By Ari Levin
It’s the last week of the regular season! Every team has just one or two games left, and there’s still a massive cluster right in the middle of the standings that only seems to be getting worse. Let’s get to it!
This week, we’re taking a break from the tournament talk. There will be plenty of time for that next week. Instead, we’re taking one more big-picture look at the season. Back in November, I made one bold prediction for every team in the conference based on overreactions to exhibition games. This week, let’s see how I did. Some are somewhat close and some… not so much.
No. 8 Maryland Terrapins • 25-3 (14-3) • Last week: 2
Maryland won a game in which they never led before there were zeros on the clock, and they trailed by seven in the final minute. How does that happen? I’m still not sure. The short answer is Kaila Charles. Charles scored 29 points in a remarkable effort over Minnesota to scrape out a home win.
The Terps then squeaked by Purdue for another road win to clinch a share of the Big Ten title despite allowing eight points in a wild final minute and being behind for much of the game. Charles had 20 points and a double-double at halftime, Shakira Austin had eight blocks to go with 14 rebounds.
Bold Prediction: Shakira Austin wins Big Ten Player of the Year
Look, Megan Gustafson has the award wrapped up. She’s been dominant, winning the weekly award pretty much every week this season. And even if it weren’t for Gustafson, Austin isn’t the top, or maybe even second, pick on this team. None of that is to take away from Austin, who’s been fantastic as a freshman and has shown great potential for the next three years.
No. 12 Iowa Hawkeyes • 22-6 (13-4) • Last week: 1
Hey, remember that time there was a new number one? Well, that didn’t last long. Iowa’s run atop the conference, and the power rankings, ended quickly with an embarrassing loss to Indiana. Iowa led by as many as 16 in the second half, but the Hoosiers tied it up and took the lead late in the fourth quarter. The Hawkeyes tied the game on a Tania Davis three with 22 seconds left, but Indiana elected not to use a timeout, took the ball right down the court, and scored the winning basket. Kathleen Doyle had nine assists in the game with 17 points, and Megan Gustafson scored 26 missing just three shots, but it wasn’t enough.
I tuned in to the Nebraska game just in time to see Gustafson knock down a few elbow jumpers. It’s a really bad sign for the rest of the country if that’s a thing now. She finished that game with 29 points and 20 rebounds. It looked at first like it would be a close game, but the Hawkeyes were not going to let that happen.
Bold Prediction: Iowa reaches the Final Four for the first time since 1993
The postseason predictions can’t be evaluated just yet. Iowa certainly has a chance to reach the Final Four, I guess. They’re not favored, though, and this prediction still looks pretty bold today. We’ll check back in next month, of course, but Iowa’s had a great season either way.
Minnesota Golden Gophers • 19-8 (8-8) • Last week: 5
Minnesota came so close to continuing their winning streak through the toughest part of the schedule. They had Maryland on the ropes, up by 16 in the third quarter. Taiye Bello was controlling the glass and Maryland wasn’t getting any good looks, as the Golden Gophers led by seven with a minute left.
But then, Kaila Charles happened. Maryland cut the lead to two, then a turnover led to a Charles layup to tie the game with six seconds left. Still, it looked like overtime was the worst-case scenario for Minnesota. But Charles stole the inbound (tipped by Shakira Austin – a great move to put her on the inbounder) and took it all the way to the basket for the win.
Still, Minnesota remains hot despite not pulling off a road win over the top team in the conference. Destiny Pitts has been huge for Minnesota as of late, scoring 20+ points in four straight games and shooting the lights out.
Bold Prediction: Kenisha Bell averages a triple-double
Bell’s been great this year, but not that great. Her averages: 19.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists. Her assist average has gone down from last year, in fact. She hasn’t posted a single triple-double, and the closest she’s gotten is probably a 28/7/9 game against Rhode Island in December.
Michigan Wolverines • 19-10 (10-7) • Last week: 3
Michigan suddenly found themselves near the top of the conference this week after a seven-game win streak culminated in a win over Rutgers. Amy Dilk returned from her injury but hasn’t played big minutes. The Wolverines attempted just 10 three-pointers, and six of those came from Nicole Munger. They pushed the pace, though, and scored 86 points against a tough Rutgers defense.
The Wolverines hot streak ended at their in-state rival in a loss at Michigan State, though as Michigan threw the game away with 25 turnovers.
