March 9, 2021 

Four storylines to watch at the 2021 Big Ten Tournament

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Maryland vengeance tour, Naz Hillmon's rise and more

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The Big Ten’s Women’s Basketball Tournament is finally here. Kicking off Tuesday with Wisconsin and Illinois, the B1G Tournament features yet another competitive midfield with plenty of noise to be made from the middle of the pack.

Maryland grabbed the No. 1 seed and a double-round bye, with Indiana, Michigan and Rutgers also getting a rest until Thursday. Northwestern gets the winner of Tuesday’s game, and the rest of Wednesday’s slate has a lot of even matchups.

Here are four storylines to keep an eye on this week.

Maryland is out for blood

One of the great Big Ten traditions continued on Saturday when No. 8 Maryland hoisted its sixth regular season title in seven years, its fourth outright title since it joined the conference in 2014. In a year where the Big Ten was as competitive as ever, Maryland was the exception to the rule.

The Terps finished the regular season 21-2, with both losses coming against ranked teams, and went 17-1 in conference play. Since their two-point loss to then-No. 17 Ohio State, Maryland has beaten ten different B1G teams by an average of 28.6 points. Northwestern played Maryland the closest in that stretch and still lost by 12.

Sophomore guard Ashley Owusu is the head of that attack. One of the five finalists for the Ann Myers Drysdale award, given to the best shooting guard in Division I basketball, Owusu is averaging 19.4 points, 6.2 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals while shooting 49.3% from the floor. Fellow sophomore guard Diamond Miller isn’t far behind in scoring at 17.5 points per game.

The Terrapins also recently welcomed back five-star freshman Angel Reese after the 6-foot-3 forward suffered a broken foot in early December. Reese has averaged 9.2 points and 5.2 rebounds in five games since her return.

Maryland will face either Minnesota or Nebraska this Thursday. Head coach Brenda Frese and company won’t be looking past their B1G Tournament competition, but ultimately their sights are set on something bigger.

Rolling through the conference tournament would be a good sign of things to come, and would keep them alive as a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Next’s very own Russell Steinberg had Maryland as a No. 2 seed last Wednesday, but AP No. 2 Texas A&M lost in the SEC Tournament semis Saturday which leaves a little room for chaos. 

Even if the Terps are mostly playing for conference pride and momentum, don’t expect them to let up off the gas pedal. They certainly haven’t so far this season.

Can Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano propel the underdog Hawkeyes to victory?

The Iowa Hawkeyes were not ranked in the AP Top 25 at any point this year, coming off an offseason that saw the program lose the 2019-20 Big Ten Player of the Year in Kathleen Doyle. They enter the tournament as the No. 6 seed after finishing 11-8 in conference play and 15-8 overall. Despite their middle-of-the-pack finish in the conference standings, the Hawkeyes have two unique weapons that position them as a prime dark horse candidate to make a deep run in the tournament: Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano.

Clark is a freshman phenom who’s exploded onto the college basketball landscape during her first season in Iowa City. A six-foot point guard, her offensive skill set is versatile and pro-ready. She led the country in scoring (27.4 points per game), ranked fourth in assists (6.9 per game) and also pulled down six rebounds per contest.

Clark also shoots the ball with remarkable efficiency regardless of where she is on the court, as she converted on 48% of her attempts from the field and 42% from three point range.

Czinano, a junior, is more of a traditional post player that rarely ventures outside of the paint. She finished the regular season leading the country in field goal percentage, converting on 65.7% of her attempts. Czinano’s game has seamlessly operated in tandem with Clark’s, similar to how she meshed with Doyle’s outside prowess a season ago.  

Iowa’s power duo has already proved that it can perform against the conference’s best — Clark poured in a season-high nine three pointers in a loss to top-seed Maryland on February 23, while Czinano went 8-for-8 from the field in the setback. 

Now that the postseason has arrived, Iowa will rely on two of women’s college basketball’s best to create some more magic on the Big Ten’s biggest stage. 

Naz Hillmon looks to bring Michigan over the top

The Wolverines took a significant step forward as a program during the 2017-18 season, when they reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012-13. While Michigan comfortably defeated its lower-seeded first round opponents that year as well as in 2018-19, they struggled on both occasions with higher quality opponents in the second round.

A similar fate has befallen the Wolverines in the Big Ten Tournament — they’ve reached the semifinals the past two seasons but fell short to Maryland in 2019 and Ohio State in 2020. Will this be the year that Michigan (14-4, 9-4) breaks through and reaches a postseason pinnacle? 

The fourth-seeded Wolverines start and stop with Naz Hillmon, the program’s best player to don the maize and blue since Katelynn Flaherty departed in 2018. Hillmon finished second in the Big Ten in scoring and fourth in the country at 25.1 points per game, and led the conference in rebounding at 11.1 per game. 

Hillmon’s game isn’t particularly flashy — she accumulates the bulk of her points through tough-angle finishes in the paint and second-chance opportunities — but she’s established herself as a legitimate candidate for conference player of the year. The junior forward exploded for 50 points in a loss to Ohio State on January 21, the most scored by a player in a Big Ten women’s basketball game since 2016.

Besides Hillmon, the Wolverines’ secret weapon may come in the form of Leigha Brown, a Nebraska transfer who exceeded expectations during her first season in Ann Arbor. Brown finished second on the team at 17.4 points per game, and her outside shooting ability is a welcomed asset when opponents threw double teams at Hillmon down low. 

If Michigan is set on making a deep tournament run, they’ll need Hillmon and Brown to be on the top of their games this March.

Can Indiana make more program history?

Indiana entered the AP Top 10 for the first time in program history last Monday, and secured the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament after adding two more wins against Iowa and Purdue.

Indiana came close to sharing the B1G regular season title with Maryland this year, with the Terps securing the title outright in their last game of the season. IU has won the Big Ten tournament just once in program history back in 2001, and the Hoosiers will look to avenge their 82-65 loss to Maryland in the tournament last year. 

The Hoosiers are currently projected as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament by The Next’s Steinberg and the NCAA’s own Top 16 reveal from February 28. The landscape has changed a bit since then, but Indiana has kept on winning.

Last year’s squad looked poised to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament before the tourney was cancelled. Senior Ali Patberg and junior Grace Berger led the way last season and will be integral to a run this year as well. 

Patberg is a three-year starter who led the team in scoring last season and is averaging 14.0 points, 3.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds this year. Berger is averaging career highs with 15.1 points, 5.0 assists and 6.6 rebounds, and has three triple-doubles to her name this year.

But the biggest change this season has been the emergence of sophomore post Mackenzie Holmes as a star for IU. Holmes made the Big Ten All-Freshman team last season after averaging 10.8 points in 19 minutes of playtime, but has taken a leap this year averaging 18.2 points, 7.7 boards, 1.0 steals and 2.9 blocks.

The Hoosiers will lean on their Big Three in order to challenge for the B1G Tournament title, and they’ll need a string of complete performances to get to Sunday’s title game.

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