Can the Big Ten stick to the script in the conference tournament?

Contributor
March 4, 2013 - 3:25pm
Maggie Lucas is Penn State's leading scorer averaging 20 points per game.  (Photo by Mark Selders)

Maggie Lucas is Penn State's leading scorer averaging 20 points per game. (Photo by Mark Selders)

Usually, it’s hard to recap a season in less than a long article – but this year’s Big Ten conference play can be summed up in one word: Strange.

All right, maybe three words: Very, very strange.

Top 25 teams Penn State and and Nebraska sit atop the standings and Wisconsin and Indiana bring up the rear -- but Penn State lost to 11th place Wisconsin and eighth place Minnesota, and Nebraska needed a last-second shot to beat Wisconsin.

Michigan State, hit hard by injuries, was expected to have a down year but the Spartans are tied for third place. And new Ilinois head coach Matt Bollant is in a position to do in his first year what Jolette Law could not do in five seasons -- lead Illinois to the NCAA tournament.

But with all the aformentioned unexpected, no team has been more disappointing than Ohio State. Three years removed from at least a share of six consecutive league championships, the Buckeyes were always among the Big Ten’s best and an NCAA berth was the norm. Not in 2013. 

So, as the teams are set to gather in Chicago for a conference tournament, frankly, not much is on the line. Penn State, Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State are all assured of NCAA bids.  Meanwhile, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Indiana and Ohio State must win the tournament to earn a bid. Only bubble teams No. 6 seeded Illinois and No. 7 seeded Iowa are really playing for anything (other than pride).  The must win at least two games to get into the NCAA tournament.

However, the Big Ten Tournament should still be entertaining. The adage that any team can be beaten on any given night has been proven to be true this season and though Penn State and Nebraska are clearly the two best teams in the league, there is a logjam after them that makes predictions difficult. The tournament may come down to which team is the mentally toughest in a particular game, and that will produce some surprises -- we take a deeper look from worst to first.

Indiana - No. 12 seed

Indiana senior Aulani Sinclair is counted on to provide offense for the Hoosiers and she has had a solid senior season. She leads the team with 16.2 points a game and has consistently been the team’s go-to player. Senior Jasmine McGhee contributes 12.9 points a game but the rest of the team only averages 25.9 points, as the team scores less than any other league team. The Hoosiers are decent defensively and frequently can stay with teams for much of a game.  They simply lack the talent to compete in the conference and are not likely to win a game in the tournament.

Wisconsin - No. 11 seed

Wisconsin has two players who score half of their points. Junior guard Morgan Paige averages 16.1 points per game and sophomore Jackie Gulczynski adds 12.7, but they have no other reliable scorers. The team has been hurt by the loss of two starters: Taylor Wurtz, the team’s leading scorer in 2011-12 and Annmarie Brown.  The Badgers are a solid defensive team and usually can stay with teams on the boards but only average 58 points per game.  Wisconsin has been in a number of games until the last five minutes and the Badgers can pull an upset in the first round, but it’s difficult seeing them being able to win games on consecutive nights.

Northwestern - No. 10 seed

In his fifth season at Northwestern, coach Joe McKeown is starting to show signs of real progress in his program. Injuries have hurt the team and the Wildcats get little contribution from their bench, but they have some of the best young players in the conference.  Freshman Maggie Lyon averages 12.9 ppg and was just name the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.  Sophomore Karly Roser is second in the league in assists and has been an effective floor leader for the team.  No. 10 seed Northwestern has improved consistently as the season has gone on and is the most likely of the four bottom seeds to notch a first-round upset.

Ohio State - No. 9 seed

Ohio State is in the unfamiliar position of having to win the Big Ten Tournament to get a NCAA bid, and winning it all is a long shot. Senior Tayler Hill is averaging 21 points a game and was a named to the All-Big Ten Team.  But her shooting percentage has dropped from 47.5% to 40.9.  Beyond Hill, no one else averages in double figures and the team does not have the post presence that it has had for the last decade.  In the pre-season, Ohio State was picked to finish in third or fourth place -- but overall, they are average on both offense and defense and have rarely put together 40 minutes of good basketball.   While the Buckeyes have played better in recent games, they are unlikely to put together the four games in a row needed to gain an NCAA bid.

Minnesota's Rachel Banham was named to the All-Big Ten team. (Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota)

Minnesota - No. 8 seed

No. 8 seed Minnesota has been unexpectedly lackluster this year despite the presence of sophomore Rachel Banham, who leads the Big Ten in scoring with 21.2 ppg and is one of the most fun players in the league to watch. Behind her, the Gophers are as good offensively as they have been in a number of  years, but they are one of the worst defensive teams. Their win over Penn State showed the team’s potential, but they have rarely played close to that level and are unlikely to win a game in the tournament.

