By Ari Levin
It’s crunch time in the Big Ten. Right now, eight teams are within 1.5 games of the fourth seed and a bye to the Big Ten quarterfinals, meaning eight teams are also within that margin of a play-in game. This past week saw some more great games, exciting finishes, and unexpected results.
This week also gave us the reveal of the NCAA’s Top 16 seeds as of now. From a Big Ten standpoint, it could have been worse, but it certainly was somewhat disappointing. The biggest surprise was Iowa being ranked ahead of Maryland with both getting No. 3 seeds; with Iowa having three more losses and no better wins, that’s hard to justify. Maryland was also ranked below the AP’s No. 12 N.C. State, who lost twice last week, and No. 10 Stanford, who just lost at 40 by home. The Hawkeyes and the Terrapins were the only two teams in the top 16, with Rutgers’ early-season losses leaving them behind teams like No. 18 Iowa State and No. 20 Miami.
Overall, this signifies a continuing trend that the committee sees the Big Ten slightly lower than other conferences, rightly or wrongly, and doesn’t see anyone in the Big Ten representing a quality win. No Big Ten team is going to get the benefit of the doubt against an ACC or Pac-12 team, and so to make the field they’ll have to remove any excuses.
For this week’s story, let’s go back to preseason, before we knew much at all about these teams. Let’s see how our preseason rankings stack up to where the teams are now; who’s done better or worse than what was expected?
No. 7 Maryland Terrapins • 22-2 (11-2) • Last week: 1
Two more easy wins for Maryland this week, and losses ahead of them move them further up the national rankings and to the top of the Big Ten standings. The first victory came against Northwestern, as Stephanie Jones got hot for 16 points and the Terrapins shot 8-16 on three-point attempts.
But the Rutgers win was most impressive for Maryland. They jumped out to an 18-2 lead and never looked back. Despite 23 turnovers, the Maryland defense never let Rutgers get comfortable and stifled them all game.
That’s now seven straight wins for Maryland as they cruise through conference play and try to shore up a two seed.
Preseason Rank: 1
Maryland has essentially dominated since joining the Big Ten, and this year was no exception. They’ve been the top team all season long. I thought about moving them behind Minnesota after their first loss to Rutgers, but they stayed at the top when Minnesota lost a few hours later. Even in what was supposed to be a down year, with two freshman and no senior starters, Maryland remains the top team in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation.
No. 14 Iowa Hawkeyes • 19-5 (10-3) • Last week: 2
Two more good wins for the Hawkeyes by a combined 41 points as they keep rolling towards Sunday’s long-awaited matchup with Maryland. The first win came against ranked Michigan State, and Megan Gustafson dropped 41 points, which is not even her season high. The team shot 50.8 percent from the field and had 24 assists, eight from Kathleen Doyle. It was close for most of the first quarter, but they closed on a 10-2 run and never looked back.
Against Ohio State, the Hawkeyes kept letting the Buckeyes back in before slamming the door in the second half and winning by 26. Gustafson went for 29 and 16, and the team shot even better in this game at 53 percent. Sunday’s game should be a fun one.
Preseason Rank: 2
After a very strong last season, it looked like the Hawkeyes were poised to take a surge with the ongoing improvement of Gustafson and other core players, the return of Tania Davis from injury, and the lack of key players leaving. They haven’t quite hit the stratosphere just yet; they beat Rutgers, of course, but haven’t played Maryland and the only game against a real top opponent was a 34-point loss to Notre Dame. Still, Iowa is a very good team within the Big Ten and a threat to go far in the tournament.
No. 23 Rutgers Scarlet Knights • 17-6 (9-3) • Last week: 3
Rutgers lost their only game this week, and they’ve lost two straight for the first time this season. Rutgers remains one of the best teams in the Big Ten, but their offensive struggles are a little concerning, even when considering their opponent.
Those struggles came up big in their loss to Maryland, a game the Scarlet Knights really wanted at home against a team they had already beaten. But they shot just 2-16 from behind the arc and got just 17 points from their starters, with 15 coming from Stasha Carey. Arella Guirantes was very good off the bench with 20 points, but that wasn’t enough to top Maryland.
Preseason Rank: 12
The rise of Rutgers this season has been stunning. I had them left for dead after losing Tyler Scaife and collapsing at the end of last year, ultimately turning down a WNIT bid (after the field had been revealed.) Instead, they found a number of decent, if not great shooters and supplemented one of the nation’s top defenses, starting off Big Ten play with a bang. At this point, it’s safe to say they’re the real deal and not a team that anyone wants to play.
No. 24 Michigan State Spartans • 17-6 (7-5) • Last week: 4
One win and one loss for Michigan State on what was a really bad week for Jenna Allen. The senior center, who had been so reliable, was just 2-16 from the field and scored five points in 57 minutes. She also couldn’t repeat her defensive success against Gustafson from the team’s win over Iowa earlier this year. Allen simply outplayed Gustafson in that December game, but that wasn’t the case this week, as the Spartans lost by 15 and were never really in it.
