By Ari Levin
The parity in the Big Ten thus far is remarkable. Spots 1-10 on this list are very fluid right now, as we’ve already seen everyone be competitive with any team. So strap in for the next few weeks as things really ramp up in the conference.
How’s this for a stat: Ranked teams in Big Ten play are a combined 11-11. After going 2-0 on the first day, ranked teams have gone 6-8 when playing unranked teams. You’ve been better off betting the underdog so far.
But now, let’s look ahead to March. Getting to the tournament remains very tough for Big Ten teams. Even if there are eight or more deserving teams, the committee will likely only take five or six. Look at the history of the Big Ten in the WNIT for proof. With that in mind, this week we examine every team’s tournament chances so far.
No. 9 Maryland Terrapins • 15-1 (4-1) • Last week: 1
Maryland got their first big win of conference play over Nebraska, shooting over 50 percent in an 18-point win. Kaila Charles led the team with 19 points while Taylor Mikesell and Blair Watson both hit four threes.
They followed that with one of their best games of the season, as all five starters scored double-digit points against Michigan. Like several games they’ve played, they ran away with it in the end despite just a one-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, outscoring Michigan 30-17 in the final period. It looks like Maryland might have the two best freshmen in the conference with Taylor Mikesell, who scored 17 in the game, and Shakira Austin, who recorded a double-double with seven blocks.
Tournament Odds: Lock
Barring a collapse, Maryland will be in the tournament for the ninth straight year. Their only loss is to a quickly rising Rutgers team, and they’re playing like a top-10 team in the country.
No. 22 Iowa Hawkeyes • 12-4 (3-2) • Last week: 2
Iowa can’t be faulted too much for losing to Purdue, the Boilermakers are still a great team. Still, a 3-17 night from behind the arc, with Makenzie Meyer going 2-10, leaves Iowa wanting more. The Hawkeyes scored 34 in the paint but had just 23 other points and shot just 24 percent if you take out the two starting forwards.
They responded by playing one of the best games of the year, beating Minnesota. Megan Gustafson took it to the next level with 34 points, 13 rebounds and four assists that felt like more. Tania Davis complemented her with 21 of her own. The Hawkeyes shot 69 percent in the second half.
Tournament Odds: Near-Lock
Like Maryland, all the Hawkeyes need is to continue what they’re doing. They do have a couple extra losses from non-conference play (although Florida State is now ranked) and the recent one to Purdue, but as of now they’ll be comfortably in with a high seed.
No. 20 Rutgers Scarlet Knights • 13-3 (5-0) • Last week: 5
Don’t look now, but Rutgers just might be the top team in the conference. Behind absolutely stifling defense, Rutgers is the last unbeaten left in the Big Ten with an eight-game win streak.
Rutgers had no trouble with Illinois, doubling their rebound number, scoring 16 second-chance points and outscoring the Illini 32-12 in the paint.
That great defense continued by holding Nebraska to just 56 points in a win. Rutgers caught fire, hitting 9-16 from deep, including 5-6 in the first quarter alone.
Tournament Odds: Looking Good
This would have been surprising three weeks ago after a mediocre non-conference run, but the Scarlet Knights have come out firing with an elite defense. The question is if they can keep it up, but if so, they could even host a first-round matchup.
No. 17 Michigan State Spartans • 12-4 (2-3) • Last week: 4
The Spartans got back on track with a big win at home against Minnesota. Despite Taryn McCutcheon being limited to eight points and three assists, they found ways to score and hold Minnesota to just 68 points while turning the ball over just eight times.
Then, everything went wrong for Michigan State in Columbus. Despite forcing 19 turnovers of Ohio State, the Spartans shot 31 percent in the game, and just 13-23 on free throws. They were down double-digits most of the fourth quarter and never really posed a threat.
This upcoming week provides a huge test against Maryland and then at Rutgers. They’ve already shown it a few times by beating Iowa and Minnesota, but they can truly prove they belong with the best in the Big Ten. They’ve lost three of their last four, however.
Tournament Odds: Likely
With wins over No. 5 Oregon, Minnesota and Iowa already under their belt, and the only non-conference loss a near-upset of No. 8 NC State, the bar is lower for the Spartans. Realistically, if they finish with at least nine conference wins, they have a great chance of being in the field.
