By Ari Levin
Another week, another new batch of Big Ten upsets, and still a major logjam in the middle of the standings with nine teams still jockeying for position between fourth and 11th place.
To make the NCAA Tournament, a 12-6 conference record looked like the magic number. But as of now, there’s only four teams that can even reach that number, and it might only end up being two. That leaves the committee to figure out what happens to the rest of the teams. Iowa and Maryland are locks, and Rutgers probably is, too, but everyone else is up for grabs.
How many bids are available? Probably five or six if those teams rise to the top. Last year, six Big Ten teams made the tournament, but the year before it was just four. If the logjam stays through the end, it’ll be tricky.
No. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes • 21-5 (12-3) • Last week: 2
For the first time in quite a while, the question of who takes the top spot was a tough one. Iowa took down Maryland and took over the top spot in the Big Ten standings. But they have two more losses this year, and the Terrapins have had a better season.
The question to answer was who would win at a neutral site. Iowa got the win on their home court, but it was close, and the game might have gone differently elsewhere. However, Megan Gustafson showed that she can’t be stopped for four quarters, and Iowa can play enough defense when needed. Gustafson had 24 points and 13 rebounds in just the second half after a slow start. Maybe we’ll get this matchup in Indianapolis, and after that game, Iowa has to be ever-so-slight favorites.
And so, for the first time all year, we have a new number one. Having won five straight games, the Hawkeyes are the team to beat right now.
Before facing the Terps, the Hawkeyes had a 22-point win over Illinois. Gustafson scored 27 points with 17 rebounds in what would prove to be her second-best stat line of the week.
Remaining Schedule: at Indiana, at Nebraska, Northwestern
With their win over Maryland, Iowa has a path to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. They need to win out and win the Big Ten tournament, then get a kind look from the committee; having a player of the year candidate helps with that. They will host as a top-four seed if they win two of the last three games, and probably even if they only win one.
No. 8 Maryland Terrapins • 23-3 (12-3) • Last week: 1
Maryland did a fantastic job containing Megan Gustafson with their forwards at first. Gustafson got hot in the second half, though, when Shakira Austin and others ran into foul trouble. A 9-0 fourth-quarter start put them back in front, but in the end, Maryland couldn’t stop Gustafson.
Maybe the Terrapins win this game on another day. Kaila Charles missed her first 11 shots and scored just two points. Iowa out-rebounded Maryland, and a lot of close foul calls came at tough times against them. Iowa went 27-29 from the free-throw line, Maryland just 4-8. In many ways, Maryland played the game they needed to, but it was the Hawkeyes who came out victorious.
The Terps started their week with a 26-point home win over Nebraska. Maryland was much more efficient in that game, getting 19 points from Charles and seven blocks as a team.
Remaining Schedule: Minnesota, at Purdue, Illinois
The loss to Iowa hurts the path to a top-two seed; even though they’re still No. 8 in the AP poll, the NCAA committee will be lower. They now have a tough pair of games coming up; you definitely don’t want to play Minnesota right now. If they lose both, their spot hosting a regional as a top-four seed is threatened.
Michigan Wolverines • 18-9 (9-6) • Last week: 5
Don’t look now, but Michigan might be the hottest team in the Big Ten. They started slow (3-6) but have now won six straight. The Wolverines still don’t have a great conference win besides Iowa, though, and the schedule gets much tougher this week.
Michigan pulled away late from Indiana in a game with 19 lead changes. Akienreh Johnson was huge with 16 points, and Michigan shot 50 percent from behind the arc, which let them overcome a minus-11 turnover margin.
They struggled to build a big lead early against Illinois and trailed at one point in the third quarter but never really felt threatened. Everyone on the roster played in that game except Amy Dilk, who’s now been out three games with injury.
Remaining Schedule: Rutgers, at Michigan State, Wisconsin
Michigan’s non-conference schedule leaves some to be desired, and like other teams they need to increase their conference win total. Michigan needs to win all three to be sure. If they lose one of the first two and pick up a quality win in the Big Ten tournament, they have a good chance to make it, but Michigan fans know better than anyone else not to get too comfortable.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights • 18-7 (10-4) • Last week: 3
Rutgers is quickly starting to fall apart. They lost three straight games, and it was nearly four, but they managed to hang on and beat Indiana. They looked like they were in trouble when Victoria Harris and Ciani Cryor picked up their fourth fouls while trailing early in the third quarter, but Tekia Mack scored 24 points off the bench on 10-12 shooting to lead the comeback effort. Cryor scored just two but had 10 assists, as the team had 23 turnovers but hit just enough shots down the stretch to stay alive.
The big problem for Rutgers came earlier in their worst loss of the season, an awful 39-point effort against Ohio State. Rutgers was an abysmal 2-21 from deep and just couldn’t buy a basket all game. They held their opponent under 60 points and still lost by 20.
