By Ari Levin
That’s it. The 2018-19 Big Ten women’s basketball season is over. We have a split decision, with Maryland taking the regular season title but Iowa claiming the tournament and the automatic bid, not that they needed it. Maryland lost the title for the second straight year after winning their first three since joining the conference.
A quick scheduling note before we move on: this column is not being published on Tuesday, obviously. Next week will have a quick update after the tournaments are announced, which will likely be published Wednesday or Thursday. Of course, the rankings won’t change between now and then, as there are no games, so it’ll be just a quick preview of postseason outlooks.
Also, a congratulations to Scott Mangum for winning the WNUR Sports Big Ten bracket challenge!
Let’s take one last look at that bracket.
Yep. This year was really something.
Last year saw the departure of stalwarts like Kelsey Mitchell, Katelynn Flaherty, Tyra Buss and many more. This week was the last Big Ten games for mainstays like Megan Gustafson, Teniya Page, Kenisha Bell and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah. The guard will change again next year. Such is life in college basketball. There will always be a crop of new stars to replace the old. Who could have predicted the meteoric rise of Gustafson?
There’s no shortage of potential starts waiting in the wings of the conference. Kaila Charles is the big favorite for next season’s player of the year. But she is by no means a lock. It’s easy to see how someone could take a step forward and become the next version of one of the players mentioned or something of their own.
Maybe Karissa McLaughlin uses her sweet shooting stroke even more to score at a superstar rate. Maybe Taryn McCutcheon adds more volume to her great efficiency and rates as a top scorer. Maybe Lindsey Pulliam gets a little more accurate and becomes the Big Ten’s Kobe Bryant. Maybe Destiny Pitts makes even MORE 3s. Maybe Ali Patberg continues her hot end to the season and becomes a top guard. Maybe Kathleen Doyle steps into the role as primary option to put up video game numbers. Maybe Brandi Beasley leads the conference in assists by a lot.
As for bigs, Naz Hillmon already looks like a star. Dorka Juhasz can do just about anything possible for a basketball player. Kate Cain is a shot-blocking wrecking ball. Imani Lewis came on strong this year and has lots of room for growth.
As for new players who could make an immediate impact? How about Makenna Marisa, who heads to State College as the most exciting player in Western Pennsylvania this year? Or Alexis Morris, who transfers to Rutgers from Baylor after being a top recruit and a member of the Big 12 All-Freshman Team? The possibilities are endless.
This week, we’re handing out some awards. One for each team, highlighting the best player on each squad.
No. 8 Iowa Hawkeyes • 26-6 (14-4) • Last week: 2
Congratulations to the Iowa Hawkeyes – Big Ten champions. They’re playing as well as anyone in the country. They should get a No. 2 seed, and Hawkeye fans should be upset if they don’t.
Rutgers was the only team to even come close, in the semifinal, bringing a 20-point deficit to within three in the closing minutes. The Scarlet Knights’ strategy was to do whatever it took to stop Gustafson. But that led to a lot of easy buckets elsewhere before a late run. Even with Gustafson going 9-18, Iowa shot 50 percent in that game.
Getting revenge over Indiana was an easier task, even with the Hoosiers playing their best of the year. They were triple-teaming Gustafson and more, but it was no use. (For reference, Indiana’s Linsey Marchese is listed at 6-4 and Gustafson an inch shorter, but Gustafson is clearly taller, so at least one of those is wrong.) She weaved through whatever Indiana threw at her and got to the rim with ease. She also had three blocks in the first quarter and was briefly on triple-double watch.
In the final, they got a second win over Maryland and proved to simply be the better team. The Terps tried to play one-on-one defense on Gustafson for much of the game, which epically failed. Part of that was out of necessity with the entire team in foul trouble. Outside of a loss to Indiana, Iowa has been unstoppable over the past month.