No. 23 Minnesota Golden Gophers • 12-4 (1-4) • Last week: 3
The losing streak hit four for the Gophers as a nightmare last two weeks continues. The schedule means that Minnesota picked a very bad time to play badly. After a 12-0 start, they’ve hit a major bump in the road.
The offense struggled throughout in the Michigan State game. They shot just 1-11 from three, including a 1-8 mark by Destiny Pitts. Taiye Bello was limited to just three rebounds. Minnesota allowed 19 turnovers and forced just eight.
They played well enough to win the second game, but Iowa proved to be just too much to handle at the end. Minnesota took an eight-point lead at halftime but were outscored by 24 in the second half. Kenisha Bell scored 22, while Pitts scored 16 but took 14 three-point attempts to get there and made just four.
Tournament Odds: Still High
Hopefully, the losing streak is a fluke and not a sign of things to come. The Lindsey Whalen love carries the Golden Gophers quite a way, and an undefeated non-conference slate doesn’t hurt. Another big win or two should seal the deal.
Purdue Boilermakers • 13-5 (4-1) • Last week: 10
Purdue is a great example of the depth in the conference right now. Even after losing to Wisconsin, they can still play with anyone in the Big Ten, as shown in their fantastic win against Iowa. The Hawkeyes were limited to a season-low 57 points, and it was almost smooth sailing once Gustafson fouled out in the final two minutes. Dominique Oden and Karissa McLaughlin both scored 16 including clutch shots in the fourth quarter. McLaughlin’s 90 percent career free-throw rate is a huge weapon in any close game.
Purdue eked out a win after nearly losing a 13-point lead over Northwestern behind 16 points and 18 rebounds from Ae’Rianna Harris. Both teams enjoyed the slower pace in the 57-54 game, but Purdue did just enough defensively for the win.
Tournament Odds: On the bubble
The Wisconsin loss hurts, as does the earlier one to St. John’s. They probably need another ranked win (Miami is no longer ranked) and would love to have back the double-overtime loss to No. 15 South Carolina. Right now, they’re a bubble team that will go up or down with each game. The problem is the likely case that only six Big Ten teams reach the dance floor.
Northwestern Wildcats • 9-7 (2-3) • Last week: 8
The Wildcats missed a great opportunity in Ann Arbor. A career game by Abbie Wolf, who finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds off the bench, put the Wildcats in striking distance, with neither team ever leading by double-digits. But Michigan came away with the overtime win when foul trouble limited Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah to just 17 minutes and poor free-throw shooting (14-25 in the game) doomed the Wildcats down the stretch, and Jordan Hamilton’s last-second runner hit both ends of the rim and fell out.
Missing Abi Scheid, who left early in the Michigan game, Northwestern struggled in the post on both ends against Purdue. But they had a chance at the end of the game when Lindsey Pulliam’s jumper rimmed out. That’s the second straight game, and third time in conference play (with the opener against Rutgers) when a good last-second look just missed, as well as the Pitt loss with missed opportunities at the end. This season has been a lot of “what could have been” (a possible 5-0 Big Ten record if those shots fall) but the Wildcats will still have chances to respond.
Tournament Odds: Outside Looking In
Northwestern needed a better win in non-conference play, and the Pitt loss looks bad. Especially with a stacked conference, the Wildcats need to do something to stand out, and they haven’t yet. If they get to a 12-6 conference record, which is definitely possible, they should be in the tournament. But there’s not much room for error down the stretch. They may need to win the next six games with road contests remaining against Maryland, Minnesota and Iowa.
Michigan Wolverines • 11-6 (2-3) • Last week: 7
Michigan continued their up-and-down season with an overtime win against Northwestern. Naz Hillmon dominant a depleted Wildcats frontcourt for 21 points while Nicole Munger got back on track with 16 of her own, her best total in a month. They nearly threw the game away with bad turnovers and stupid fouls but did just enough right to get the win.
A similar strategy didn’t work against Maryland. Hallie Thome scored 25 but Munger missed all five of her threes, and 48 of Michigan’s 69 points came in the paint. They only scored five second-chance points off 18 offensive boards. They remain one of the better teams in the conference but prove just how deep the conference is right now.
Thome became just the third player this season to win Big Ten Player of the Week.