Remaining Schedule: at Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Ohio State
Rutgers needs just two wins to clinch a postseason berth, and those shouldn’t be too hard to come by. Hosting a regional is a much tougher challenge – they’ll be close if they win out and win the Big Ten Tournament.
Minnesota Golden Gophers • 19-7 (8-7) • Last week: 6
Just like that, Minnesota has six straight wins. The key players have turned it around, and the Gophers have gone right back to their early season, top-25 selves.
First was a great 20-point road win over Purdue. Destiny Pitts scored 27 points, shooting 10-12 from the field. She’s been the most important part of Minnesota’s turnaround. Minnesota attempted just five three-pointers in the game but made the same number (three) as Purdue. Weirdly enough, it was a close game, but Minnesota won the fourth quarter 20-2.
Then came a 30-point win behind 97 points against Penn State. Pitts scored another 22, though it took 18 shots to get there. The Gophers were 9-18 from three and won the rebounding battle 48-27. Kenisha Bell had a first-quarter injury scare but returned soon after and looked fine.
Remaining Schedule: at Maryland, at Rutgers, Michigan State
Did the Gophers sink their chances with the midseason slump? They may have broken out just soon enough. If they win all three of these, they have a very good chance for an at-large bid if they don’t fall flat in the Big Ten tournament. That’s quite a tough ask though; the easiest path to the postseason may go through Indianapolis. Otherwise, they’ll be the WNIT favorite.
Michigan State Spartans • 17-8 (7-7) • Last week: 4
A disastrous week for Michigan State as they suffer two bad losses and continue to struggle on the road. They’re 13-0 at home but 3-7 outside of East Lansing.
The first of the losses was by far their worst of the season, as they went cold from the field and turned the ball over 16 times. Shay Colley’s 24 points were the only positive as the Spartans went down by 14 in the first quarter and never made it close.
Another slow start doomed Michigan State at Nebraska. They made a run in the fourth quarter, but the closest it got was eight. They were again cold from the floor and again had just eight assists, plus 23 turnovers.
After a fantastic start, Sparty’s season has taken a very bad turn. Luckily, their next three games are at home, but they need to learn how to win away.
Remaining Schedule: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, at Minnesota
All of a sudden, Michigan State is in trouble. Their fantastic non-conference slate, with a win over No. 2 Oregon, plus wins over Iowa and Maryland, should be enough. They still need to win three of these last four games to be sure though. They’ll make up a postponed game against Penn State, but they get to stay home, so it shouldn’t cause too much trouble. Hopes of hosting a regional are long gone; if they win the conference tournament, they’re at best a No. 5.
Northwestern Wildcats • 15-11 (8-7) • Last week: 7
Northwestern had yet another gut-wrenching, season-defining loss, the second such against Purdue. They did everything right in this game. They won the turnover battle 20-9 and had 17 offensive rebounds. They shot relatively well. But there was nothing they could do about Karissa McLaughlin making nine threes on just 11 attempts.
The Wildcats led for much of the game and at one point by 10 in the third quarter, but they went down seven with three minutes left. They fought all the way back to tie it up and looked like they forced a shot-clock violation with under five seconds left. But a kicked ball let Purdue reset, and a McLaughlin dagger gave the Boilermakers the lead with 1.4 seconds left, and Abi Scheid’s shot at the buzzer just missed. They’ve now, by my count, lost five Big Ten games where a last-second shot looked good but rolled out.
Lindsey Pulliam led the Wildcats with 16 points in the game, but it took her 21 shots to get there. Scheid hit four threes, but her last attempt was just off.
The week started out promising with a dominant win over Penn State in which Pulliam scored 22 but took 25 shots. The team went 7-12 from downtown. Scheid has made four threes in her last three games.
Jordan Hamilton left with what looked like an ankle injury in the second quarter against Purdue, and she came back to the bench on crutches. She’s an All-conference defensive team candidate, and they need her back to make a run.
Remaining Schedule: Nebraska, Indiana, at Iowa
The Purdue loss really hurts. Northwestern’s path to an at-large bid is seemingly eliminated. At best, they need to win out and get two quality wins in the Big Ten Tournament, then pray for the committee to have mercy on all their close losses. The big trouble for Northwestern is that, besides No. 11 Marquette, all their non-conference opponents have seriously struggled since playing the Wildcats. They’re a great threat in the WNIT.
Purdue Boilermakers • 17-11 (8-7) • Last week: 8
Karissa McLaughlin breathed life back in to Purdue’s season. Playing all 40 minutes, she was an incredible 9-11 on three-point attempts to lead her team to a win over Northwestern. If not for her, Purdue likely loses by double digits.
The win snaps a brutal stretch of five losses in six games for Purdue. Earlier in the week they suffered a 20-point home loss to Minnesota, shooting just 37 percent and allowing the Gophers to make 50 percent of their attempts.