Iowa - No. 7 seed

Ohio State is the league’s most disappointing team, but Iowa is a close second.  The Hawkeyes are talented, but have underachieved.  They have a strong starting lineup including Melissa Dixon who was just named the sixth player of the year.  Senior center Morgan Johnson is in the top 10 in the league in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and blocked shots while sophomore point guard Samantha Logic, who leads the league in assists, is becoming a consistent scoring threat and provides the team with both leadership and grit. As a team, Iowa has no real statistical weaknesses but they have not been a typical Iowa team.  This team has not shot well and they have turned the ball over too much. They can be good defensively but have occasionally gone through stretches where the defense has been lax. As a result, they sit firmly on the NCAA bubble and will likely have to win at least two games in the Big Ten Tournament to gain a NCAA berth. They certainly have the talent to do so, but they will have to return to their early season form, and do so quickly, if that is to happen.

Illinois - No. 6 seed

Illinois, on the other hand, has consistently improved throughout the season.  Senior Karisma Penn is having a Player-of-the-Year type of season with averages of 19.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.9 steals a game. Senior GodBold has added 17.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in her half season of play and was just named the Big Ten defensive player of the year.  GodBold, however, has been in constant foul trouble, she averages almost four fouls a game and fouled out of seven of her first 16 games. Bollant loves his teams to shoot threes and the Illini shoot almost twice as many as they did last season. Defensively, the team’s aggressiveness has played havoc with opponent’s offenses. The Illini lead the conference in steals and force a league high 23.9 turnovers a game. The Illini have two major weaknesses, however, that will hurt them in this tournament.  Lack of depth, Bollant is basically playing with six players, and poor rebounding, the Illini are the worst in the league. Still, one win should be enough to guarantee Illinois an NCAA bid and the Illini should get that -- but they are unlikely to advance past the semi-finals.

Senior Kate Thompson leads the Wolverines with 14.9 points per game. (Photo by Martin Vloet)

Michigan - No. 5 seed

New Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico inherited a team with the strongest senior class in the league and she has led her team to the best season in school history. Her five seniors are the top five scorers on the team even though only four start. Kate Thompson has emerged as one of the conference’s best three-point threats and leads the team in scoring with 15.1 points a game.  Jenny Ryan only scores 10.7 points a game but she is the heart and soul of her team.  Ryan is a player who personifies the phrase “does all the things that don’t show up in the box score.” She leads the team with her hard-nosed play and they all follow her.  Michigan plays harder than any team in the league and is one of the smartest. The Wolverines rely on a stingy defense that allows just 54.9 points a game and an offense that is third in the league in field goal shooting. Nya Jordan stepped into the starting lineup early in the year and has become a vital contributor in the post. She leads the team with 7.4 points a game and shoots over 50% from the field. Jordan was the final piece that the Wolverines needed to become the best team they could be. Michigan is in an unusual, almost unheard of, situation for them: They have clinched an NCAA bid and could make the tournament semifinals for the first time in school history.  If a dark horse emerges as champion, it will likely be the Wolverines.

Michigan State - No. 4 seed

Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant is in an awkward position during player introductions. Only two of her expected starters are introduced -- the other three are sitting next to her on the bench and have been there all season with injuries.  Despite this, Merchant has kept her team in the mix and comfortable in the NCAA tournament. She has done so by playing her trademark hard-nosed, tough defense and getting the most out of her players. The Spartans are led by junior Klarissa Bell, who is having a breakout season.  Bell has almost tripled her scoring from last year and her 11.7 points a game is best on the team and she has become one of the top individual defenders in the conference. Bell is the only player averaging in double figures but four others average at least nine points a game.

This group is the definition of a blue-collar team that makes few mistakes. They lead the conference is points allowed, at 51.8, fewest turnovers, 13.9 and rebounding margin, +7.9. The Spartan defense is the league’s most physical and they can get a big stop late in games. However, MSU is the league’s worst free-throw shooting team and this has hurt them in close games, especially late in those games. The Spartans are the type of team that could surprise in this tournament. They will likely make the semis, but they lack the overall talent to defeat either Penn State or Nebraska.

