was about to change-and McKeown couldn’t wait for it all to come full circle.
“A lot of anxiety to be honest,” said the coach as the NCAA Selection Show began at 6 P.M.-even though he knew his 22nd-ranked squad was a shoe in to get in. “Makes you sweat a little bit.”
Luckily that wait wasn’t as long as it was for the school to get back to the tournament. The Oklahoma City region brackets were the second announced and the Wildcats were in, breaking out a celebration among the players and fans nearly two decades in the making.
A trip to Waco, Texas as a seventh-seed was the revelation for the team as they head to face Arkansas at 11 A.M. on Friday. Should they get by the tenth-seeded Razorbacks, a likely meeting with host Baylor would await them.
“It’s so surreal,” said junior guard Maggie Lyon of seeing the Wildcats’ name among the 64 others in the women’s tournament field. “I’ve always dreamed of that moment, especially for Northwestern.”
McKeown had to be the big dreamer when he took over a Northwestern program that looked nothing like the one he faced at George Washington. When he was named head coach in 2008 the program had a record of 55-208 since 1999. In five of those seasons the Wildcats finished last in the conference and in two they failed to win a Big Ten game.
"Just trying to put building blocks together more than anything else," said McKeown when asked how he went about building the program when he arrived in 2008. "Not trying to get ahead of ourselves."
Steadily McKeown improved the Wildcats and got them to a pair of WNIT berths in his first three seasons. After two-sub .500 seasons Northwestern showed signs of life in 2013-2014 by reaching the third round of the WNIT. This season came the breakthrough as the Wildcats won 23 games, finished fourth in the Big Ten while cracking the Top 25 rankings for the first time in 20 years.
To put it in perspective, Northwestern nearly won more Big Ten games this season (12) than they had the previous nine (14) before the coach arrived. Yet McKeown credits some of the players in those early years for helping to create the foundation of success the Wildcats now enjoy.
"We were able to compete, we won 18 or 19 games so I'm always thankful for that group of players that here and the first group that we recruited here," said McKeown. "When you recruit a Nia Coffey and a Maggie Lyon, Christen Inman or Lauren Douglas your telling them 'We're going to be good'- and you hope they believe you.
He's right according to Lyon, a three-time All-State selection at New Trier, who credited the belief in future success as the reason it finally arrived.
"It think it's just kind of a change of mindset in the players," said Lyon-an All-Big Ten honorable mention this season. "In the offseason we worked so hard working together and just overcoming adversity and kind having that toughness, edge. NIT was great last year but it wasn't what we wanted. We wanted NCAA Tournament, we want to win the Big Ten. We wanted to be at the top.
"I think that mentality shifted and I think that's why we're here."
Despite the major achievement that hasn't change for the players and especially Coffey-perhaps one of the best players recruited to Northwestern in recent memory. Coming to Evanston from Minneapolis, Coffey was an All-Big Ten first team selection this season as a sophomore in leading the team with 15.8 points and 8.9 rebounds a game.
But those accomplishments-including Monday's announcement-are put behind her and the rest of the Wildcats as the NCAA Tournament begins.
"Now we really know where we're going, who we're playing," said Coffey. "We're putting our game plan together so tomorrow is going to be a really intense practice."
Maybe not as intense as they 18 years that bridged a program and it's coach.