Gustafson’s point totals in the three wins en route to the title: 30, 20, 45. Iowa’s opponents gave three very different looks to Gustafson, and none of those were effective at stopping Iowa’s offense. I can’t wait to see her go against Baylor’s Kalani Brown.
MVP: Megan Gustafson
Not enough has been said about Iowa’s fantastic ability to get the ball to Gustafson. The players around her are crucial to the team’s success. Doyle, after missing over a month with a broken hand, led the Big Ten in assists and will be worth watching as the team’s centerpiece next year. Stewart played some great games down the stretch to be named to the all-tournament team; Iowa is unstoppable when both her and Gustafson are going. And for Davis, recovering from ACL tears to both knees the past two years, putting together a complete season and looking fully healthy speaks to her strength and ability.
No. 9 Maryland Terrapins • 28-4 (15-3) • Last week: 1
Maryland came up just short, but that’s nothing to be alarmed about. They may not be a top-five team, but they can compete with anyone as they head into March.
Things started easily against a taxed Michigan State team that couldn’t get a bucket. But Michigan presented a much different struggle, pushing Maryland until the very end. Luckily, Maryland was up to the challenge.
Maryland is a likely No. 3 seed in a favorable region. Their four losses all came to teams at their peak, and they’ve shown they can compete with anyone. I doubt it’s like last year for Maryland; they’ll be at least close to an Elite Eight appearance.
MVP: Kaila Charles
The freshmen made a huge impact this year for Maryland, showcasing elite skill sets that will only get better as they terrorize the conference into the future. But make no mistake, Charles is the heart and soul of this team, as evidenced by her totals this past week. Her threat on both ends of the floor will be terrifying for another year.
Michigan Wolverines • 21-11 (11-7) • Last week: 3
Michigan ran into a red-hot Wisconsin team that wanted anything but to go home and barely made it out of that game alive. Deja Church missed to end regulation and Nicole Munger at the end of overtime, but the second overtime gave the Wolverines the advantage. Hallie Thome led this game with 18 points, while Munger was just 1-12.
Maybe the double overtime wore them out, but they looked strong against Maryland until the very end with an ill-timed foul. Munger came back to score 20 points.
Michigan should be a lock for the NCAA tournament.
MVP: Naz Hillmon
Honorable Mention: Nicole Munger, Amy Dilk
Look, I get it, but I think it was a huge mistake for Michigan to never start their best player. Hillmon led the team in scoring and rebounding despite ranking sixth in minutes. She will start next year and she will be elite. Dilk has an exciting future as a point guard but needs to develop an outside shot with Munger leaving.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights • 22-9 (13-5) • Last week: 5
Somehow, Rutgers keeps playing well despite the turbulence of the last few weeks. They did about all they could in this tournament.
They played nearly a perfect game against Purdue, using their deep bench to wear out the Boilermakers. Stasha Carey led with 17 points. Noga Peleg Pelc banked in a deep ball to end the third quarter that ended up being the dagger. Peleg Pelc is a freshman that will have plenty of opportunities to take off.
But like everyone else, there was nothing they could do about Iowa. They were maybe the most successful team all year at taking out Gustafson, but that’s not the way to beat the Hawkeyes, and they were gashed everywhere else.
C. Vivian Stringer will be back for the NCAA tournament, which likely means the end of five in, five out substitutions.
MVP: Stasha Carey
Rutgers as a team didn’t quite get the credit they deserve, and that starts with Carey, perhaps the most underrated player in the conference. She’s an elite defender and a primary reason Rutgers is so successful, and she can score in the post when needed. Guirantes wouldn’t be the best on some other teams, but she works in their system as the best scoring option.
Michigan State Spartans • 20-11 (9-9) • Last week: 6
Michigan State’s hold and cold shooting reared its head again this week. The hot came against Northwestern, as the Spartans couldn’t miss all game. With a balanced offense and good defense, they held off a third quarter run and took over in the end.
But the opposite came against Maryland. Michigan State shot just 29 percent in the game, with McCutcheon going 1-8. The Spartans never really stood a chance in this game.