Remaining Schedule: at Penn State, Maryland, at Indiana
Purdue really needed that Northwestern win, but their tournament hopes are still in danger. Non-conference losses to St. John’s, Ohio and a missed opportunity at South Carolina put them in a bad spot. If they had won all three of those games, they’d likely be in because of the Iowa win. But they now will need to add the Maryland win.
Ohio State Buckeyes • 12-12 (8-7) • Last week: 11
Ohio State looks like they’re starting to click now, with two big wins this past week. They played just six players but held Rutgers to 39 points, as Janai Crooms was key on the defensive end with six steals. The Buckeyes shot 46 percent from the field, which proved to be enough.
Then they came back down by 14 and held on to beat Wisconsin. Trailing by double digits in the first half, they dominated much of the second and led by 13 with four minutes left. But they nearly coughed up the lead; it was just three points with 20 seconds left, and a Wisconsin triple cut it to one with five seconds. But the Badgers couldn’t get a shot off at the buzzer, and Ohio State held on for their second straight win.
Remaining Schedule: at Michigan State, at Wisconsin, Rutgers
The recent hot streak has opened a path to .500 after a really bad start to the season. They need to either win two of these last three games or win twice in the Big Ten tournament to get there. If so, they’ll likely receive a WNIT bid.
Indiana Hoosiers • 17-10 (6-9) • Last week: 9
As we expected, Indiana just hasn’t been able to keep up with their gauntlet schedule. They’ve lost four straight games and eight of 10. This week’s losses came at Michigan and at home to Rutgers. To be fair to Indiana, both losses were close and could have gone the other way.
Indiana led Michigan with four minutes left, but Michigan’s shooting was just too hot at the end. Bendu Yeaney led the team with 16 points, and they forced 20 turnovers while committing just nine.
They held Rutgers more in check shooting-wise but committed 18 turnovers. Yeaney again led with 16, but Jaelyn Penn struggled offensively all week.
Remaining Schedule: Iowa, at Northwestern, Purdue
They had a solid non-conference (if you take out the loss to Grambling State), but their recent stretch has doomed their tournament hopes. WNIT repeat champions?
Nebraska Cornhuskers • 12-14 (7-8) • Last week: 10
They turned it around at home with a win over Michigan State, though. The Cornhuskers took a lot of threes (24) and made half of them, and Kate Cain added seven blocks. Five players hit double figures, and nine were on the board, showcasing Nebraska’s biggest strength in their depth.
Remaining Schedule: at Northwestern, vs Iowa, at Penn State
Even with the most recent win, Nebraska has one too many conferences losses and a dreadful non-conference record. Their only path to the tournament is through an automatic bid. They can still make the WNIT if they win their last three games and at least one in the Big Ten tournament.
Wisconsin Badgers • 12-14 (3-11) • Last week: 14
Wisconsin picked up another win with a shocking upset of Michigan State. Marsha Howard went off for 29, and Michigan State went ice cold from the field. They tried sending Wisconsin to the line, but the Badgers were able to hit 23 of 31, their highest percentage of the year.
They couldn’t pull away from Ohio State for a second win of the week, but they put up a good showing. Suzanne Gilreath hit five 3-pointers and scored 19 points. Wisconsin got called for 28 fouls in the game, though, and didn’t have Gilreath available for the last possession.
Remaining Schedule: Illinois, at Rutgers, Ohio State, at Michigan
To make it to .500, Wisconsin needs to win all four of these, or win three plus their opening round Big Ten Tournament game. Even that’s probably not enough for the WNIT, though.
Penn State Nittany Lions • 10-15 (3-11) • Last week: 12
Six straight losses now for Penn State, and they still haven’t beaten anyone besides Wisconsin and Illinois.
They were even worse at Minnesota, allowing 97 points. Page again led the team with just 14 on 4-12 shooting, and the Nittany Lions allowed 59 points in just the first half.
Remaining Schedule: Purdue, at Illinois, at Michigan State, Nebraska
Penn State has a tough path to get to .500 overall. They need to win all four remaining games and two in the Big Ten tournament, which would mean getting to the semifinals. If they do that, they may have done just enough for a WNIT bid.
Illinois Fighting Illini • 10-16 (2-13) • Last week: 13
Poor, poor Illinois. One week after beating Wisconsin to climb out of the cellar, a good win by the Badgers puts them right back at the bottom. Of course, they didn’t do much to help their own cause, losing badly to Iowa and Michigan. They had four players score double figures in the first game, and Alex Wittinger had 18 in the second. This week, they were outscored in the paint 84-34.
Remaining Schedule: at Wisconsin, Penn State, at Maryland
Illinois’ path to postseason eligibility involves winning their next seven games and making the Big Ten finals. Otherwise, they can grab at least one more conference win in their next two games and call it a success compared to last year.