Kim Barnes Arico really needs to consider starting Naz Hillmon, who might her best player. Michigan too often loses the momentum in the opening minutes, relying on Hillmon’s impact off the bench. That’s what happened in the Michigan State game; they trailed 7-0 before Hillmon entered and could only stop the bleeding. She did that well, scoring 27 points with six steals in the game, but it’s just too much to ask for every night.
Bold Prediction: Amy Dilk leads the Big Ten in assists
Well, we weren’t too far off on this one. Dilk ranks tenth in the Big Ten in assists as of this week and has missed some time with injury. She’s not too far behind the leaders at 4.3, with second place at 5.0 (Kathleen Doyle leads with 6.0, which went up a lot when she had 17 this week.) But Dilk hasn’t been used on the offense as much as I thought she’d be, mostly just dumping the ball to Hallie Thome.
Michigan State Spartans • 18-9 (8-8) • Last week: 6
Michigan State turned around their season just in time with a win over Michigan. The three-point shooting didn’t quite heat up (5-19), but they forced 25 turnovers and drew 26 fouls compared to 14 of their own. The Spartans had lost three straight before then and needed that win to right the ship and avoid a play-in game in the Big Ten tournament.
Before that, a home loss to Ohio State lowered their home record to now … 14-1. Yet they’re 3-7 on the road, which needs to be addressed. Sparty hit three treys in the first quarter but were just 1-16 afterwards, while Ohio State shot 50 percent from the field.
Bold Prediction: Nia Clouden makes First Team All-Big Ten
Clouden has been a good part of Michigan State’s improvement. But First Team All-Big Ten is way too far. It’s been the better play of her teammates that put the Spartans in a great position this year.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights • 19-8 (11-5) • Last week: 4
After losing four of five, Rutgers seemed to turn the tide with a dominant beatdown of Wisconsin. Tekia Mack led the team with 17 points off the bench, and they forced 24 turnovers. This turned into an easy win at a great time.
Earlier in the week, the Scarlet Knights put up 76 points against Michigan, their most of any conference game. But they also allowed 86, as Michigan was able to find holes in the Rutgers defense, especially in the paint when Rutgers was hampered by foul trouble. Ciani Cryor had eight assists but shot just 3-12. This team is starting to look very beatable.
It also came out this week that coach C. Vivian Stringer will be off the rest of the regular season due to exhaustion. We wish her the best, and we can only hope that Rutgers won’t be affected by her absence or will even rally until her return.
Bold Prediction: Rutgers doubles their number of made three-pointers from last season (4.3 per game)
Rutgers has improved their shooting, and made an effort to do so, but it’s been inconsistent. They are very far from doubling last year’s mark – currently they make 5.2 per game – and still rank pretty low in the Big Ten in both makes and percent.
Northwestern Wildcats • 15-12 (8-8) • Last week: 7
Northwestern, in a game they needed to win, fell short against Nebraska. Without Jordan Hamilton playing defense, the Cornhuskers were easily able to find holes and get open looks, leading to a 10-18 performance from beyond the arc. Northwestern won the rebounding and turnover battle, but they can’t let up so many open shots to talented shooting teams.
After a great start, Northwestern has lost four of their last five, though none are bad losses. They’re now in danger of falling to a bottom-four seed and might need to win one of their last two to avoid that. The good news is that they don’t have any pressure on their last two games and can try to get a big win against Indiana and, more importantly, at Iowa, to enter the Big Ten tournament with momentum.
Bold Prediction: Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah wins Big Ten Player of the Year
See: Austin, Shakira. Kunaiyi-Akpanah has continued to improve her senior year and notched her 1,000th career rebound last week. Her matchup next week with Gustafson will be revealing, and she’ll likely do well. But she’s not averaging 27 points per game.
Ohio State Buckeyes • 13-12 (9-7) • Last week: 9
Ohio State is starting to find their rhythm now. They’ve won three straight games and put themselves near the top of the conference, even threatening for the double-bye.
Their one game this week was a great one against Michigan State. Janai Crooms got red-hot, scoring 20 points on just eight shots, and holding Michigan State to 4-22 shooting from downtown helped. Inserting Aaliyah Patty into the starting lineup in place of Makayla Waterman seems to have made a big impact, and getting that much production from freshmen, with a strong recruiting class for next year, gives you a lot of hope about the future.
Bold Prediction: Ohio State enters the Big Ten tournament as a bottom-four seed, but makes the final
The thinking here was that Ohio State would take some time to gel but finish off the season hot. That thinking’s largely been true, with Ohio State putting up some duds early in the season before rounding into form. But they got hot just a bit earlier than I expected and are well above the bottom four spots in the standings.