Michigan State’s conference record is good enough for a tournament berth. If they get hot from deep, they’ve already shown they can beat anyone.
MVP: Jenna Allen
Honorable Mention: Shay Colley, Taryn McCutcheon, Nia Clouden
Michigan State’s best games were Allen’s best games – the wins over Iowa and Oregon. A post player with an elite outside shot, Allen is a matchup nightmare. She will be tough to replace next year, but the rest of the team should be up to the task. Colley is an elite scorer, and the guards will play tough all year.
Minnesota Golden Gophers • 20-10 (9-9) • Last week: 4
Minnesota’s run came to an end early with a bad loss to Indiana. The loss itself isn’t bad, but the way Minnesota played was. Pitts scored 25 but didn’t make a 3-pointer, as she and Bell combined for 44 of Minnesota’s 64 shots. They went 1-15 on 3-pointers in the game, and nobody had more than two assists. Minnesota just didn’t have the depth to make a run in this tournament.
Lindsey Whalen’s squad should accept a WNIT bid. If they stay hot, they may be a favorite to win it.
MVP: Kenisha Bell
Honorable Mention: Destiny Pitts, Taiye Bello
Bell was maybe the second-best two-way player in the Big Ten, after Maryland’s Charles. The steal numbers don’t quite show it, but you can see it in Minnesota’s ability to create turnovers at one of the highest rates. She also averaged close to 20 points. Pitts is an elite scorer who had a great second half. Bello was at times the best rebounder in the conference, especially on the offensive end.
Northwestern Wildcats • 16-14 (9-9) • Last week: 7
Northwestern had to go against Michigan State in their first round game. Trailing big in the first half, a run gave them the lead in the third quarter. Then they let up a 24-4 run. That’s what happens when your two best guards combine for 2-26 shooting.
The lone bright spot in the game was Abbie Wolf scoring 15 points in just 16 minutes. Her development this year has been huge as she prepares to take over a starting role next season.
A what-could-have-been season marked by nagging injuries, missed opportunities, and a tough draw last week comes to an unhappy conclusion for the Wildcats.
After the game, Joe McKeown stressed the injury factor and the fact that Northwestern gets two weeks off to heal before the WNIT. That would be the program’s first postseason appearance in four years, having turned down a WNIT bid two years ago.
MVP: Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah
Northwestern was the rare team where all five starters made a huge impact and could have been considered for conference honors. Kunaiyi-Akpanah was the best of the bunch, as an elite defender who could also score when the time was right. She also very nearly dunked. The rest of the team combined to be arguably the best defense in the Big Ten. Hamilton and Burton were key in that as two of the best defending guards in the conference. Scheid has an incredible ability to stretch the floor having seemingly found her shot from deep. And Pulliam has a true scorer’s ability to find her shot.
So close! Wish she would have tried again.
Indiana Hoosiers • 20-12 (8-10) • Last week: 10
Indiana finished the season playing their best basketball, which is great for a team with just two seniors. They’re likely headed to the NCAA tournament as a low seed.
Like everyone else, though, they had no answer for Iowa. Though Patberg had a great night with 25 points, Gustafson was even better.
MVP: Ali Patberg
It was very unclear what Indiana would have this year with transfers Patberg and Wise, but it looks like they hit gold with both. Patberg, especially, looked like one of the best players the last few weeks. Both are lights-out shooters that can do more than just shoot. Added to some holdovers from last year, Indiana was set up well to improve.
Ohio State Buckeyes • 14-14 (10-8) • Last week: 8
Ohio State ran into the Wisconsin train. You’re just not going to beat a team that shoots 11-17 on 3s. Juhasz’s 10 points and 16 rebounds couldn’t come close to matching.
At 14-14, Ohio State is eligible for the WNIT. Given a strong finish, they’re likely to be selected and are a strong threat.