Tournament Odds: 50/50
A tough non-conference schedule hurt the Wolverines, and they’ve been just too slow out of the gates. Unless the committee allows more Big Ten teams in than they usually do, Michigan needs to be winning games against teams like Nebraska and Purdue. If they take care of business and finish with 10 conference wins, they’re a good bet, but it won’t be easy.
No. 25 Indiana Hoosiers • 15-2 (4-1) • Last week: 6
Indiana continues to befuddle anyone who tries to make sense of them. Right after beating Michigan State and getting ranked for the first time, they gave Ohio State their first conference win and scored just 50 points. They were just 1-13 on three-point attempts, but Ohio State wasn’t much better at 2-13. This was simply a full-team loss that a ranked team should never see.
They were similar puzzling when they took a 37-14 lead through the first quarter over Wisconsin but won by just seven. Jaelyn Penn’s 21 points including 4-4 three-point shooting was the high mark of a great shooting game for the Hoosiers, who only needed 29 rebounds in the win.
Tournament Odds: Good
Somehow Indiana has just two losses, but two really bad losses. Still, the schedule remains relatively easy down the stretch, and they have a strong case as last year’s WNIT champions to not be left out again.
Nebraska Cornhuskers • 7-9 (2-3) • Last week: 9
Nebraska failed to get a scorer in double digits in the loss to Maryland, though Kate Cain registered 10 rebounds and six blocks. The defense failed to hold up again, allowing Maryland to hit over half of their shots.
Nebraska came back from an early deficit to a fourth-quarter tie with Rutgers, but the stifling defense proved too much in the end. That’s a three-game losing streak after a promising start for the Huskers in conference play. Nebraska needs to get more production from their starters, as they’ve been forced to rely on bench points consistently.
Tournament Odds: Low
A bad start to the season may have doomed Nebraska’s tournament hopes. They missed an opportunity against Rutgers for a quality win. They need a winning streak to get near the bubble.
Ohio State Buckeyes • 6-8 (2-3) • Last week: 14
The Buckeyes got on the board, and they only had to score 55 points to do it. Carmen Grande scored 19 points, including four huge free throws in the final minute, and had five steals. The Buckeyes shot 75 percent in the fourth quarter, just enough to put away a red-hot Hoosier team.
They made it two upsets on Monday night, taking down Michigan State. The Buckeyes shot 44 percent from deep and Carly Santoro scored 25 points, but they still only scored 65 points. The defense (and considerably slow pace) continue to get the job done occasionally.
Tournament Odds: Need to win the Big Ten Tournament
A disastrous non-conference record has all but sunk the Buckeyes’ tournament chances. As of now, it’s probably an automatic bid or nothing. Unless they can keep pulling Big Ten upsets…
Wisconsin Badgers • 10-7 (1-4) • Last week: 11
The Badgers got some extra rest with just one game last week. They battled back from a huge early hole for a somewhat close finish, but never really threatened Indiana. Marsha Howard registered a double-double with 19 points. They scored 46 in the paint but were unable to take advantage of opportunities.
Tournament Odds: Very Low
With a very weak strength of schedule, and a lack of any good wins, Wisconsin needs to rattle off a lot of victories to get into the tournament conversation.
Penn State Nittany Lions • 9-7 (2-3) • Last week: 13
After an early deficit, Penn State came back for an easy win over Illinois, holding them to just 48 points. Teniya Page scored just 13 points but had seven assists, while Alisia Smith led the team in both points (14) and rebounds (11).
Tournament Odds: Very Low
For the most part, Penn State has taken care of the teams they need to beat, but they haven’t really beaten anyone good and the overall record is lacking.
Illinois Fighting Illini • 9-7 (1-4) • Last week: 12
Against Rutgers, Illinois collected just 21 rebounds while allowing 42. Brandi Beasley had 10 assists but shot just 4-12. Beasley’s luck ran out even further against Penn State when she shot 2-11 and had five turnovers with just one assist. In that game, the Illini scored just 48 points despite Alex Wittinger shooting 9-10 for 19 points.
Tournament Odds: Very Low
The Minnesota win was a great first step, but that’s still their only win of any quality, and they lost to Sacramento State. They also won’t get any benefit of the doubt after last year.