This coming Thursday night will feature a battle royale for the top spot as the four league leaders have at it in two games. Penn State travels to Michigan in a game that pits one of the league's top offenses against one of its top defenses. On the same night, Michigan State travels to Wisconsin. While there are still a lot of games to play, and given that six-time conference champion Ohio State and Iowa are still in the hunt, it is too early to call any of these must wins. However, they can certainly be called, "nice to have wins.
After Sunday two teams were tied for first place in the league. Wisconsin and Penn State held their grasp on the top spot while Michigan was surprised by last-place Minnesota Sunday. While the Wolverines tumbled to fourth place with the the loss, Michigan State, who had the day off, slipped to third as two other front runners picked up fresh wins.
Purdue will entertain Iowa Thursday and the winner there will also have a real chance at competing for the crown.
Meanwhile, when someone figures out what is going on in Columbus, please call me and explain it. Better yet, call Buckeye head coach Jim Foster, preferably before tournament time.
Let's take a quick look at last weekend's games, the current standings and what's on tap for Thursday.
A Quick Look at Sunday's Games
Purdue let Indiana get to within nine points with nine minutes to play but Courtney Moses hit two straight three-pointers (she scored 23 points for the game, while Brittany Rayburn added 16 for the Boilers) to defeat the Hoosiers, 71-57, in Sundays noon game. Indiana was led by Hope Elams 18 points and was playing without senior guard Whitney Lindsay. Purdue manhandled the Hoosiers in the paint, leaving the perimeter open for Moses and Rayburn. The Boilers out-rebounded their opponent by 38-33 and also outshot Indiana from the field (45 percent to 36). Purdue also hit a blistering 8-17 (47 percent) from the arc.
In what some are calling Penn State coach Coquese Washingtons biggest win, the Lady Lions led Ohio State from the get-go and easily defeated the league's six-time defending champions, 80-71, Sunday. Washington had her team follow Michigans winning strategy of pushing All-American Jantel Lavender off the blocks and making her take 10-foot shots. That accomplished two things one was lowering Lavenders shooting percentage substantially, the other was making it difficult for her to rebound. The Buckeyes still controlled the paint, 34-30, and Lavender still managed 26 points, but her rebounding was reduced to a highly un-Lavender-like six boards, of which only two were on the offensive glass. Meanwhile, sensational Penn State freshman Maggie Lucas (18 points) was nailing critical three-point shots, while her backcourt-mate Alex Bentley controlled the action, leading the scoring for the Lady Lions with 21 points. Penn State's Julia Trogele added 14 points and six rebounds, Mia Nickson contributed 10 points and nine boards 9, and Nikkie Greene chipped in 12 points and six rebounds.
Michigan's Wolverines may have still been savoring Thursdays big win at Ohio State as they traveled to Minneapolis Sunday to take on the league's cellar dweller, Minnesota. In any case, their collective mind was not where it needed to be, while the reinvigorated Golden Gophers, having tasted their first victory last week with a win over Northwestern, were hungry for more. Minnesota was quick to take advantage, jumping out to an early, 24-9, lead. The Wolverines fought back to make it close but Minnesota learned how to win this week and walked away with another home-court "W" Sunday, with a 60-50 victory that knocked Michigan out of first place. Kiarra Buford notched 11 points and freshman Kionna Kellogg hauled down 13 rebounds for the Gophers, who held the Wolverines' two leading scorers, Veronica Hicks and Carmen Reynolds, to just 6-18 from the field.
Okay. Maybe it is time to declare Wisconsin REAL. The Badgers held on to their first place with Penn State, battling Northwestern tooth-and-nail for most of the game before pulling away at the end for a 62-50 win over the Wildcats. Alyssa Karel (outside) and Lin Zastrow (inside) each tallied 17 points for the winners while Northwestern star Amy Jaeschke was held to just 10 points on 4-12 from the field. Northwestern coughed the ball up 19 times while Wisconsin committed only 12 turnovers.
Iowa is just a better team than Illinois and it showed for most of the game as the Hawkeyes rolled to a 80-69 win over the Illini. All five Hawkeye starters scored in double figures, led by a team-high 19 points by Kachine Alexander and a double-double (17 points, 13 rebounds) by Morgan Johnson. Iowa had to overcome 22 turnovers but out-rebounded Illinois, 41-35, and shot 52 percent from the field compared to just 35 percent of for the Fighting Illini. Karisma Penn had 22 points and 12 rebounds for Illinois, but if there is a theme developing in the Big Ten this year, it is that a team of very good players can defeat a team with a star surrounded by good, but not great, players.
Summing up Sunday's results:
Iowa 80, Illinois 69 (01/30/11 at Assembly Hall,)
Minnesota 60, Michigan 50 (01/30/11 at Minneapolis, Minn.)
Wisconsin 62, Northwestern 50 (01/30/11 at Welsh-Ryan Arena)
Penn State 80, Ohio State 71 (1/30/11 at University Park, Pa.)
Purdue 71, Indiana 57 (01/30/11 at Mackey Arena - West)
Source: BigTen.org/Women's Basketball Standings
Coming Up Thursday
This could be a very interesting match-up between two teams just a few games off the pace with 5-4 records. Purdue is improving quickly as they get more used to playing with Drey Mingo back in the line-up. Four Boiler players notched double figures against Indiana and head coach Sharon Versyp had to be pleased with the way her Purdue defense held its in-state rival to just 37 percent shooting.