Preseason Rank: 10
Michigan State, coming off a 7-9 Big Ten season, looked to be good but not great headed into this season losing just one starter. Instead, they stunned everyone first by nearly beating N.C. State and then knocking off Oregon. They continue to play like a ranked team, with a great offense creating open shots, even if their efficiency has dropped some. Jenna Allen has also turned into a top center, turning in incredible performances against Oregon and Iowa earlier this season.
Michigan Wolverines • 16-9 (7-6) • Last week: 6
After a 3-6 start to Big Ten play, Michigan has now won four in a row and maybe put themselves on the right side of the tournament bubble. But it hasn’t been easy, having to come from behind in the fourth quarter twice this week, and they need to stay composed to keep it going.
The first was against Nebraska, where Michigan trailed by three entering the final period. But Naz Hillmon took over in the end, finishing with 18 points. Turnovers (21) nearly doomed Michigan in a game where they won the rebounding battle 41-29.
They struggled again at Penn State, trailing by four with three minutes left and losing the turnover margin 22-7. They hit just enough shots though, despite attempting 24 fewer, with six three pointers by Hailey Brown.
Preseason Rank: 5
Michigan has had a somewhat disappointing season, though they are starting to turn around recently. A lot of that is Hallie Thome not taking the lead that was expected of her, and the team as a whole has struggled to replace Katelynn Flaherty, though Amy Dilk has shown flashes. Michigan would be much worse if it weren’t for Hillmon, a candidate for both freshman and sixth player of the year.
Minnesota Golden Gophers • 17-7 (6-7) • Last week: 8
Minnesota gutted out an overtime win against Northwestern. They were the better team on the court, and their press gave Northwestern nightmares. But well-timed shots by the Wildcats sent it to overtime, where the Gophers dominated. Destiny Pitts was huge with four early threes and finished with 21 points, but Kenisha Bell was the star in this game, scoring 24 points with 11 rebounds, five assists, five steals, and some ridiculous dribble moves.
Before that, the Gophers went to Bloomington and got a tough win at Indiana. Bell scored 22, Pitts 17, and Minnesota almost coughed up a double-digit lead down the stretch.
It’s now a very impressive four-game win streak powered by Bell and Pitts. They still likely need to win out to get an at-large bid, which will be incredibly tough, but not impossible for this team.
Preseason Rank: 4
It’s been a roller coaster season for Minnesota. Projected third by the coaches in preseason, Minnesota looked like the team to beat in non-conference play and were the last undefeated team in the Big Ten. Then, of course, they lost seven of eight, losing at home to teams like Illinois and Ohio State. They look to have turned things around, possibly, but it might be too late. The talent is there, but it’s taken Lindsey Whalen some time to figure out the grueling pace of the Big Ten.
Northwestern Wildcats • 14-10 (7-6) • Last week: 7
The Minnesota game, for the first three quarters, had to feel like too many games from last year where the Wildcats trailed by eight to 12 points the whole second half, staying within reach but never making an extended run and giving up a quick response whenever they were in striking distance. The 26 turnovers were unacceptable. But this time, the Wildcats chipped away and tied the game on a Veronica Burton three-point play after trailing by 14. They took the lead at one point, but Abi Scheid, who had a fantastic game, missed both free throws with four seconds left, and Northwestern couldn’t stay hot in overtime. Still, the Wildcats played a good game down the stretch with one of their better shooting performances, led by Jordan Hamilton’s 20 points.
Earlier in the week, Northwestern was outmatched at Maryland, though they made it respectable at the end after trailing by 27. They won the turnover margin but let Maryland hit half their threes on too many open looks.
By the way, Scheid’s free throw marks the fourth Big Ten game, by my count, where Northwestern got an unlucky roll on a last-minute shot to tie or take the lead. That leaves a lot of “what could have been” for this year as the tournament hopes slip away.
Preseason Rank: 7
The season has pretty much gone as expected for Northwestern, though a little on the higher end of the range of possibilities. The Wildcats quickly showed a huge improvement from last year, powered by the first years. Burton has been the best surprise, since she was rated lower than Sydney Wood as a recruit (though a Wood breakout game soon wouldn’t be too surprising), and the move of Hamilton to an off-ball guard was a surprise, though it’s worked well with Burton’s skills and Hamilton’s great defense. Northwestern is the only team to hold Big Ten opponents under 60 points per game, largely due to Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, but the offense struggles late in games.
Purdue Boilermakers • 16-10 (7-6) • Last week: 5
Purdue got a win against Illinois, but another loss sends them veering off course with four of five losses after a 6-2 Big Ten start. After being in the tournament field for a while, Purdue likely has fallen out and will need to climb back in with a tricky schedule down the stretch.
In that win, Purdue trailed after the first quarter but scored 15 straight to start the second. Karissa McLaughlin scored 23 points. Purdue missed all eight three pointers in the second half, but it didn’t matter once they had the lead.
But then, things fell apart at Nebraska. Purdue led basically the whole game, and by eight in the fourth quarter, but let up a 21-7 run to end the game with too many missed shots. Purdue’s depth became an issue, and they struggled some with foul trouble and 19 turnovers. It’s another bad loss for Purdue that might be too much to overcome.
