Hoosiers Take Charge
Indiana-Iowa recap and a look at the Big Ten's bubble teams
Indiana got the big home win over Iowa last week to take a lead in the Big Ten race, but this race is far from over thanks to the Hoosiers’ closing schedule.
Still, it was a statement performance from a team that’s been making them for weeks now. Let’s talk about it.
The Big Ten’s first top five matchup in 30 years lived up to the billing, as Indiana and Iowa battled it out in an extremely close matchup that had a little bit of everything. Highlight plays, star performances, way too many foul calls, you name it and it was in there.
That being said, Indiana ended up with the 87-78 win primarily by keeping the Hawkeyes’ nation-leading offense in check, making it hard for Iowa to do the primary things it usually does that lead to points.
I highlighted last week that Iowa’s three wins against the Hoosiers came on the back of big performances from forward Monika Czinano. This time around? Six points, four turnovers, fouled out. Czinano was a complete non-factor, a rarity for any game, and that was thanks to outstanding interior defense by Mackenzie Holmes and an excellent game plan by Teri Moren.
Then, of course, there is Caitlin Clark. The star guard had a great stat line: 35 points, 4 rebounds, 10 assists. Her shooting on the whole was fine (12 of 28), but she was held to 3 of 11 from deep, making just one of her final nine tries after burying the first two. Clark also turned it over eight times, a large chunk of the 18 Hawkeye turnovers that played a big part in Indiana’s win.
On offense, Indiana relied on its veteran stars: Holmes and Grace Berger. The duo combined for 50 of the team’s points on the night doing so on an efficient 20-of-36 shooting. Holmes dominated the post matchup on both sides of the floor, finishing with 24 points, six rebounds and four steals in a performance that was as clinical as usual.
That’s my favorite part of watching Mackenzie Holmes play basketball: She just makes it look so easy. Her movement and finishing ability in the paint is unbelievable, and she just as easily shuts down her counterparts on the other side of the floor.
Her consistency is just not normal.
But this didn’t feel like a Mackenzie Holmes game. It, in fact, felt like a Grace Berger game, and nothing is better to watch than a Grace Berger game.
Berger’s return to the Hoosiers has been significant, even if her overall production has felt more complimentary. But it was games like the Iowa matchup that remind you what Berger can and will do when needed: ball out.
It was one of those nights: 26 points, 10-of-20 shooting, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 turnover. Hell, she only had two fouls in 39 minutes, a feat for a game where 44 total fouls were called. These points came at the rim, in the mid range, all over the interior, and Iowa had no answers for it.
Indiana’s usually extremely well-rounded offense had its struggles, with Sydney Parrish, Yarden Garzon and Chloe Moore-McNeil getting held in check for much of the contest. That meant a lot of Berger isolations, and she rewarded the Hoosiers with bucket after bucket, as a professional bucket getter does.
This game was tied after the first and second quarters, but Indiana slowly, methodically, started to open the gap throughout the second half, and ultimately won the game by a relatively comfortable margin. ESPN’s win probability shows an accurate portrayal to how the game felt: Close, but typically with Indiana as the better team.
The win puts the Hoosiers at 13-1 in the conference, one game ahead of Iowa, 1.5 games ahead of Maryland with the tiebreaker in hand for both. Indiana certainly is the favorite to win the conference, but its schedule to close out the season is no cake walk:
at Ohio State
That’s three ranked matchups, two of which are on the road, and one other at home against a team firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Her Hoop Stats gives the Hoosiers a 23.3% chance to win all four, which could open the door for either the Hawkeyes or Terrapins, the latter of which has played great basketball as of late with wins in 8 of 9.
Iowa plays Indiana and Maryland down the final stretch. Hell, Ohio State and Michigan both get cracks at the top of the standings, plus each other, so who knows who the top of the Big Ten will shape out.
The five teams previously mentioned — Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio State — are all locks for the NCAA Tournament, and all were named in the current NCAA Top 16, which would give them home games for the first two rounds.
Illinois should be safe as a sixth team, but the Illini have cooled off as of late, so I won’t count my chickens just yet. Still they have a favorable schedule to end the regular season, so it would take a true collapse to knock them out.
That leaves two key Big Ten teams on the bubble, as well as one long shot that I’m not ready to ring the bell on yet: Purdue, Nebraska and Michigan State.
17-7 Overall | 8-6 Big Ten
NET Ranking: 40 | RPI Ranking: 36 | Her Hoops Stats Ranking: 54
Key Wins: Oklahoma State (N) | Illinois (A) | Ohio State (A)
Current ESPN Projection: 11 seed, Last Four Byes
The Boilermakers have won five of their last six, with the lone loss being to Indiana. Yes, the Hoosiers went into West Lafayette and beat Purdue by 23, but a loss to Indiana isn’t the end of the world.
