Strangers in a strange land
Welcome to Terra incognita. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it's Latin and it means unknown land. Many acres of unknown territory lie in front of Maryland as the team embarks on its first excursion through the Big Ten Women's Basketball Tournament.
First, the venue. It is the pretentiously named Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Ill. (It couldn't be Center?) Though it is 25 miles from the City of the Big Shoulders, Hoffman Estates is still part of what the residents call Chicagoland. The arena can be configured in many ways and for basketball has a capacity of 10,000. The Terps have never played there.
Second, the opponents. Yes, the Terrapins faced every Big Ten team at least once during the regular season, but Maryland is the impertinent newcomer. The outsider who, rather than ingratiating itself with its new neighbors, tore down the lovely Cape Cod home and put up an 18-0 McMansion of a regular season. The Terps are deluding themselves if they believe the fans and the other 13 teams aren't looking at this three-game stretch as a chance to tag Maryland's shell with territorial graffiti.
Third, the seeding. Even casual fans will be somewhat familiar with the success Maryland has had under head coach Brenda Frese. Last year's trip to the Final Four. The 2006 National Championship. Ten (soon to be 11) NCAA appearances in her 13 years at the helm. And her overall winning percentage of .764 (333-103) at Maryland.
Well, those fans might be surprised to learn that even with all that success, the 2015 Big Ten Tournament will be only the second time Frese has taken her Terrapins squad to a conference post season tournament as the top seed. The year was 2009 and Maryland tied for the regular season ACC Championship with Florida State but earned the top seed by virtue of a win in Tallahassee in the only meeting between the Terps and the Seminoles that season.
Just as they did in 2015, in 2009 the Terps played their final conference game on Sunday, March 1 and had a bye to the quarterfinals on Friday, March 6. Maryland showed some rust, but squeaked by Wake Forest 72-70 after trailing by 12 with less than 10 minutes to play. Saturday, Maryland and North Carolina played a memorable game that the Terps won, 95-84, ending a run of five straight tourney titles for the Tar Heels.
In the Sunday championship game, it was the Duke Blue Devils who rallied from a double-digit deficit to tie the score at 81-81 on a last second tip in and send the game to overtime. The Terps prevailed, 92-89, behind 28 points and 15 rebounds by Marissa Coleman to win the first of two ACC tournament titles under Frese.
Fourth, the seeding (again). This is the other cautionary note regarding seeding. The top seed in the Big Ten tournament has won the title only five times. So, while it's not unprecedented -- just as finishing a conference season is not without precedent -- it is, like that feat, rare.
Fifth, the undefeated conference season. Speaking of events rare but not unprecedented, we can look again at Maryland's initial traverse of the Big Ten that culminated in an undefeated regular season. A similar situation occurred just last year when Notre Dame abandoned its Big East affiliation to join the ACC. The women's basketball team finished 16-0 in the regular season and entered the ACC tournament as the top seed with a double bye. They cruised to double-digit victories over Florida State, NC State and Duke to claim the tournament crown as well.
How to watch the games
Except for the championship game, all tournament games will be carried by BTN or BTPlus. Only Wednesday night's two opening round games will be restricted to internet streaming. Thursday, Friday and Saturday's games will be available on both the BTN Network and the BTN2Go stream. ESPN will carry Sunday's championship game.
Here's the full schedule and links through the Saturday semifinals:
It's a really B1G Tournament - Day 1
The Big Ten is a 14-team conference and everyone gets invited to this party, but for the teams we can call the "little four," it shapes up as more of a marathon than a mere dance. You can see the full bracket here.
The teams that finished 11th through 14th begin play Wednesday afternoon. Those teams would be #12 Indiana versus #13 Penn State and #11 Wisconsin against #14 Purdue. The impact on Maryland is probably nil. The winner of the first game would have to win three games in three days to face the Terps in a potential semfinal game. Maryland wouldn't have to play Wisconsin or Purdue until the final, should one of those squads win four games in four days.
It's a really B1G Tournament - Day 2
Day 2 will feature four games but the top four seeded belles of the ball will have yet to make their first appearance. It's the day's first game that will be of most interest to Maryland fans. That contest pairs the eighth-seeded Michigan Wolverines with the ninth-seeded Michigan State Spartans. More on that in a moment.
