When the 12 women’s basketball teams of the Big Ten Conference gather in Indianapolis for their post-season tournament this week, there will be few NCAA and WNIT tournament selection consequences. Penn State, Nebraska Purdue, Michigan State and Iowa will play in the NCAA tournament. Michigan, Indiana and Northwestern will get WNIT bids. Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio State will begin to think about the 2014-15 season. Only Minnesota’s future is not assured and a first round win should clinch an NCAA bid for the Gophers.
This lack, however, does not mean that the tournament, which tips off at noon Eastern on Thursday, March 6, at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, will be uninteresting. Most teams strive to be playing their best basketball at the end of the season and almost all Big Ten teams, especially including the top six, are doing just that. While conferences give lip service to parity within the league, this was an actuality for the Big Ten in 2013-14. In regular-season games against the top of the B1G pack, No. 11-seed Wisconsin took Nebraska to overtime and was within two possessions of both Michigan State and Penn State with less than two minutes remaining. In fact, if games were 37 minutes long, the Badgers would likely be in the hunt for an NCAA bid this year. Last place Illinois lost to Penn State by only six points, to Michigan State by four, and to Minnesota and Nebraska by five apiece. Tenth-place Ohio State beat Purdue and stayed with most of the cream of the conference pack for the majority of their games. The three WNIT teams all have wins against the league’s likely NCAA teams. That kind of balance should make this tournament one of the most entertainingly competitive ones in league history.
This weekend will shine the spotlight on one of the best fields of players the tournament has seen. The Big Ten freshman class is widely recognized as the best in league history, and among the most impressive in the country; this year's freshmen feature at least a dozen players who have all-league potential. Beyond the freshmen, however, the conference returned a number of excellent upper classwomen, and the relative paucity of seniors among them makes the Big Ten a conference to watch, not just this week, but well into the future. (And by the way, it will be easier than ever to watch them -- for those who can't make it to Indy, all rounds of the tournament through the semifinals will be carried on BTN, while the title game will air on ESPN.)
Round One - Thursday, March 6
Game One: No. 8 Ohio State (15-7, 5-11) v. No. 9 Northwestern (15-14, 5-11) - 12 Noon EST (BTN)
One of two first-round gamesshowcasing some of those youngsters who make the future of the league so bright, the tournament opener features Ohio State and Northwestern. New Buckeye coach Kevin McGuff signed one of the very best recruiting classes in the nation in November. Those incoming players will be led by one of the best sophomores in the league this year in 5-9 guard Ameryst Alston, who came from nowhere to average 18.2 points a game this season.
While Northwestern did not have the league's No. 1 individual freshman on its roster, the Wildcats did have this year's best freshman class. Six-one forward Nia Coffey, a high school All American, averaged 15.2 points and 8.1 rebounds a game and showed superstar potential. She was joined in the starting lineup by fellow freshmen Christen Inman, a 5-10 guard who averaged 12 points, 3.8 boards and nearly two assists per game, and Ashley Deary, a 5-4 floor general who put up just 6.7 points per game but doled out more than six assists per outing. Those three, together with sophomores Lauren Douglas, who has averaged nearly 12 points and five rebounds per game, while coming off the bench in all but five contests, and Maggie Lyon, the team's second-leading scorer at 13.1 points per game, make Northwestern the most likely to surprise among the Big Ten schools in this tournament.
These two teams met just once during the regular-season, with the Buckeyes coming out on top in Columbus, 71-62.
Game Two: No. 5 Iowa (23-7, 11-5) v. No. 12 Illinois (9-20, 2-14) -- 25 minutes after the completion of Game One (BTN)
Fifth-seeded Iowa, which faces last-placed Illinois in the second game of Thursday's afternoon session, will host the first round of the NCAA tournament and is looking to the B1G Tournament to improve a spot or two in its NCAA seeding. The Hawkeyes are led by the league’s top all-around player, junior Samantha Logic, the only player in the nation to average more than 14 points (14.1), 6 rebounds (6.6) and 7 assists (7.5) a game. Logic has had three triple-doubles and has been close to that mark several times.
