Northwestern in the WNBA: Veronica Burton and Nia Coffey

Northwestern is the smallest school in the Big Ten, and it’s not even close. It boasts fewer than 9,000 undergrads (Nebraska is the second smallest with just over 20,000) and is also the only private school in the conference. When people look at Northwestern from the outside, they likely see a mid-size, academic school in the Midwest where sports — albeit Big Ten sports — are not a priority. Those who follow Northwestern avidly, though, know this is not the case, especially considering the school’s women’s programs.

With basketball being one of the few women’s sports with a professional league, Northwestern women’s hoops has enjoyed a kind of success at the next level over the last decade few anticipated before head coach Joe McKeown’s arrival in 2008. Both Veronica Burton and Nia Coffey are making an impact in the WNBA, and this is happening after they took college by storm.

Burton, one of the best defensive players seen at the college level, was selected seventh in the 2022 WNBA Draft by the Dallas Wings. Her defensive play at Northwestern was certified exceptional. The Backcourt Burglar won WBCA (Women’s Basketball Coaches Association) Defensive Player of the Year during the 2021-2022 season, showing how coaches nationally recognized her talent. She led the nation in steals per game (4.03) and was the second person ever to win the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year three times, only after Tanisha Wright of Penn State.

This was only the beginning of her accolades. Along with the aforementioned recognitions from both the conference and the WBCA, Burton took home multiple First-Team All-Big Ten awards and was a finalist for the Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year award, the Nancy Lieberman Award (country’s top point guard), and the Dawn Staley Award (country’s top guard). She was also the first-ever Wildcat to be named to an AP All-America Team.

Putting all the awards and nominations aside, Burton was so important for the women’s basketball program and Northwestern University as a whole. She was one of the best players to ever walk through the program and she made the Northwestern community know her name from day one.

In the midst of her rookie campaign for the Wings, Burton hasn’t nearly seen the floor time she saw in Evanston yet — only averaging around 12 minutes per game — but it’s clear the Wings have long-term plans for her to fit in next to Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey.

Northwestern fans hope that Burton will be an impact player in the WNBA for years to come, and they do not have to look far to see a comparison. Not only was Nia Coffey a star in the purple and white, but she is also putting up numbers in the WNBA.

Coffey graduated from NU in 2017 as the highest WNBA pick ever to come out of Evanston at fifth overall. The 2021 season was her best yet, averaging 8.3 points per game with the Los Angeles Sparks, and in her 2022 season with the Atlanta Dream she leads the team in rebounds. One of her most recent newsworthy appearances was a double-double against the Indiana Fever, posting 16 points and 10 rebounds.

Though Coffey has played for four teams in her six seasons at the professional level, she is showing that regardless of the scenery, she is a vital player. These past two years, she has notched new career highs in points (8.3), rebounds (5.5) and assists (0.9) per game, along with games started (17).

Both Burton and Coffey came to Northwestern without much of a spotlight on them. But, both became stars in purple and were able to gain national attention by virtue of their own abilities, propelling them to the WNBA.

There are only 144 roster spots in the WNBA, and the fact that McKeown’s graduates occupy two shows they defied all odds — they gained visibility at a small school not known for its basketball prowess in the past and locked themselves into one of the few pro women’s leagues in the country.

Burton and Coffey are now on the big screens, and if Northwestern fans want to see some purple in the pros, the WNBA is the place.

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