March 1, 2023
Big Ten Tournament: Five things to watch
From Indiana to Northwestern, everyone has something to play for
The Big Ten could produce as many as seven teams for the 2023 NCAA tournament. But before that, the conference tournament provides opportunities for some of those teams to improve their resumes, while for some of the bottom-tier programs, there’s a chance to pull off upset wins that could create momentum for next season.
Here are five things to pay attention to in Minneapolis:
1. Which Iowa team shows up?
Compared to the last few seasons, Lisa Bluder’s Hawkeyes have played stronger defense, making them slightly less susceptible to upset losses. However, Iowa’s 96-68 setback against Maryland last Tuesday begs the question: Which Hawkeye team will show up in Minneapolis? The one that allowed 96 to Maryland and lost by 28 or the one that just beat the No. 2 team in the country?
In order to defend its Big Ten tournament title, Iowa would potentially have to beat Maryland in the semifinals before a possible rematch with the Hoosiers in the championship game.
The big key to watch with the Hawkeyes are the contributions outside of Clark and Monika Czinano. In Sunday’s win over Indiana, for example, Clark and Czinano combined for 47 points, but Kate Martin added 19 and McKenna Warnock and Gabbie Marshall each had eight. When the supporting cast shoots a combined 12-for-21 (57%) like that trio did, watch out.
2. How does Indiana bounce back from buzzer-beating loss to Iowa?
Before Clark drained one of the most dramatic shots we’ve seen in women’s college basketball this season to defeat the Hoosiers, Indiana’s only loss this season came without Grace Berger in a late-December matchup at Michigan State.
Even though the Hoosiers already had the Big Ten regular season title locked up heading into Sunday’s game, Teri Moren’s team wanted to prove itself once again in one of the most difficult road environments in college sports. Indiana by no means played poorly, battling back from an early 13-2 hole to trail by just one at halftime. Still, it showed the Hoosiers can be beaten.
Yarden Garzon and Sara Scalia combined to shoot just 2-of-10 from 3-point land on a team that’s come to rely on stretching the floor to vault into the top-2 this season. Also, the 86 points allowed were the most the Hoosiers have given up in a game all season. Indiana’s held opponents to 39% shooting from the field this year; Iowa shot nearly 52% in that regular season finale.
Maybe this is all nit-picky. After all, if Clark didn’t knock down that shot this would probably be less of a discussion. But Moren has incredibly high aspirations for this year’s team; not reaching the Final Four would likely be a disappointment, so the margin for error is thin. These next few games in Minnesota will give them an opportunity to try to iron out any kinks, especially those that arose on defense on Sunday, before they dance.
3. Can Michigan or Ohio State pick up a top-tier win?
The Wolverines and Buckeyes clearly sit in the second-tier of Big Ten teams: locks to make the tournament but not quite overwhelming forces.
When these two teams met for the first time on Dec. 31, they were a combined 26-1 (Ohio State 14-0; Michigan 12-1); since then, they’ve combined to an 18-15 record. A big reason? Both struggled against the top of the conference.
Ohio State played five games against the top three teams (Indiana, Iowa, Maryland) and lost all five by an average margin of 17.2 points; Michigan had four matchups against those three teams and was also winless, losing by nearly 11 points per game.
Both teams seemingly lack the offensive firepower to win shootouts against the top of the league, but one of them might be able to change that and build some momentum headed into the NCAA tournament.
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4. Will Illinois and Purdue lock in strong NCAA tournament seeding?
Between the two, Illinois sits more comfortably in terms of likelihood of heading to the tournament. At 21-8 (11-7 Big Ten), the Illini picked up an upset win over Iowa and generally avoided any catastrophic losses, perhaps aside from a 33-point home loss to a pesky Nebraska team. First-year Illinois coach Shauna Green played Indiana more competitively than most (lost by four and 11 in the two matchups) and rebuilt the culture in a program that would never have dreamt of even being in consideration for the NCAA tournament this time last year.
Meanwhile, Purdue could’ve entered Big Ten tournament play feeling better about itself if not for a brutal loss at Minnesota, the third-worst team in the conference. The Boilermakers’ banner week came in late January when they beat No. 22 Illinois and No. 2 Ohio State, both on the road, strongly boosting the NCAA tournament resume.
For both the Illini and Boilermakers, another win against a top-five conference opponent could lock them into tournament spots and for Illinois, a better seed line. The Illini first play the winner of Northwestern-Rutgers and would then face Maryland; Purdue plays Wisconsin and then stares down a matchup with Iowa. Illinois is probably already in the field, but another win would erase any doubts; one win for Purdue keeps its tournament hopes murky.
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5. Can one of the double-digit seeds use the tournament to build momentum for next year?
Each of the bottom five teams in the Big Ten are at different stages: No. 14 Northwestern had a worse-than-expected season but has also lost a good deal of talent over the last two seasons; Nos. 13 and 12 Penn State and Minnesota appear to be stuck in tough spots, with head coaches who have been with their programs for at least four seasons; No. 11 Rutgers has first-year head coach Coquese Washington, while No. 10 Wisconsin is in year two under Marisa Moseley.
Of those five, the Badgers are certainly a team that could pull off an upset. They closed the regular season beating No. 12 Michigan and winning four of their last five games. Wisconsin could use the next few days to continue to catapult into the 2023-24 season feeling confident in the direction of the program.
Northwestern also shouldn’t be overlooked. If the Wildcats can sneak by Rutgers (the Scarlet Knights won the only regular season matchup 62-48), they could give Illinois some trouble. The Illini narrowly beat Northwestern twice in the regular season, by six and by three. As coaches always say, it’s hard to beat a team three times in a season.
Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel
Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.