Purdue went from right on the edge to missing the play-in games thanks to back-to-back road wins against Illinois and Ohio State, and may just need two wins to end the season to secure its spot. A third win, which is definitely realistic, would likely make the Big Ten Tournament less worrisome.
Games left: Michigan State, at Indiana, Penn State, at Minnesota. HHS Projection: 2.19 wins
14-11 Overall | 6-8 Big Ten
NET: 44 | RPI: 46 | HHS: 43
Key Wins: Mississippi State (N) | Maryland (A) | Kansas (H) | Purdue (A)
Current ESPN Projection: 12 seed, Last Four In
Nebraska started this season ranked, but now sees itself firmly on the bubble, desperately needing a strong finish to the season to sneak in.
After winning their first two Big Ten games, one of which was a rout of Maryland on the road, the Cornhuskers have lost 8 of their last 12 games, all in conference. Many of these were at least defeats to the conference’s elite, but a 12-point defeat to Rutgers is quite a stain to the résumé.
ESPN’s latest projection doesn’t include Nebraska’s loss to Michigan, which could see the Huskers on the outside looking in for now. That makes these final four games absolutely crucial, and the end of the schedule could certainly be worse. A 3-1 finish is possible, and may be required, for Nebraska pending results from opponents across the country.
A result that could end up being huge? Nebraska’s 73-65 overtime win over Mississippi State on Nov. 26. The Bulldogs are ESPN’s current final team in, and Nebraska is slotted one spot above.
Games left: at Minnesota, Iowa, at Illinois, Northwestern. HHS Projection: 2.45 wins
13-12 Overall | 5-9 Big Ten
NET: 49 | RPI: 128 | HHS: 53
Key Win: Indiana (H)
Current ESPN Projection: Out
Yes, this is a long shot. Michigan State is just above .500 and lost 7 of 8 over a month span that didn’t happen all that long ago. The RPI also hates them.
But, there are a few reasons I think Sparty still has a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, even if it’s only a small, small chance.
The NET and Her Hoop Stats ratings show Michigan State as a team worthy of making the field.
Michigan State has THE win of the season: No. 2 Indiana’s only loss thus far. Yes, the Hoosiers were without Berger, but they also won seven other games without her.
This is a team that is better than its record shows. Do you know how many regulation losses by more than 10 points Michigan State has this season? One, to current No. 21 Iowa State, from November. The Spartans have four overtime losses and seven regulation losses by 10 or less points. Losing close is still losing, but the team has the talent to compete.
The end-of-year slate is both doable and allows the opportunity for more key wins. At Purdue and home against Maryland are two games Michigan State can win, and the Spartans likely need at least one to stay alive. Then, Minnesota and Penn State to end the year. Go 3-1 down the stretch, win two Big Ten Tournament games, and the committee may have something to think about.
It’ll take a lot going right, 100 percent, but I don’t think it’s out of the question that Michigan State works its way into the bubble conversation. Don’t let the Nine NCAA Tournament Big Ten teams agenda die in the shadows.
Games left: at Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota, at Penn State. HHS Projection: 2.19 wins
What To Watch
A lot! Here’s five big ones this week:
Ohio State vs. Indiana, 2/13, 7 p.m., BTN
The Buckeyes get a huge chance for revenge at home, and will likely have to get creative without Rebeka Mikulasikova. Indiana has the advantage, but a guard-heavy Buckeyes lineup could lead to some frantic scoring on both sides.
Purdue vs. Michigan State, 2/15, 7 p.m., B1G+
These teams are on opposite sides of the NCAA Tournament bubble, and both desperately need wins down the stretch. That desperation should make for a high-energy matchup definitely worth your time.
Rutgers vs. Northwestern, 2/15, 7 p.m., B1G+
While Northwestern and Rutgers won’t be seeing any postseason action, they both are trying to find some momentum to take into next year. They both also know their best chance for that comes with this matchup.
Indiana vs. Michigan, 2/16, 8:30 p.m., BTN
Indiana’s road to not making the final Iowa matchup impact the standings could mostly end here. Michigan is also no slouch, and is playing great basketball behind Leigha Brown’s recent dominance.
Nebraska vs. Iowa, 2/18, 2 p.m., BTN
Nebraska is hard to face at home, is as on the bubble as a team can be and could really use a gigantic win over a top-end team to shift the tides. The Hawkeyes are still outrageously good despite the Indiana loss, so it’ll be a tough ask.
Feature Photo Credit: Courtesy of Alex Paul Photo (@alexpaulphoto on Twitter)
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