Iowa also features freshman Ally Disterhoft, whose mother played college basketball with Iowa assistant coaches Jan Jensen and Jenni Fitzgerald. Despite not starting the first 19 games of the year, Disterhoft averaged 12.8 points, while shooting 51 percent from the field, and pulled down 6.2 rebounds a game on the way to being named to the league’s All-Freshmen team.
Illinois will likely have its top freshman, Jacqui Grant, back in the starting line-up. A bout with mono kept Grant out of action for three weeks and she only returned for the team’s last weekend of the season. Grant finished with a 13.1 average and would have contended for an All-Freshman team berth had she stayed healthy.
The Hawkeyes swept their regular-season series with the Illini, beating them 69-55 at home and 81-56 on the road in Sunday's regular-season finale.
Game Three: No. 7 Michigan (17-12, 8-8) v. No. 10 Indiana (18-11, 5-11) - 6:30 p.m. EST (BTN)
Indiana has started three freshmen all season and has, at times, presented an all-freshman starting lineup. Keying the frosh was 5-5 guard Larryn Brooks, who was named to the B1G All-Freshman team, after leading the Hoosiers with 15.9 points a game. She was paired at guard with one of the ultimate coach’s kids, Taylor Agler, whose dad Brian bought a condo in Indianapolis so he could watch her play.
Though seeded seventh, Michigan was the surprise team of the league this season. Little was expected of the Wolverines, was Michigan who lost almost all their scoring and rebounding at the end of 2012-13, but they competed very well all season nonetheless. Their prize freshman, Siera Thompson, averaged 13.3 points a game and showed an all-round game rarely seen in a rookie. Thompson was one of four Michigan starters who average double figures, led by 5-7 junior guard Shannon Smith at 14.3 points and better than three assists per game.
The Wolverines traveled to Bloomington in mid-February, where they handed their hosts a 70-58 drubbing in the lone regular-season meeting between these two teams.
Game Four: No. 6 Minnesota (19-11, 8-8) v. No. 11 Wisconsin (10-18, 3-13) -- 25 minutes after Game Three (BTN)
The final game of opening day will be the most meaningful in terms of its potential external consequences. The Gophers are playing very good basketball and the Badgers will have to play 40 minutes instead of 37, so if both sides hold true to form, Minnesota should take the game. That would likely clinch the Gophers’ first NCAA bid since 2009. That bid, in turn, would also make Pam Borton’s coaching seat much cooler.
The game features three players definitely worth watching. Minnesota’s Rachel Banham, a 5-9 junior guard, could captain the “never heard of her” All-Star team. Banham led the league in scoring at 22.4 points a game and is on pace to break all of Lindsay Whalen’s school scoring records; she has a good shot at surmounting the 2000-career-point mark before the end of her junior season. Banham is a truly special player who deserves way more recognition than she actually gets.
At center for the Gophers is 6-5 redshirt freshman Amanda Zahui B. from Stockholm Sweden. On the way to being named league Freshman of the Year, Zahui led the league with 11.3 rebounds a game, and finished tenth in the conference (overall, not just among the frosh) in scoring with 15.1 points a game and second in blocks with 2.9 a game. Her potential is simply scary. (Zahui, by the way, could also captain the league’s all-hair team, which is also having a strong season this year.)
The Badgers, who are the only team in the league with no significant contribution from freshmen, feature 6-3 center Michala Johnson, a redshirt junior. Johnson sat on the UConn bench for two seasons before transferring to Wisconsin, where, after regaining her eligibility, she promptly made an impact in the Badgers' starting line-up (a fact that offers some insight into the superior depth of the Huskies). Johnson started all 29 games for the Badgers this season, leading the team and finishing fifth in the league in scoring (16.5 ppg) and second in the conference in field-goal percentage (.552). Johnson is also good 7.2 rebounds and nearly one swat per game.
