A Big Final Week In The B1G
What's at stake heading into a ridiculous final week of the Big Ten regular season
Last year, the regular season crown came down to the final day. It could still end up that way, but at least a part of it has already been decided.
The Indiana Hoosiers, as they have for the entirety of 2023, came out and dominated this week, first taking down Michigan, then Purdue, by a combined 39 points. It continues a stretch of five straight games against teams currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament. The result? A 5-0 record and a +95 point margin.
After hammering Purdue for the second time this season, Indiana clinched a share of the Big Ten regular season crown for the first time since 1983. It has been 40 years since the last title, something that’s easy to forget because of how much Teri Moren has turned this program around in recent history.
But Indiana, like a large portion of this conference, still has a big week ahead to end the regular season. Let’s go through what each team has to strive for as we head into the Big Ten Tournament next week.
Teams that are not yet locks for the NCAA Tournament, but still have a chance
It was a bad week for the Big Ten bubble, but Purdue’s second lopsided loss to Indiana is, again, reasonable, and I imagine it doesn’t hurt the team’s tournament stock all too much.
The Boilermakers still are in good shape to make the NCAA Tournament with a week against Penn State and Northwestern ahead. Go 2-0 there, and Purdue is in great shape.
Oh Nebraska, how have you forsaken me? The Iowa loss in front of a packed home crowd hurts, but it was forgivable. The loss to Minnesota three days earlier? Backbreaking.
Despite 37 points from Jaz Shelley, the Cornhuskers could not stop the Gophers, and they fell to Minnesota 95-92 on a last-second three by Isabelle Gradwell.
As of three days ago, Nebraska was the First Team Out of the tourney in ESPN’s projections, and that was before losing by 20 to Iowa. The Cornhuskers need a 2-0 week, and that would mean taking down Illinois on the road, then Northwestern at home. The former is much harder than the latter, but both are equally necessary.
Due to horrific circumstances completely out of this team’s control, the Spartans’ key game against Purdue was postponed, and as of writing this, I have not seen anything about a makeup date.
Michigan State’s lone game came on Sunday, where the Spartans nearly stunned Maryland, but fell 66-61. This is a perfectly acceptable result, but it drops the Spartans to 13-13, meaning their already slim chances of a tournament push are likely gone. Still, games against Minnesota and Penn State this week are absolutely winnable, and if the Purdue game can happen, a 16-13 record going into the Big Ten tournament feels like it could be enough.
Sneak a win or two out in the conference tournament and I think the Spartans have a legit case, especially with that Indiana win in the résumé.
Prove It Week
Projected NCAA Tournament teams with chances to rise
The Hawkeyes are likely locked into a top 16 ranking, but they may have the biggest week of anyone in the conference. To close out its schedule, Iowa travels to face Maryland, then concludes the regular season at home against Indiana.
Go 2-0 here and Iowa shares the Big Ten crown with the Hoosiers. A 1-1 finish secures second place, and 0-2, pending Maryland’s matchup with Ohio State, could drop the Hawkeyes to third.
All of that is obviously important, but I think the significance of these matchups goes even further for Iowa. This is, clearly, a top 10 team in the country, but are the Hawkeyes top five? Could they even be top two or three at their best? This week could tell us that, and it could also get Caitlin Clark a National Player of the Year award if she plays well.
Based on Her Hoop Stats’ projections of each game, the numbers actually work out very nicely:
Iowa goes 2-0: 24.0%
Iowa goes 1-1: 50.0%
Iowa goes 0-2: 26.0%
The Hawkeyes are favored ever so slightly (51.1%) against the Terps, and are ever so slightly the underdogs (46.9%) against the Hoosiers. Both games are must-watch TV.
So, uh, Maryland’s only losses since Dec. 4 are road games against Indiana and Iowa. Besides that? A whopping 15 wins, including victories over UConn, Michigan and Ohio State.
This Terps team is really, really good, but has flown a tad under the radar because of the two teams above them. This Iowa matchup is just as huge for the Terps as it is the Hawkeyes to try and buck that narrative.
Clark ran rampant against Maryland last time around, and Monika Czinano is a hard stop because of the Terps’ lack of paint presence. It’s a difficult matchup, but this team has stepped up dramatically on defense lately, holding 3 of the last 4 opponents to 61 points or less. I don’t expect Iowa to get 96 again.
Then, the Terps travel to Columbus to face Ohio State. Win both of these and Maryland is now your No. 2 seed for the Big Ten Tournament. Even to be here, what a season for Brenda Frese and co. This roster was built from the ground up this offseason, and they are playing tremendous basketball down the stretch.
I don’t think any team in this section needs a good week more than Ohio State, just on vibes alone. The Buckeyes are 22-5, they were in the NCAA’s first top 16, but the energy this team once had has just not been there recently.
Ohio State is 3-5 in its last eight after starting 19-0, and the most recent losses to Maryland and Indiana were a downright disaster, falling to the duo by a combined 60 points.
The Jacy Sheldon situation is reaching Defcon 1. She played 25 minutes against Maryland and hasn’t been seen from since. Kevin McGuff has voiced concerns about her recovery after seeing her in action that game, but if Ohio State is going to get her back for the postseason, it feels like we have to see her this week.
The Buckeyes play tonight (Monday) against Michigan, then finish the year at home against Maryland. These are huge games to rebuild some momentum before the tournaments. An 0-2 run here, especially if they are lopsided defeats, would be a disaster.
