On Sunday the Ohio State women’s basketball team wrapped up the Big Ten season with a win over rival Michigan and now the Buckeyes turn their sights to the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament. After years of taking place in Indianapolis, this year the tournament moves to the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. This is only the second time the tournament has been played outside of Indianapolis, the first ever women’s basketball tournament took place in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As part of a new deal signed by the Big Ten last year, the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will alternate between Chicago and Indy, the men’s tournament will be played at the United Center when the tournaments are in Chicago.
Personally I am not a fan of this plan as I felt that Indy was the perfect city for the basketball tournaments; the arena was nice and it was in easy walking distance of numerous bars and hotels which kept all the fans of various teams in a small area, improving the atmosphere. The men’s tournament has been in Chicago before and while there is nothing wrong with the United Center, it is far from the main part of the city and there isn’t much around it; this means that fans and teams are more spread out and you don’t get the fun atmosphere that Indy has. Having the women’s tournament in a suburb of Chicago will have many of the same issues as people will have to drive to hotels and most bars and restaurants, spreading out the fans and hurting the atmosphere of the weekend. I will give the event organizers this year some credit as they do seem to be trying to schedule more side events in order to improve the atmosphere, I guess we’ll have to wait and see how it goes.
The Big Ten tournament is always a fun time that produces a lot of exciting, emotional games. While the goal is obviously to win the tournament, many teams will also be trying to improve their resumes for the NCAA tournament in a last ditch attempt to make the field. After years of coming into the conference tournament knowing that they would be in the NCAA tournament, Ohio State comes into this year’s tournament needing to improve their resume with some wins. The Buckeyes earned the #9 seed and will take on #8 seed Minnesota at 7:00 pm on Thursday in a game that will be televised on BTN; this will be the first time that OSU will have to play on the first day of the tournament since 2002. A full tournament bracket can be found here.
This will be the third meeting of the year between Ohio State and Minnesota. The first meeting was January 10th in Minneapolis where the Golden Gophers used their dominance of the boards and OSU’s turnovers to overcome the Buckeyes shooting better than 50% from the field. In the return meeting a week and a half ago, the Buckeyes dug themselves a large hole thanks to atrocious first half shooting. The Buckeyes would shoot much better in the second half and stage a furious rally that saw them take a lead in the closing seconds only to lose as Minnesota hit a heart breaking last second shot.
Minnesota presents a tough matchup for Ohio State. The Golden Gophers are led by guard Rachel Banham who is the Big Ten’s leading scorer over the entire season, OSU’s Tayler Hill is the leading scorer during conference play; Banham scored 24 and 17 points in the two meetings between the teams this year. The Gophers also can score from the inside thanks to Micaella Riche, a 6 foot 2 junior who scored 20 and 17 points in the two games against the Buckeyes. The combination of Banham and Riche will be a challenge to stop but fortunately in their most recent meeting OSU did a good job of limiting the damage done by the rest of the Gopher squad.
Despite the heartbreaking nature of the second loss to Minnesota, there were several positives from that game. After being dominated on the boards in their first meeting, OSU essentially matched Minnesota in the rebound category. The Buckeyes also managed to cut down on their own turnovers while forcing more Golden Gopher turnovers. Most importantly though, after the awful shooting in the first half of the recent game against Minnesota which was the low point of a team-wide shooting slump, the Buckeyes rediscovered their shot in the second half and that improved shooting has not only carried through the three subsequent games, it has actually gotten better. For a team that was battling for its postseason life, that heartbreaking loss could easily have destroyed the team, instead it seems to have galvanized the Buckeyes and led to the kind of balanced, team-oriented basketball that was absent for most of the season and which will be needed in the Big Ten tournament and beyond.
Rest of the Tournament Field
Ohio State and Minnesota are not the only teams competing in the Big Ten tournament and the conference season has had enough upsets to suggest that we should see some exciting action in the tournament.
Top seeded Penn State finished the season with a 24-4 (14-2 in the Big Ten) record and is the clear tournament favorite. The Nittany Lions are ranked 7th in the country and boast talented roster led by star guards Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas. Bentley and Lucas may be the best guard tandem in the conference and they are made even more dangerous by the presence of center Nikki Greene down low who give the Nittany Lions perhaps the most balanced inside-outside attack in the conference. Penn State isn’t unbeatable though as both their losses have come to teams in the bottom half of the conference, Wisconsin and Minnesota. As the top seed, Penn State gets a first round bye and will take on the winner of Ohio State vs Minnesota on Friday.
Second seed Nebraska is ranked 20th in the nation and features an athletic attack led by forward Jordan Hooper and guard Lindsey Moore. The Cornhuskers have looked dominant for much of the Big Ten season and 3 of their 4 losses came against fellow ranked teams Penn State and Purdue. However, like the Nittany Lions, the Cornhuskers aren’t invulnerable as they lost to Illinois and received scares from Iowa, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. Nebraska will begin their tournament play on Friday against the winner of 7th seed Iowa and 10th seed Northwestern.
The one aspect of this year’s tournament being outside of Chicago is that 3rd seed Purdue finally has to play the tournament on a neutral court. Yes, Indy was ‘technically’ a neutral site but being only an hour from West Lafayette made it a de facto home game for the Boilermakers whose fans would take over the arena, much to my annoyance and displeasure. After years of going to the tournament in Indy I suspect that much of the reason for Purdue’s conference leading 8 tournament championships was due to the essentially home game nature of the tournament for them, I will be very curious to see how they do in Chicago. While the Boilermakers had a 10-6 record in the conference, they faded down the stretch, going 3-5 in their last 8 games which included a loss to Big Ten bottom feeder Indiana. Purdue will face the winner of 6th seed Illinois and 11th seed Wisconsin, two of the teams they managed to beat in that rough stretch at the end of the schedule.
Fourth seeded Michigan State boasts the definition of a team oriented offense; the leading MSU scorer averages 11.4 points per game and the Spartans have five different players who average at least 9 points per game. MSU is known for playing stingy defense and is good for one win in the tournament each year but that is normally about it. The lack of deep runs in the tournament has a lot to do with Coach Suzy Merchant who seems to think that she can save up timeouts to cash in for early retirement. Michigan State is the last team to earn a buy in the tournament and will open play against the winner of 5th seeded Michigan and 12th seeded Indiana.
Michigan is probably the dark horse of the tournament; the Wolverines had managed to climb into the national rankings earlier in the year before a rough stretch of three straight losses at the end of January knocked them out. Michigan lost three of their last four regular season games but is a threat thanks to senior Kate Thompson, a 6’ 4” guard who shoots 40% from three point range. Thompson’s size and shooting ability make her a nightmarish mismatch for opposing defense and if she goes off in a game the Wolverines can take out anyone in the conference. Michigan should have no problem taking out Indiana in the first game and then they’ll face rival Michigan State; in the two Michigan-MSU games this season the away team won each time making a neutral court game intriguing.
The only other teams playing on the first day that have much of a chance of making noise in the tournament are 6th seed Illinois and 11th seed Wisconsin. Illini forward Karisma Penn is the best athletic post player in the conference and she has a trio of guards that can score to help her out but Illinois has been plagued by foul trouble all season and they rapidly lose production when forced to go to the bench. It seems strange to suggest that 11th seeded Wisconsin could make some noise in the tournament since they only won three conference games. However the Badgers did pull off an upset of Penn State and gave Purdue and Nebraska scares before losing in the closing minutes; Wisconsin won’t win the tournament but they could pull off a notable upset if they get past the first round. Illinois and Wisconsin will square off on Thursday in what should be the second best game of the tournament’s opening day, after the Ohio State-Minnesota game.