Indiana Hoosiers • 18-10 (7-9) • Last week: 10
Well, that’s one way to break a losing streak. Nothing stands out from the huge win against Iowa other than hitting the big shots when it mattered. They fought back from down 16, closed strong and came away with a fantastic win. Brenna Wise scored 24 with 11 rebounds, and Ali Patberg put up 21 points and seven assists.
Indiana will look to close strong with a road matchup against Northwestern and senior day against Purdue.
Bold Prediction: Indiana finishes in the bottom two of the Big Ten
Indiana’s fallen off some from past years, but they’ve been better than the bottom teams in the conference.
Nebraska Cornhuskers • 13-15 (8-9) • Last week: 11
Nebraska looks to be improving, but just too slowly to make an impact. They got a nice road win over Northwestern, as Hannah Whitish scored 19 points and Maddie Simon was 6-6 from the floor. Nobody on the team grabbed more than five rebounds, but shooting 10-18 from three was the difference in this game.
Iowa was just too much for them in their next game, as the three-point percentage decreased to 33 percent and the Cornhuskers could not stop Gustafson, who singlehandedly outscored Nebraska in the paint.
Bold Prediction: Four Nebraska players make All-Big Ten first team
Yikes. Nebraska won’t have a single player on the All-Big Ten team. Their best players at many points this year have been off the bench. I thought players like Hannah Whitish, Kate Cain and Taylor Kissinger would continue to improve, but they’ve all gone backwards this year.
Purdue Boilermakers • 17-13 (8-9) • Last week: 8
Purdue continues to fall off this season, with losses now in seven of their last nine broken up only by an Illinois game and Karissa McLaughlin’s absurdly good shooting against Northwestern.
This week’s losses came at the hands of Penn State and Maryland. Oddly enough, the second one was far closer than the first. The problem against Penn State was defense, as Purdue allowed the Nittany Lions to shoot 50 percent from the field. Against Maryland, it was a 35 percent field goal rate of their own that did the Boilermakers in.
It’s really weird what’s happened with Purdue. They have so much talent on their team but just can’t seem to find any consistency.
Bold Prediction: Purdue’s offense ranks in the bottom three of the conference
Well, well, well. Looks like we got one right! Purdue right now ranks 12th in scoring offense, at 64.5 points per game. In just conference games, they’re dead last, at 61.5. A lot of that is due to being one of the slowest teams in the country, as predicted.
Penn State Nittany Lions • 12-15 (5-11) • Last week: 13
Wow, what a week for Penn State, with two wins including one over not Illinois or Wisconsin. That came courtesy of Purdue, as Penn State shot 50 percent from the floor even without their leading scorer and leading rebounder.
Still without those two, they held strong to complete a season sweep of Illinois, shooting 53 percent. Jaida Travascio-Green got hot to the tune of five three-pointers, while Kamaria McDaniel dropped 20 points.
Bold Prediction: Teniya Page leads the Big Ten in scoring
Wait a second–– Page, even though she missed last week, has scored a lot of points this year. Let me just check…
*Pulls up Big Ten leaderboard*
Oh, right. Page ranks second in the Big Ten with 19.3 points per game, so I wasn’t crazy with this prediction. But she’s also eight points behind Megan Gustafson, so, yeah.
Wisconsin Badgers • 13-15 (4-12) • Last week: 12
They also lost by 20 to Rutgers this week, as Howard had 16 points and six steals but nine turnovers. The Badgers committed 24 turnovers as a team against the Scarlet Knights.
Bold prediction: Wisconsin loses every conference game by double digits
I was way off on this one! Not only does Wisconsin have losses by seven (Penn State), seven (Indiana), and six (Michigan), but they also have four wins.
Illinois Fighting Illini • 10-18 (2-15) • Last week: 14
Illinois had two good chances to pick up another win over Wisconsin or Penn State, but they couldn’t convert either. Brandi Beasley scored 21 points in the first game, but that was about as noteworthy as it got between the two double-digit losses.
Bold Prediction: Illinois goes .500 or better in Big Ten play
If you’re curious, this is what I wrote back then:
“Times are tough for the Illini, but it’s hard to see things getting worse from last year. Nobody too important graduated, the best players will improve, and they add a four-star recruit. If you squint, you can see Blazek and Alex Wittinger forming a formidable frontcourt this year. There are opportunities at the bottom of the conference to pass teams that lose their best players, and Illinois just might take advantage.”
It didn’t happen, but hey, that comes with the territory in the bold prediction business.