In this week’s edition of Joe’s Corner, WNUR Sports co-Director Joe Misulonas previews the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament.
You know what the best thing about March Madness is? It’s that every team gets to participate in it, not just the good teams. Everyone thinks the Madness starts during the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but that’s simply not true. Conference tournaments are where dominant teams prove they’re the best, bubble teams earn or lose their bid for the Big Dance (think Northwestern two years ago), and losing programs make a last-ditch effort to save their season. It’s not as exciting as the NCAAs, but conference tournaments can produce Cinderella stories as well.
So with the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament beginning today, I’ll look at Northwestern’s first round matchup and look at the field as the whole and make some predictions.
No. 9 Northwestern 15-14 (5-11) vs. No. 8 Ohio State 15-17 (5-11)
The 8 vs. 9 matchup! The tossup! The hardest matchup to pick in any tournament. Generally these are the games that no one really knows who’s going to win and chooses the more noteworthy name in their office pool.
Neither of these two teams are entering the tournament with much momentum. Northwestern lost seven straight games before beating Wisconsin in overtime on Sunday. A month and a half ago, people were talking about whether this team could make a run at the NCAA Tournament. Now, a NIT bid is in jeopardy as well. A strong tournament for the Cats would hopefully add momentum to this program going forward. Likewise, Ohio State lost seven of their last eight games as well, although their one win came against the Wildcats. The Buckeyes also entered February needing a strong month to buoy an postseason bid, but those plans quickly derailed.
The teams only played the once this season. The Buckeyes won a close game at home, 71-62. Nia Coffey and Lauren Douglas struggled in that game, going a combined 7 for 26 from the floor. Add in an unspectacular night for Maggie Lyon (21 points, 7 for 17), and it’s not surprising the Wildcats came up short. Northwestern turned the ball over 23 times and shot only 34%. Not good. The Wildcats did win the rebounding battle, but only because Coffey grabbed 18 by herself.
Ohio State doesn’t have a prolific offense. They’re dead last in the Big Ten in scoring offense, 11th in FG%, tied for last in 3 PT%, and own the lowest assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference. They make up for this with one of the better defenses in the conference, finishing fourth in scoring defense. Northwestern’s offense isn’t much better, as they sit in the middle of the pack in nearly every category. Neither team rebounds the ball well, so the Wildcats’ weakness in that category won’t be as easily exploited. But still, Northwestern has the lowest offensive and defensive rebounding percentage in the Big Ten.
The difference in this game may come down to depth. Only two Buckeyes average double-digit points per game, compared to four players on Northwestern. If Lyon gets hot in this game, Coffey puts up her 15 points, and Douglas and/or Inman find their groove, the Buckeyes will struggle to keep up and the Wildcats can cruise to victory. However, if Ohio State’s defense stymies the Wildcats shooting, forces turnovers, and beats them on the boards, Northwestern will need to battle for victory.
Neither of these teams inspire any confidence. While the Buckeyes won last time, I’m willing to chalk that up to home court advantage. I assume Coffey and Douglas will play better than they did last time out, and even if Lyon isn’t knocking it down from outside, I think the Buckeyes will still struggle to keep up with the Wildcats offense.
Prediction: Northwestern 75, Ohio State 68
A victory in the first round would mean Northwestern would go on to face the Penn State Lady Lions, the no. 1 overall seed in the Big Ten Tournament. That’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world for Northwestern. Despite losing both times they faced the Lions, the Wildcats only lost by four at home and nine on the road. Two close games, and the game at home could’ve gone Northwestern’s way had their comeback run started a few minutes earlier. Coach Joe McKeown consistently gameplans well for Penn State, and while I wouldn’t necessarily pick them to beat the Lady Lions, I’m not saying it’s out of the realm of possibility.
Here are my other predictions for the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament:
At least one team without a first round bye will make it to the Championship game
There’s a lot of good teams in the Big Ten, and I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility a team playing in the first round will make it all the way. My two picks for teams most likely to do so are Iowa and Minnesota.
Iowa has the highest scoring offense, best field goal percentage, and one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the conference. You have to match them basket-for-basket, and that’s tough for teams to do, especially since they don’t make many mistakes. Their weaknesses at defense and rebounding aren’t that bad, and their offense is good enough that I think they can make a deep run. They’ve won 9 of their last 11 games, including a win at Penn State.
Minnesota, on the other hand, has the best scoring and FG% defense in the Big Ten. In addition, the Golden Gophers are second in the conference in FG% offense and lead the league in 3 PT%. I like that balance. They play well on both ends of the floor, which makes them a tough team to exploit. However, I don’t like their inability to force turnovers. Only two teams in the Big Ten force less turnovers per game than Minnesota. Defenses that don’t force turnovers rely entirely on opposing teams missing shots and grabbing rebounds. There’s a reason VCU is always a Tournament threat: defenses that put pressure on opposing teams and force mistakes are more valuable than ones that box out well. But Minnesota’s won 6 of their last 8, they have the conference’s leading scorer (Rachel Banham, 22.4 points per game) and leading rebounder (Amanda Zahui, 11.3 reb per game), so I think they’re a team that could pull off some upsets.
No team front the state of Indiana will win a game
This isn’t too big a shocker. Indiana may be 18-11, but all those losses came in conference play. They’re not a team to fear. And while Purdue gets the first round bye, I think Iowa’s offense will prove too much for the Boilermakers to handle and the Hawkeyes advance. So the Indianapolis semi-home court advantage will be wasted on these two teams.
Neither of the programs whose teams make the Women’s Championship will see their Men’s teams appear in the Championship
There’s no real foundation for this. But I don’t see the Women’s Tournament and Men’s Tournament having any correlation. I have no reason for this, but figured I needed a third prediction, so I threw this out there.
Big Ten Women’s Tournament Championship Prediction: Iowa over Nebraska