There are few teams in the country as rock solid as Michigan, and that’s been for better or for worse. The Wolverines are 10-0 against teams lower than them in the Big Ten standings. They are also 0-5 against the teams above them.
To earn the double bye in the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan needs to buck that trend tonight against the Bucks (what a pun, I know!) The Wolverines then have games against Rutgers and Wisconsin to close out conference play. Barring anything wild, those are two wins, and those victories would be big in securing a top 16 spot in the big dance.
The health of Laila Phelia remains a question mark, and her timetable seems uncertain. Leigha Brown has been downright exceptional since the sophomore guard went down, and she will need to continue to be if Phelia is out the rest of the year.
I think it’s safe to say that Illinois is going to be dancing for the first time since 2003, something that felt impossible not that long ago. Shauna Green is a force of nature, and the Illini, despite cooling off slightly, are a very dangerous team to deal with.
That doesn’t mean Illinois is without stakes this week. A top four Big Ten ranking is not mathematically impossible, but even sneaking into the top five with a 2-0 week would be a huge feat. The Illini will first battle a Nebraska team playing for its postseason life, before ultimately closing out with Rutgers.
Any wins here would be icing on the cake of a 20-win season, the program’s first since 2007. A 21st win would be the most since 2000. I hope I have gotten through to you just how remarkable this campaign has been for Green who, again, is in her first year as head coach here. Just unreal.
The Indiana Zone
Being Indiana, etc.
I’ve talked about the Hoosiers enough recently, so I’ll keep it quick here. Indiana needs one win against Iowa to win the Big Ten outright, and likely to make it officially official that they will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Other stakes? For me, the final Indiana-Iowa game could shift the tides in the Conference Player of the Year race between Clark and Mackenzie Holmes. Both are other-worldly talents, but the efficiency Holmes has had in these wins deserves attention, and a 2-0 record over Clark in the head-to-head would be hard to argue against.
Indiana may have a share of that title, but considering who the opponent is, I’m going to guess the Hoosiers are motivated to win it outright.
Finishing On A High
Miracle Big Ten Tournament run aside, these last weeks are for building
This year is already a big win for Rutgers.
The eight-player roster has stayed healthy, developed well and has won some Big Ten games, something I didn't think it would do much of if I’m being honest with you. A top 10 finish in this conference would be astounding.
The Scarlet Knights finish the regular season out with Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois, only the last of which is at home. Any victories here would be huge in keeping Rutgers out of the first day of Big Ten Tournament games, but again, this feels like playing with house money.
Coquese Washington came into an extremely difficult situation despite of Rutgers’ excellent history in this sport. This year feels like she has really gotten the most out of the roster, and has potentially found her future star in Kaylene Smikle.
The Rutgers 5-10 record feels like a feat. The Penn State 4-12 record feels like a letdown.
I look at this Nittany Lions roster and see so much potential, but this team doesn't even have a win on the road (0-9). Makenna Marisa, Shay Ciezki and Leilani Kapinus feels like an exciting trio, and maybe Marisa decides to come back for a fifth season to run it back again.
But for now, Penn State is closing out with Purdue and Michigan State as its opponents. Those are two beatable teams, the Nittany Lions also beat the Boilermakers earlier this year. A win in either would be a nice boost to a team that has not played very inspired basketball down the stretch.
The Badgers showed some promise in year one under Marisa Moseley. Year two has looked eerily similar, which is a cause for concern.
Getting over the eight-win total of last season is extremely possible with Rutgers, Northwestern and Michigan remaining on the docket. A 10-win total puts the Badgers in the running for escaping day one of the conference tourney, and would be a nice boost in morale.
Aside from that, I just want to see more Serah Williams, Maty Wilke and Brooke Schramek. I think there is serious potential with those three, and they have plenty of years to make that happen, transfers withstanding.
Was the Minnesota Youth Academy idea a good one? Sort of!
True freshmen Mara Braun, Mallory Heyer and Amaya Battle have gotten extended minutes to develop, and have certainly shown flashes of big-time talent. Alanna Micheaux has also seen a big production boost with more minutes.
That was not likely to get Minnesota wins this season, and it didn’t, but the hope is that there’s something to build on here moving forward. The win over Nebraska showed the ceiling of this roster, and then the 14-point loss to Northwestern a few days later showed the floor.
The Gophers end the same way Penn State does: Michigan State and Purdue. We will see if the team closer to the ceiling or floor shows up for those, but the rollercoaster is always fun regardless.
Unfortunately, the bottom completely fell out on this team once Veronica Burton left. The Wildcats are just 2-14 in the Big Ten and 9-18 overall, but do come into this week fresh off that victory over the Gophers.
With Wisconsin and Michigan left to go, I want to see more Caroline Lau minutes. The highly rated freshman has been inefficient, but also has shown more fireworks than most of this roster, and why not just give her more minutes at this point in the season? Her and Caileigh Walsh’s development could be what brings the Wildcats back up in the conference.
What To Watch
Literally all of them. I mentioned every game from this week above, and almost all of them are significant for either increasing seeding, making the tournament or finishing out the year strong.
There are five games on the Big Ten Network, Ohio State-Michigan is on FS1 tonight and Indiana-Iowa is on ESPN Sunday. Watch these, and watch more on the dreaded B1G+ if you are able. It’s that time of the year folks.
Feature Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
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