Minnesota swept the regular-season series with Wisconsin, defeating the Badgers 64-53 in Minneapolis and 63-50 in Madison.
Second Round - Friday, March 7
Day Two will see the top four seeds join the Day-One winners.
Game Five: No. 1 Penn State (22-6, 13-3) v. Winner Game One (Ohio State-Northwestern) -- 12 Noon EST (BTN)
One of the most veteran teams in the league with four senior starters, Penn State is led by all-everything Maggie Lucas. Lucas finished the regular season with an average of 21.5 points a game and needs only two more three-pointers to break the all-time Big-Ten record. Shooting 39.9 percent from the field, but 36.8 percent from beyond the arc and an impressive 95.9 percent at the charity stripe, Lucas has the ball in her hands more often than anyone else, but supplements her scoring prowess with four rebounds, a little more than two assists and nearly that many steals per game. Lucas came to Happy Valley as a scorer; she leaves with a strong all-around game.
Lucas gets plenty of scoring help from fellow senior Ariel Edwards, a 6-3 forward who averages 14.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, and despite her position, passes out more assists than Lucas, as well as from 5-8 point guard Dara Taylor, a transfer from Maryland and redshirt senior, who puts up 11.6 points per game while leading the team in both assists (136, or 4.9 per game) and steals (81, or 2.9 per outing). Offensive production for the Lions drops off sharply from there, however, leaving one to wonder who will fill the void for the graduates next year.
Penn State swept the series with both of its prospective Round-Two tournament opponents in their regular-season meetings, beating the Buckeyes decisively, 66-42 at home in January and 74-54 on the road early last month. The Lions barely managed to slip past the Wildcats, 79-75, in Chicago early last month, and did only marginally better, winning 82-73, at home two weeks ago. Thus, it seems like Northwestern would be the preferred match-up, largely because of the two prospective opponents, the Wildcats are the better perimeter defenders, holding opponents to just .301 three-point field-goal shooting, as compared to Ohio State, which allows opponents to shoot 32.7 percent from beyond the arc. Still, Penn State has got to be the heavy favorite in this game no matter which team advances out of the first day of tournament play. Indeed, their experience will make the Lady Lions one of the favorites to win the tournament.
Game Six: No. 4 Purdue (21-7, 11-5) v. Winner Game Two (Iowa-Illinois) -- 25 minutes after Game Five (BTN)
On paper, the Boilermakers are not the favorite to win it all this weekend, but the tournament has been referred to as the “Purdue Invitational” for good reason. You can simply never count them out.
Purdue suffered a significant blow when starting point guard KK Hauser (15.2 points, five assists, 3.6 rebounds and nearly two steals per game) went down with an ACL injury at Michigan State on Feb. 2. But the team has gone on, seemingly without missing a beat, winning all six of its games since then.
The Boilermakers have always been a program that competes as well as anyone in the league, and this team carries on that tradition. Senior Courtney Moses (15.4 ppg) leads the team and has stepped up her game in Hauser’s absence. Whitney Bays (11.4 ppg, team-high 7.5 rbg) and April Wilson (10.1 ppg, 4.5 apg, 3.4 rbg, and just shy of two steals per game) lend balance to the Boiler offense and make this team difficult to defend.
Illinois and Purdue met just once previously this season, with the Boilermakers easily carrying the day, 80-68. Purdue likewise won its lone meeting with Iowa, at home in West Lafayette, midway through last month -- but that game turned into a 74-73 nailbiter. The Hawkeyes and the Boilers are very comparable to each other, and Iowa is quite capable of going as far as Purdue. So, if Iowa does the expected and defeats Illinois in the first round, the Purdue-Iowa game should be the best of Day Two.
