It feels like just yesterday that Maryland women’s basketball kicked off its season against Coppin State, but that was four months ago. Now, the Terrapins are the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament after winning the outright league title on Saturday.
While they’ll have to wait until Friday to kick off their postseason play, the rest of the conference won’t. On Wednesday, the first two games of the conference tournament will tip off, and the craziness that is March will officially get underway. Let’s take a look at all the aspects of this week’s festivities in Indianapolis.
The 2019 Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament bracket. #B1GTourney pic.twitter.com/REUs0HPrNO— Big Ten Women's Hoops (@B1Gwbball) March 3, 2019
The favorites: Maryland, Iowa
Maryland is probably the best team in the conference, and that’s why it won the regular-season title. There were ups and downs, sure, but you don’t win 15 league games by accident. And while Kaila Charles is the star, the Terrapins have been more of an ensemble act all year long.
Iowa, on the other hand, is benefited by having not only the best player in the Big Ten, but one of the best players in the entire nation. Megan Gustafson is a force, and the senior center can single-handedly win games on her own (which she’s done numerous times this season).
The contenders: Rutgers, Michigan
Rutgers started the conference season strong, most notably beating then-No. 4 Maryland on New Year’s Eve. But the Scarlet Knights ceded ground in the standings as the year wore on, and a No. 3 seed places them just below the top tier in the tournament. However, with C. Vivian Stringer at the helm (following an absence due to health concerns), anything is possible.
Michigan was stuck in the logjam in the middle of the conference standings in the first half of Big Ten play, but the Wolverines rattled off eight wins in nine tries to close the regular season, including seven consecutive victories from Feb. 1 (over Iowa) to Feb. 21 (over Rutgers). Now, they’ll have the luxury of a double-bye to kick off the postseason.
The wild cards: Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan State
Minnesota may have received a No. 7 seed in the Big Ten tournament, but it is likely much better than that would indicate. The Gophers followed up their impressive undefeated non-conference schedule with a mediocre 9-9 conference mark. Their issue has been inconsistency—they’ve had losing streaks of four and three games to offset a late five-game winning streak.
Ohio State lost a lot from last year’s team, but led by Dorka Juhasz, it was able to surprise many with a 10-8 conference record and a No. 5 seed. Despite not having a single player named to the All-Big Ten first or second teams by the conference media, the Buckeyes have succeeded and won four straight games before a season-finale loss to Rutgers, whom they defeated two weeks prior.
Michigan State has been a confusing team this season. It racked up three top-20 wins—No. 9 Maryland, No. 16 Iowa and No. 18 Minnesota—to kick off conference play, and the Spartans are one of just three teams to beat Oregon this year. But they tailed off to end the regular season, losing four of their last six to drop from a top-four seed down to No. 9.
The longshots: Nebraska, Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue
Nebraska had a terrible non-conference performance, finishing 5-6 with a number of bad losses. But the Cornhuskers scratched and clawed their way to a 9-9 conference record, which earned them a No. 6 seed. Hannah Whitish has been very productive thus far, but she’s the only player on the team to be recognized whatsoever by the Big Ten, receiving dual honorable mention accolades.
Northwestern is the fourth and final team to finish with a 9-9 record in Big Ten play. It seemed as though the duo of Lindsey Pulliam and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah would take the Wildcats to great heights, and winning six of their first nine league games certainly helped their image. They faded down the stretch to finish with the No. 8 seed in the tournament, but having two First Team All-Big Ten players makes the Wildcats a tough out.
Indiana started the season hot, winning 12 of 13 games in nonconference play and joining the AP top 25 and getting the notice of many. But conference play proved to be a different animal entirely, and the Hoosiers finished with a losing record against their Big Ten foes. That could have been avoided, but a stretch of eight losses in 10 tries resigned them to a No. 10 seed. However, a late-season win over Iowa does show some potential.
Purdue is not a bad team, despite what a 2-8 record to end the season might indicate. The Boilermakers are led by a dynamic trio—Karissa McLaughlin, Ae’Rianna Harris and Dominique Oden—who can and regularly do take over games, but the supporting cast has unfortunately been lacking.
The rest: Penn State, Wisconsin, Illinois
These three teams are at the bottom of the conference for a reason, and there’s not much to say about any of them. The trio combined for an abysmal 11-33 conference record, and the only reason any of them will win a game is because the opening-round matchup between Penn State and Wisconsin literally must have a winner to advance to the second round against Ohio State.
The NCAA Tournament outlook
Locks: Maryland, Iowa, Rutgers, Michigan, Michigan State
These five will be in no matter what, though the first two and last three are in very different positions. Maryland and Iowa, regardless of winning the Big Ten Tournament, will be either a No. 2 or a No. 3 seed. Rutgers, Michigan and Michigan State, on the other hand, are solid at-large teams and will likely receive a Nos. 7-11 seed, with a strong/weak performance in the tournament dictating where they finish.
Need some help: Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State
All three of these teams have shown promise at times and have put together somewhat impressive resumes, but they haven’t been able to stay consistent and gather enough signature wins to ensure NCAA Tournament berths. Fortunately for the trio, they’ll have a chance to get a big win (or more) to impress the committee and make the case for an at-large spot.
Run the table or miss it: Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue, Penn State, Wisconsin, Illinois
It’s a tough thing to say for all of these teams, but they simply didn’t do enough to even warrant recognition for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. But the beauty of the system is that all it takes to qualify is winning your conference tournament. That’s easier said than done, but stringing along a few wins this week will earn a trip to the big dance.
I do think Maryland is the best team in this field, despite Iowa’s win over the Terrapins on Feb. 17. For starters, the Hawkeyes won’t have the benefit of a home-court advantage if the teams are to meet in the tournament championship in Indianapolis. And while Megan Gustafson single-handedly led her team to victory the first time around, Brenda Frese will not allow that to happen again.
We’ve watched a full 18-game conference season slate to get all the information we can on these teams, but the reality is, anything—and everything—will happen to make our most strongly-held beliefs seem foolish when it’s all said and done. After all, This is March (please don’t sue me, Jon Rothstein).
The first game of the Big Ten tournament will be played between Penn State and Wisconsin at 1:30 p.m. ET on the Big Ten Network. All games will be played on BTN and the BTN2Go app, save for the championship game, which will be televised on ESPN2 on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET. The full schedule of games, as well as all tournament information, can be found here.