Still, the question surrounding the Boilermakers is whether or not they can play consistently against higher quality opponents. Moses continues to improve and Alex Guyton and Sam Ostarello provide rebounding support for Mingo.
Position by position, Iowa has more talent across the board than does Purdue. Still, to pull out the win, the Hawkeyes will need to repeat their 52-percent field-goal shooting effort in Champaign come Thursday in West Lafayette. Jaime Printy will have trouble with Moses and Rayburn but that problem will be offset by Johnson and Alexanders ability to dominate underneath.
Prediction: This game is a total tossup from any angle. Iowa's advantage in raw talent should be offset by Purdue's home-court advantage; the Boilermakers draw a loud and enthusiastic crowd. Ill choose Purdue by two, but in the interests of full disclosure, I have a daughter who attends the school.
The battle for the bottom of the conference will be determined by whether or not the Hoosiers can stay mentally in the game long enough to defeat an improving and more talented Golden Gopher team. Hope Elams performance for the Hoosiers against Purdue last weekend showed that she can step up when Jori Davis (18 ppg) is marked, and whether senior guard Whitney LIndsay will be able to return for this game after suffering a concussion a week ago will be determined at game time. In the Purdue game, Indiana showed its ability to compete at a high level despite its poor showing to date, running off nine straight points to close to within nine with nine minutes to go; the Hoosiers couldn't finish, however, leaving the perimeter open for Courtney Moses, whose six straight points shifted the momentum back to Purdue.
Minnesota recorded its first two conference wins at home last week and clearly has belief and momentum on its side. Kelloggs improvement makes this team better, and they are definitely better than a stumbling Hoosier team, even in Bloomington.
Prediction: Minnesota by five.
Penn State looked unbeatable against Ohio State, then again, so did Michigan when they played the Buckeyes. Regrettably, Michigan may have still been reading the newclips before their loss to Minnesota (or else the Golden Gophers are finally playing like they should have all year).
Penn State and Michigan are similar in personnel and talent levels yet markedly different in how they play the game. Penn State likes to run, averaging 80 points per game, while Michigan puts 65 on the scoreboard on average. Meanwhile, the Michigan defense allows only 60 points per game by opponents, while Penn State allows 67.
Maggie Lucas is the engine that runs Penn State but there are no real stars on this team. Instead, the Lady Lions have four-to-five players who can score, making this team extremely difficult to defend.
Michigan is much the same -- good players all around but no big-statistic star. Veronica Hicks and Carmen Reynolds continue to lead the Wolverines in this improbable year.
Prediction: Another tossup. This one will most likely be decided in favor of the team that controls the tempo. And since I dont have kids going to either school, Ill go with home-court advantage. Michigan by three.
Would anyone at the beginning of the season have thought that these two teams would be battling for first place in February? Maybe Michigan State, but the emergence of Wisconsin is one of the surprises this season.
The Badgers went 5-7 in nonconference play, with all of those losses coming back-to-back in a short stretch from November 18 to December 6. They also lost their Big Ten opener to the Spartans, 62-43, a game in which Porsche Poole and LyKendra Johnson both scored 12 points. Since, then, however, Wisconsin's stock has risen. The gutsy guard play of Karel works well in tandem with the steadiness of Zastrow and Tara Steinbauer underneath to give the Badgers the inside-outside attack they need to succeed. The Badgers are a well balanced team, with seven players averaging more than 17 minutes a game.
Kalisha Keane leads Michigan State with 15.8 points per game, but the key to this game will be whether the Spartans can lock down defensively. They certainly have the potential to do so -- the Spartans lead the league in defense, allowing only 54.3 points a game while averaging 68.7.
The two teams are roughly even shooting from the field but Michigan State appears to have a huge rebounding advantage going into this game. In fact, the Spartans outrebound opponents by about nine a game while Wisconsin is outrebounded by two each game.
Prediction: Earlier in this article, I wrote that it was time to believe that Wisconsin was real. Saying it and believing it are two different things. Michigan State should win this by at least five to regain its place at the top of the conference.
So who is the better player? Wildcat Amy Jaeschke (22.4 ppg, 9.2 rbg) or Illinois Karisma Penn (17.5, 10.7). Which team is more motivated? Illinois or Northwestern? Does home court advantage even matter at Northwestern where average attendance is the lowest in the conference at under 800 fans per game?
Jaeschke was shut down by Wisconsin at home Sunday, but Illinois does not play with the level of defensive intensity that the Badgers bring to the game. Look for the Wildcat senior star to get a lot more against Illinois, although Penn will also have her way with the less athletic Northwestern team. It will be up to Brittany Orban (11.4 ppg) and Beth Marshall (10.6 ppg) to help Jaeschke in this home game.
For Illinois to win this, someone is going to have to step up and help Penn. Potential candidates include Amber Moore (8.5 ppg) and Adrienne Godbold (7.9 ppg).
Prediction: Home-court advantage plus lack of any material improvement on the Illinois team hands this game to Northwestern by 10.