Only one other matchup is set for Thursday and that is the day's third game between the seventh seed, Nebraska (20-9, 10-8) and 10th-seeded Illinois (15-15, 6-12). In the second game, number five Rutgers (21-8, 12-6) will face the winner of the Indiana-Penn State game. This game could carry some interest for Terps supporters as it is on Maryland's side of the bracket. The final game of the day pairs the sixth seed, the Minnesota Golden Gophers (22-8, 11-7), with the winner of Wednesday's second game.
A closer look at Maryland's quarterfinal opponents
Eighth-seeded Michigan enters the tournament 16-13 overall and 8-10 in conference play. The Wolverines are ranked 52nd in RPI and recovered to finish 2-2 in their last four games after losing three straight to Rutgers, at Ohio State and against Northwestern. They feature one of the best players in the conference, 6'3" senior forward Cyesha Goree who averaged a double-double for the season. They lost their one meeting with Maryland 91-65 in Ann Arbor at the end of January.
Michigan State is a hot team coming into the tournament, winners of three straight and four of their last five. Their only loss in that span was a 75-69 decision to Maryland. The Spartans are 82nd in RPI and bring a 15-14 record into Thursday's game. They finished 7-11 in the Big Ten. Coach Suzy Merchant's squad has been devastated by injuries this season and currently has only eight active players -- one of whom (in a situation familiar to Maryland fans) is a walk on from the volleyball squad. In addition to handing them a home loss, the Terps routed the Spartans 85-56 in College Park. The Spartans also have a double-double machine in sophomore Aerial Powers.
It's a really B1G Tournament - Day 3
Dancing with the Stars
The tournament's first two days featured the sort of 'B' list celebrities that fans of a particular team may know well but who others react with an indifferent shrug to seeing them on the floor. But Friday, the top four seeds -- Northwestern, Ohio State, Iowa and Maryland -- arrive.
The Terrapins will take the floor first with their game against the winner of Thursday's game between Michigan and Michigan State, scheduled for an 11:30 a.m. CT (12:30 p.m. ET) tip off. Northwestern will play in the afternoon's second game, facing the winner from the Rutgers game. The evening session opens with number two Iowa facing the winner of Nebraska-Illinois contest at 6:00 p.m. CT (7:00 p.m. ET). The last game of the day will be third-seeded Ohio State against the winner of the game in which Minnesota made their first appearance.
It's a really B1G Tournament - Days 4 & 5
The Semifinals and Championship Sunday
The Big Ten tournament semifinals get underway at 6:00 p.m. CT (7:00 p.m. ET) on Saturday, March 7. If the seeding holds, Game 1 will feature a rematch between Maryland and Northwestern who faced one another in the regular season's final game. The nightcap will pit Ohio State against Iowa -- a game I very much look forward to seeing. Of course, the seeding doesn't always hold.
Sunday's final will also be played in the evening once again, beginning at 6:00 p.m. CT (7:00 p.m. ET). A game between Maryland and either of the top seeds in the bottom half of the bracket should be one of the most entertaining of the weekend.
Iowa has been among the most consistent teams in the B1G all season and are No. 7 in RPI. After dropping a 93-88 thriller at Maryland, the Hawkeyes won four straight before hitting a bit of a rough patch losing back-to-back road games at Minnesota and Ohio State. They righted the ship and won their last two to finish 14-4 in the conference and 23-6 overall and feature three of the conference's best players in seniors Melissa Dixon, Bethany Doolittle and Samantha Logic.
Ohio State may be the most improved team in the league since they lost 87-78 in the conference season opener at Maryland. Though they are only 54th in RPI, the Buckeyes (21-9, 13-5) have won 10 of their last 12 games and four in a row entering the tournament. They have been running their opponents out of the gym in the four-game stretch, winning three games by 18 points and blowing up the Boilermakers by 32 while averaging 89.5 points per game. The Buckeyes roster includes B1G Freshman of the Year and the coaches choice for Player of the Year -- Kelsey Mitchell. Mitchell is the conference's leading scorer and her back court mate Ameryst Alston is third in the league in scoring.
These three squads are the three highest scoring teams in the Big Ten. Maryland is the overall leader at 80.9 points per game followed by OSU at 80.5 and Iowa at 79.8. In conference play, the Buckeyes are the most potent offensive squad tallying 80.4 per game. The Terps follow with 78.6 and the Hawkeyes are again third at 78.4. These are also the only three teams to average offensive efficiency greater than one point per possession.
Lace 'em up and tip it off. It should be a fun weekend.