Game Seven: No. 2 Michigan State (21-8, 13-3) v. Winner Game Three (Michigan-Indiana) -- 6:30 p.m. EST (BTN)
Michigan State has the talent to win the tournament and, with a break or two, could very well do so; indeed, if there were a way to measure pure talent independent of results, Michigan State would likely rank No. 1 in the league. They have a balanced starting lineup and quality depth. The Spartans' top two scorers are both freshman: Aerial Powers (13.8 ppg, to go with 8.0 rbg), a 6-0 guard, redshirted the entire 2012 season after tearing her Achilles tendon in practice shortly before the season got underway. Back and now healthy, Powers might have the most potential of all the league's frosh and is certainly the most fun to watch. Her classmate and backcourt mate Tori Jankoska shows the real depth of this year's crop of Big Ten newcomers. In many seasons, her heady play and 12.7 points a game would have make her a contender for Freshman of the Year. This season, she did not even make the All-Freshman team.
The Spartans are hurt by the loss of point guard Kiana Johnson, a 5-7 junior who has been indefinitely suspended for the past 10 games. It's unknown whether Johnson will be available for the tournament. The point is the position of least depth on the team, making Johnson's loss all the more damaging.
The Spartans took on each of their prospective Day Two tournament opponents once in the regular season, and beat both. But they were two very different games. The in-state rivalry with the Wolverines consistently brings forth the best efforts of both Michigan teams, and this year's meeting in Ann Arbor was no different: The Spartans led for much of the first half, but the Wolverines rallied to knot the score at 28 by the break. The lead seesawed throughout the second period and the score stood tied at 65 apiece three minutes to go. Back-to-back buckets by junior Becca Mills gave the Spartans a slight advantage, which they leveraged into a narrow 79-72 victory with perfect free-throw shooting once put at the line down the stretch. (Johnson, now MIA for MSU put up 14 point, plus four assists and two steals, in that contest.)
In contrast, the Spartans simly blew the Hoosiers off the court, 76-56, when those two met last Sunday in the regular-season game. Thus, there's little doubt which of the pairings would make for a more exciting Day Two match-up.
Game Eight: No. 3 Nebraska (22-6, 12-4) v. Winner Game Four (Minnesota-Wisconsin) -- 25 minutes after Game Seven (BTN)
A veteran team with no freshmen contributing significantly,Nebraska was the preseason pick to win the league. Until Sunday's finale at Purdue, where the Huskers wound up on the receiving end of a 66-82 spanking, they were riding a nine-game win streak and playing some of the best basketball in the league.
Big Red is led by super-senior Jordan Hooper, who averaged a near-double-double of 20.1 points and 9.3 rebounds a game. The team's sole senior, Hooper is a solid 6-2 post player who has the game of a small forward, which makes her a match-up problem for every other team in the league. She gets plenty of help from supporting cast Rachel Theriot (13.9 ppg), Emily Cady (13.0 ppg, plus 9.3 rbg, the latter tied with Hooper for the team high) and Tear'a Laudermill (11.3 ppg), and with that many arrows in the quiver, this can be a difficult team to defend.
Minnesota took the Cornhuskers to overtime in the two teams' sole encounter thus far this season, before Nebraska manaaged to eke out the 88-85 win. Interestingly, the Huskers also required extra minutes to get by Wisconsin in Madison, 71-70.
Despite its many obvious strengths, Nebraska is not a deep team and that could hurt them if they have to play three games in three days. But they were picked to win the league for a reason and it will not be at all surprising if they hoist the trophy on Sunday evening.
We'll take a closer look at the semifinal and title pairings later this week once the participants have been determined for now, here is the remainder of the schedule:
Semifinals -- Saturday, March 8
Game Nine (Semifinal 1): Game Five Winner (Penn State v. Ohio State-Northwestern) v. Game 6 Winner (Purdue v. Iowa-Illinois)-- 3:30 p.m. EST (BTN)
Game Ten (Semifinal 2): Game Seven Winner (Michigan State v. Michigan-Indiana) v. Game 8 Winner (Nebraska v. Minnesota-Wisconsin) -- 25 min. after Game 7 (BTN)
Championship Game -- Sunday, March 9
Game 11: Winner Semifinal 1 (Game Nine Winner) v. Winner Semifinal Two (Game Ten Winner) - 1 p.m. EST (ESPN)
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