Preseason Rank: 6
Purdue just barely missed the tournament last year and appears to be at about the same level as a team this year. Ae’Rianna Harris has improved even more after winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore, and McLaughlin has become a team leader in her second season. Purdue continues to have a good defense but a streaky offense that’s led to some bad losses; still, it’s pretty close to the team projected in the preseason.
Indiana Hoosiers • 17-8 (6-7) • Last week: 9
Indiana lost twice more last week, now making it six of eight, and has a brutal schedule down the stretch. They could finish as the 11 seed in the Big Ten, and it’s hard to see the remaining path to a tournament bid.
Those two losses, by the way, came against Minnesota and Michigan State. Ali Patberg went down with a gruesome-looking shoulder injury, and it’s unclear how long she’ll be out. Indiana had just 17 assists between the two games.
Preseason Rank: 9
It was hard to see Indiana having sustained success after losing Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill last year. Some transfers have really helped this team, but also haven’t built a winning foundation.
Nebraska Cornhuskers • 11-13 (6-7) • Last week: 10
Two 67-61 games, one good, one bad, marked Nebraska’s week. The first was a close loss at Michigan where the Huskers just couldn’t hold on late despite solid shooting overall. That shooting kept up enough for a win over Purdue in a huge spot at home. Leigha Brown poured in 30 points off the bench, including four three pointers and 10 free throws. Nebraska is starting to get on track some, but they’ve just been too inconsistent this year.
Preseason Rank: 3
I was really high on Nebraska to start this season. They were the surprise team last year, placing third in the Big Ten with a young core of players ready to step forward. Instead, they’ve almost universally slid back; Hannah Whitish and Kate Cain both have failed to replicate their success from last year, and Maddie Simon has also struggled to make an impact. Freshman bench players like Brown, Sam Haiby and Ashtyn Veerbeek have also had to step up in their place, and they’ve done an admirable job, but not enough to bring Nebraska back near where they were last year.
Ohio State Buckeyes • 10-12 (6-7) • Last week: 11
Ohio State got back in the win column over Penn State. Carly Santoro scored 20 points and Makayla Waterman 19, both hitting double-digit free throws. But they couldn’t compete with Iowa. Four players hit double figures but none more than 12 in a blowout.
Preseason Rank: 8
It was just a question of how far Ohio State would fall after losing essentially their whole team from last year, including Kelsey Mitchell, the second leading scorer in NCAA history. The answer was pretty far: Bringing in grad transfers as replacements and holds for next year’s recruiting class, then losing perhaps the best of those transfers in preseason have resulted in unimpressive results. The transfers have been okay, but not nearly up to Ohio State’s standards, and this is no more than a lost season for the Buckeyes.
Penn State Nittany Lions • 10-13 (3-9) • Last week: 12
Penn State had two very good opportunities to pick up a win this week but blew both, and all their Big Ten wins have come against Illinois and Wisconsin.
Against Ohio State, Penn State took the lead on a Siyeh Frazier jumper with 30 seconds left, but they gave it right back then let the game slip away on free throws. Teniya Page scored a game-high 22 points and had seven assists.
Later in the week, Penn State led Michigan by four points in the last three minutes but let up a 10-2 run to finish. Page scored 17 but the team shot just 32 percent. Even though the Nittany Lions had 13 steals and just seven turnovers, Penn State couldn’t make anything happen at the end.
Preseason Rank: 11
Penn State looked very similar to Michigan State at the start of the season: underwhelming last year but returning four starters and hoping to make a jump. Instead, they’ve gone backwards. Page has had to do everything herself, and nobody else has been a consistent threat.
Illinois Fighting Illini • 10-14 (2-11) • Last week: 14
Illinois got back on the board with a win over Wisconsin. Alex Wittinger scored 24 points with 12 rebounds, and Brandi Beasley had 16 points and nine assists. They made the same number of free-throws as the Badgers despite nine fewer attempts and shot 8-24 from beyond the arc, which isn’t great but is enough to beat Wisconsin.
Before that, they got blown out by Purdue, and Wittinger missed the second half with an injury.
Preseason Rank: 14
They have won two conference games this year, so it’s already improved from 2017-18 when they were never very close. Beasley has made big strides; she can still go on bad shooting stretches, but she’s been a much better facilitator on offense.
Wisconsin Badgers • 11-13 (2-10) • Last week: 13
The Badgers came up short in the last place game, but Wisconsin was 12-23 from the free-throw line, which can’t have helped; they rank near the bottom of the country in that category. Marsha Howard scored 19 points but shot just 5-16.
Also, this week I watched the movie Eighth Grade. There’s an actor in it named Imani Lewis. It’s not the same Imani Lewis, but it is a fun fact for you.
Preseason Rank: 13
Wisconsin looked to be in a lot of trouble after losing their leading scorer from a two-win team. That’s largely been true, although they have already recorded better conference wins than all last year. The young players still have not made a big impact other than Imani Lewis, but Howard has been able to impact a few games.