Cal first year head coach Lindsay Gottlieb could not suppress a small smile when she entered the pre-game press room at Purcell Pavillion as her ninth-seeded, 24-9 team prepared for Sunday’s noon (EDT) encounter with Iowa (19-11).
It seemed as if she knew, in her first year, that her squad had made it over the hump. With national press and TV media in tow, her team had made the Big Time.
While Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder stopped short of calling for a change in the process, she was not shy about voicing her opinion on the timing of the Big Ten tournament at the pre-NCAA tournament press conference at Notre Dame.
When competition started Thursday, most observers assumed that by the night’s end, there would be a three-way tie at the top of the Big Ten Conference. But by the time it was over, only one team held the top spot -- and that was Purdue, the team that did not play.
When competition started Thursday, most observers assumed that by the nights end, there would be a three-way tie at the top of the Big Ten Conference. But by the time it was over, only one team held the top spot -- and that was Purdue, the team that did not play.
Heading into the home stretch there appears to be separation forming between the top four teams (Purdue, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Penn State) and the rest of the conference.
Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan are tightly packed at the next three spots, but have been just inconsistent enough to leave the impression that each is still looking at at least one, and most likely two, losses in its future.
The fun teams to watch have turned out to be Wisconsin and Minnesota, both of whom have put scares into first-tier teams before going on to lose at the last minute.
Bringing up the rear, Illinois started out the year as the hard-luck team in the conference. Still, the Illini, though also suffering from inconsistency, have been performing better of late, playing the spoiler to at least two teams who will remember not to underestimate them next time around.
The gloves are now off in the Big Ten. Parity, which did not look like a reality in mid-January, has played havoc with the prognosticators as well as the coaches.
The trend continued Thursday, as Nebraska took three overtimes to bring league-leading Purdue back to the pack. The win placed the Huskers in a tie with Purdue at the top of the conference standings with Ohio State only a half-game out and Penn State a game back.
If Michigan can beat in-state rival Michigan State on Saturday, the Wolverines, will be right in the thick of the conference regular-season title race as well.
Iowa also picked up an overtime win over a quickly improving Wisconsin, but the victory proved costly with the loss of Jamie Printy for the balance of the season. And Illinois continued its solid play after a shaky start to its conference season.
And still in the Big Ten basement, Indiana continues to look for its first win of the conference season.
Let's take a closer look at the midweek Big Ten action and Full Court's predictions for this weekend's games.
In our last Big Ten update, Full Court went out on a limb, forecast that the Illinois, then 0-7 in conference play, was poised for a turnaround. In fact, we held our collective breath, crossed our collective fingers and toes and also predicted that the Illini was actually begin that turnaround with a win this week over the reigning Big Ten regular-season champions, Michigan State.
And, lo and behold, the big news of the week is that Illinois, after several close calls, finally pulled one out for their first Big Ten win -- a road win, no less -- over Michigan State, prevailing 71-62 in overtime on Thursday.
In other midweek action, Indiana gave Ohio State a battle for 20 minutes, taking a lead at halftime and literally dominating the boards, before Tayler Hill got her groove on and the Buckeyes ran away with it in the second half, 73-55.
Purdue took no-surprise road win against Northwestern to remain undefeated atop the conference standings and Penn State dominated Michigan, 77-56, to let everyone know their early conference slump is over.
Nebraska defeated Iowa at home, 60-53. And Wisconsin won its second-straight conference game, 78-72, over Minnesota.
So right now, it appears the four byes for the play-in games of the Big Ten Tournament will go to Purdue, Ohio State, Penn State, and Nebraska, although Penn State and Purdue still have the toughest part of their schedules to go, so we could see some movement.
Read on for a closer look at the highlights of this week's Big Ten action, the current league standings, and Full Court's predictions for this weekend's games.
Last weekend's Big Ten games did not bring any major surprises, as each game evolved according to our Full Court predictions.
Ohio State now stands alone in second place, at 6-1 in conference play, behind Purdue (7-0), the sole undefeated team in the league in conference action. How long those rankings will hold is up for grabs: Purdue has the toughest portion of its schedule ahead it, and among other formidable opponents remaining on the schedule, the Boilers play Ohio State in Columbus on February 12. Odds are that both teams will have at least one loss when that game rolls around.
Behind them, in third-place tie are a cluster of hot teams with five conference wins and two losses apiece. Penn State got off to a slow start in conference play but the Lady Lions have come on strong of late and now sit in the tie for third place with Nebraska and Michigan. Conversely, Nebraska seemed unstoppable in the early-going, but showed showed their Achilles' heel in blowout losses to Penn State and Ohio State. Huskers fans are hoping that last weekend's 64-49 home win over Minnesota has righted the ship. We'll all see if that's true on Thursday, when the Huskers meet a strong Hawkeyes team (3-4 in-conference, 11-9 overall) at home in Devaney Center.
Michigan has been a mixed bag, handing the Buckeyes their only loss of the season, then falling to Penn State and Michigan State on the road.
Speaking of Michigan State, the Spartans belong on the Not hot list, having lost their last three in a row. They cannot lose another game if they expect to get defend their regular-season conference crown from last season, and if they don't get things turned around pretty quickly, postseason hopes may be fading as well.
As far as the rest of the pack, Minnesota (3-4, 11-5) and Wisconsin (2-5, 6-13) are both well out of the title race, but both have shown recent signs of life in what has to be considered a building year. They could well prove to be spoilers for better situated Big Ten title hopefuls.
And Illinois? Anyone who watched their Cinderella run in last year's Big Ten tournament has got to be questioning whether the Illini will break out any time soon. They have yet to notch their first conference win, but their losses -- even in games against the league's elite teams -- have nearly all been close. Heading into last weekend, the Illini had lost their last five games (including one that went to overtime) by a combined total of just 18 points. Four of those Big Ten losses have come on the final possession or in overtime.
On Sunday, in front of a record crowd at Value City Arena, the Illini hung close for the better part of the first half, before falling behind by eight at the break. Though the Buckeyes extended their lead to as many as 12 points early in the second half, the Illini crawled their way back into it, tying the score at 76 apiece with a little over five minutes to go.
Sammy Prahalis took over, igniting a 20-8 Buckeyes run down the stretch to seal a 96-84 Ohio State victory. But the Illini have shown time and again that they are a team with pride, heart and talent who can stay on the floor with the best of the Big Ten. They are still missing the piece that will put them over the top and on the path to victory, but if they put the pieces together, they might surprise Michigan State on Thursday.
In fact, that is our Full Court call as the upset of the upcoming midweek Big Ten action.
Let's take a look at the rest of last week's action, the current standings, and our predictions for Thursday's midweek games.