On the one hand, conference tournaments normally are looked at as competitions for NCAA berths as much as for the bragging rights to the conference title itself. While NCAA seedings will likely be affected by this weekend’s action, barring a surprise champion, the Big Ten tournament will probably have little effect on the total number of bids the league gets to the main event. Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue and Michigan State should all be locks for the tournament. Minnesota and Indiana are both on the bubble. Minnesota likely needs one win and Indiana two to be invited to the Big Dance and neither is likely to accomplish that.
On the other hand, while the NCAA National Tournament consequences of this conference shoot-out may be negligible, to the tournament, this should be a weekend of highly competitive basketball. The five-game gap between sixth and seventh place would normally indicate a huge gap between the top of the league and the second tier, but the first six teams all have major flaws and four of the bottom five have steadily improved throughout the season. The tired cliché, “on any given day any given team can beat anyone else” is actually close to true for this conference this season.
On Thursday, the bottom six teams will match up to determine who gets to join the top five in the quarterfinals. Two of the three games look to be competitive and interesting.
The tournament opens with seventh-seeded Wisconsin playing tenth-seeded Northwestern. The higher-seeded Badgers are good defensively but equally weak offensively and are one of the league’s worst rebounding teams. They have also shown that they are unable to hold a lead late in the game.
Statistically, Northwestern is weak all around, but the Wildcats have been playing better and better. They defeated Minnesota and were competitive against Iowa late in the season. Northwestern has a huge edge in coaching and beat Wisconsin earlier in the season. This game is essentially a toss-up and will go to the team whose offense is best able to solve the other’s defense.
Editor’s Note: After this story was submitted but before it could be posted, the two teams played, with Wisconsin taking a 60-51 victory to move on to face Michigan State in the first of tomorrow’s quarterfinals.
The second game pits the sixth seed, Indiana, against the eleventh-seeded Michigan squad. Indiana stood alone in first place in the league earlier in the season, before falling into a team-wide shooting slump. Now, they are barely hanging onto the NCAA bubble. This is an absolute must game for them.
Michigan, on the other hand, easily qualifies as the most disappointing team in the Big Ten. After a strong first season, coach Kevin Borseth not only was unable to continue the progress but took a definite step backwards. The Wolverines shoot more threes than any team in the league, but they are near the bottom of virtually every other major statistical category.
Despite their recent troubles, Indiana is a well-balanced offensive team that plays good defense. Their balanced offense is both their strength and their weakness. When the team is shooting well, they make it difficult for opponents to defend them. But when they have trouble hitting shots, there is no go-to player who can put the team on her shoulders. Indiana should move on.
The other first round game pits Number Eight Penn State against Number Nine Illinois. Despite the teams’ low seedings, this game will feature two of the league’s best players. Penn State guard Tyra Grant has developed into a consistent force on both ends of the court, and Illinois center Jennah Smith can dominate a game inside.
The game features two teams whose strengths and weaknesses will match up. Illinois has become a strong defensive team and Penn State is a good offensive team. On the other hand, Illinois has the weakest offense in the Big Ten and Penn State does not play good defense. Penn State won the two regular season match-ups with Illinois and they will find out if it’s true that it’s very difficult to defeat a team three times in a season.
On the second day, the top five teams join the party as the tournament moves into the quarterfinal rounds.
|#2|| || v.|| #7|| |
The day opens with number two-seed, Michigan State, playing the seventh-seeded Wisconsin, the winner of the tournament’s opening Wisconsin v. Northwestern face-off. While on paper this does not seem like it should be much of a contest, Michigan State has been one of the most inconsistent teams in the league. What is troubling is that the inconsistency is in effort. The Spartans depend on 6-9 Alyssa DeHaan, and she does not always seem to be in the mood to play hard. The team reflects her output and attitude. Michigan State is the league’s best defensive team and, if the effort is there, they should have no problem moving on.
|#3|| || v.>||WINNER:
The second quarterfinal pits Number Three Purdue against the winner of the Indiana-Michigan game. The Boilermakers have done better in this tournament than anyone and they appear poised to make a run again. Most importantly, they are reasonably healthy. Purdue is a well-balanced team whose only real weakness has been inconsistency. If Indiana gets through the first round the game will feature the two best-balanced teams in the league. Purdue should win if they play near their potential, but Indiana is a traditional rival that is playing to keep their post-season NCAA hopes alive.
|#1|| || v.>||WINNER:
|OHIO STATE|| |
|#8 PENN STATE/|
In the third quarterfinal game, Ohio State should have little problem with either Penn State or Illinois. The Buckeyes were clearly the best team in the conference during the season, although they were not always dominant. Despite winning their fifth straight regular season championship, Ohio State is a young team and their youth shows at times. Coach Jim Foster is depending on point guard Samantha Prahalis to steady his team. Prahalis is truly a special player, but she is still only a freshman and that shows at times. Nonethless, Ohio State has the league’s best player in Jantel Lavender and she makes them the favorite.
|#4|| || v.||#5|| |
The last of the quarterfinals has the Number Four seed, Iowa, facing Number Five Minnesota. Iowa is a veteran team that is flying under the radar. They have consistently improved through the year and are the league’s hottest team going into the tournament. What the Hawkeyes do best is to execute the game’s most basic skill: They shoot the ball exceptionally well. Iowa is improving on the boards and defensively, and they recently beat Ohio State convincingly.
Minnesota is the team’s most enigmatic team. In their last three games, they beat Michigan State but lost to Illinois and Northwestern. Minnesota coach Pam Borton keeps insisting that her team revolves around its defense, but the Gophers rank tenth in the league in field-goal defense. They also rank tenth in offensive field-goal percentage.
These two teams split their regular season games, but their seasons seem to have subsequently gone in different directions. Minnesota, which once seemed likely to receive an NCAA bid, probably has to win this game to put themselves back in the tournament. That is not something they are likely to do.
The top four seeds in the tournament are Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue and Iowa. They seem likely to advance to the semi-finals, but it also seems clear that there will be upsets along the way in what should be a very exciting weekend. Stay tuned for an update after the quarterfinals.