MVP: Dorka Juhasz
Ohio State’s best players down the stretch were not the litany of grad transfers but the freshmen. As a big that can shoot, even if not at a huge efficiency, Juhasz is a major weapon. Crooms finished the season with a 47.5 percent 3-point rate.
Nebraska Cornhuskers • 14-16 (9-9) • Last week: 9
Nebraska couldn’t get the win they needed, instead getting dispatched in the first round by Purdue. Taylor Kissinger hit five 3-pointers to keep the game close, but they couldn’t get the shot in the end.
MVP: Hannah Whitish
Honorable Mention: Kate Cain, Taylor Kissinger, Nicea Eliely
Nebraska couldn’t seem to play up to their talent level, when the reverse was true last year. Whitish seems to have regressed ever so slightly, but she’s still the team leader. She had some games that showed glimpses of greatness, and hopefully there will be more of those next year. Kissinger shot a crazy 46 percent on 3-pointers. Nebraska had good starters and a great bench but just couldn’t quite translate that to wins.
Purdue Boilermakers • 19-16 (8-10) • Last week: 11
Purdue looked poised to make a run, but their shallow bench hurt them with the starters forced to play way too many minutes.
Then they had the upset over Nebraska, with Dominique Oden scoring 20 points.
But they fell apart in the second half against Rutgers. The usage seemed to be way too much in their third game. Oden and McLaughlin combined for just 5-24 shooting, and nobody else was much better.
With some rest, Purdue could be a threat for the WNIT. At the same time, given how the season ended – exhausted and dejected – I wouldn’t blame them for staying home instead.
MVP: Ae’Rianna Harris
Honorable Mention: Karissa McLaughlin, Dominique Oden
Purdue has such a talented core, which showed in the first half of the season. You have to think if they could have played fewer minutes the team would have been even better down the stretch. Having a two-time defensive player of the year is special. All three of these players will be back next year for hopefully a better result.
Wisconsin Badgers • 15-18 (4-14) • Last week: 13
The Badgers were the early story of the week on their Cinderella run as the first No. 13 seed to even win a single game, let alone two and very nearly three.
They nearly reached the semifinals, too, as the half-court heave from Karlis came surprisingly close. They likely would have beaten Michigan if not for poor free-throw shooting. You just knew that would come back to bite them.
Karlis joked that it was tough playing three games in three days, “especially being so old.” She’s 23, if you were wondering.
The season comes to an end for Wisconsin with improvement from last year but still a long way to go.
MVP: Marsha Howard
Honorable Mention: Kelly Karlis, Imani Lewis
Howard did a remarkable job stepping up this year as the leading scorer and rebounder despite her size disadvantage. Karlis had some huge moments in her only season with the program, but Lewis looks to be the leader going forward.
Penn State Nittany Lions • 12-18 (5-13) • Last week: 12
Coquese Washington is out as head coach after over a decade. Her team was bounced in the first round of the tournament by Wisconsin. They maybe didn’t play all that poorly, but the shooting was woeful, and the offense has been pitiful all year. No starter scored more than nine points.
MVP: Teniya Page
Honorable Mention: N/A
Page was far from perfect this year. But she did all she could. Nobody on the team gave her any consistent support at all. Some of that was injuries, but Page too was hurt this year. A game here and there from a Kamaria McDaniel was not nearly enough to get the program off the ground.
Illinois Fighting Illini • 10-20 (2-16) • Last week: 14
Illinois was out of the Big Ten tournament by the time most teams arrived. Alex Wittinger shot just 3-12 in their only game, though she did have four blocks. Beasley led with 20 points.
Illinois can take solace in this season’s improvement, even if it doesn’t feel like much.
MVP: Alex Wittinger
Honorable Mention: Brandi Beasley
Wittinger was a great two-way player who ranked as one of the conference’s best shot blockers. She will be missed. Beasley’s shooting improved marginally, but her passing was much better, making her a playable point guard in this conference.