Purdue - No. 3 seed

Of the top four seeds, Purdue is struggling the most and is most likely to be upset early.  Senior Sam Ostarello has become a dominating rebounder and averages 9.9 boards a game. Senior Drey Mingo has had a strong final season, but her 12.2 points and 6.4 rebounds a game are less than coach Sharon Versyp hoped. Freshman post player Taylor Manuel averages 8.2 points a game off the bench and made the Big Ten All-Freshman team.

One of the problems the Boilermakers have is that they lack a go-to scorer.  Courtney Moses leads the team in scoring but she is averaging only 13 points a game and is mired in a major shooting slump. The point guard position is another one of the team’s main problems. KK Houser is the team’s top player at that spot but she turns the ball over too much. But the main Purdue problem cannot be measured quantitatively.  As unheard of as it is for a Purdue team, this squad is not mentally tough.  They make mistakes at the worst times and fade late in games. Purdue is the defending Big Ten Tournament Champion but this team shows few signs of repeating and probably won’t even make the tournament semifinals.

Nebraska - No. 2 seed

Nebraska has overcome early season injuries and emerged as a viable threat to Penn State. They are led by junior Jordan Hooper, who was named to the All-Big Ten Team, and senior Lindsey Moore.  Hooper is a versatile frontcourt player who averages 18.1 points and 8.7 rebounds a game. Despite being a forward, she leads her team in three-point attempts and frequently knocks down a threes in transition game. Moore is one of the best point guards in the league and averages 14.7 points and 5.5 assists a game, and is excellent at running the offense. 

As a team Nebraska does not shoot the ball especially well, but the Huskers make few mistakes and are a better than average offensive team, especially on the offensive boards. Despite being one of the conference’s top teams, the Huskers are also one of the youngest, with Moore being the only senior who plays a major role. As the team has matured and gotten healthy, they have improved steadily. They are a well-coached team without a major weakness and closed the gap between themselves and Penn State as the year went on.

Penn State - No. 1 seed

No 8. Penn State is the highest nationally ranked team in the conference and the presumptive favorite to win this championship. They rely on one of the best backcourts in the nation, in guards Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas. Lucas, the Big Ten Player of the Year, is one of the best three-point shooters in the country, hitting 46% of her attempts. She averages 20 points a game and has become an excellent all-around player.  Bentley averages 14 points and 3.8 assists a game and is one of the top defenders in the Big Ten.  Bentley has moved from point to shooting guard with Dara Taylor moving into the starting lineup at point. She has added stability to the team and has become a solid contributor. In the post, center Nikki Greene is one of the most talented players around, but she hasn't learned to stay out of foul trouble. That foul trouble has limited her to only 21 minutes a game and could pose problems for her team the deeper they go in the NCAA tournament.

Under coach Coquese Washington, the Lions have been consistently strong on offense and they are again this year. The improvement in this season’s team comes from a much-improved defense. They only allow opponents to shoot 36.3% from the field and force 20.4 turnovers, including 11.8 steals a game.  This is not a team without weakness and that weakness is their mental approach to the game. For whatever reason, they have tended to play down to the level of their opponents. Their losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota prove they don't always up their level of play.  

Prediction

Penn State is the top team in the Big Ten and at first glance should win the conference tournament. But the lions have spent too much time this year not being at their best, meanwile Nebraska is peaking at the right time and is our pick to take home the Big Ten Championship trophy.

And that would be a fitting conclusion to a season that never quite kept to the expected script.

Big Ten Tournament Schedule - Sears Center Arena, Hoffeman Estates, Ill

Thursday, March 7, 2013
Game 1: No. 7 Iowa vs. No. 10 Northwestern, 11:30 a.m. CT, BTN
Game 2: No. 6 Illinois vs. No. 11 Wisconsin, following Game 1, BTN
Game 3: No. 8 Minnesota vs. No. 9 Ohio State, 6 p.m. CT, BTN
Game 4: No. 5 Michigan vs. No. 12 Indiana, following Game 3, BTN

Friday, March 8, 2013
Game 5: Winner of Game 1 vs. No. 2 Nebraska, 11:30 a.m. CT, BTN
Game 6: Winner of Game 2 vs. No. 3 Purdue, following Game 5, BTN
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs. No. 1 Penn State, 6 p.m. CT, BTN
Game 8: Winner Game 4 vs. No. 4 Michigan State, following Game 7, BTN

Saturday, March 9, 2013
Game 9: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner, 4 p.m. CT, BTN
Game 10: Game 7 Winner vs. Game 8 Winner, following Game 9, BTN

Sunday, March 10, 2013
Game 11: Game 9 Winner vs. Game 10 Winner, 3 p.m. CT, ESPN2


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