Big Ten Women's Basketball Preview: No. 2 Indiana

Can the Big Ten's protagonists do it again?

This is the second to last of an ongoing series of previews for all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-22 season. This one focuses on my projected No. 2 team in the conference.

Here is last week’s preview of No. 3 Iowa

From 1971, Indiana’s first season in Division I for women’s basketball, to when Teri Moren took over in 2014, the Hoosiers’ NCAA Tournament history looked like this:

  • 1983 - Loss in Second Round

  • 1994 - Loss in First Round

  • 1995 - Loss in First Round

  • 2002 - Loss in First Round

A 1-4 record in the NCAA Tournament over the course of 43 seasons. In Moren’s seven seasons with the team, three of her teams have made the tournament (four, if including the 2019-20 team that qualified for the canceled tournament), and each time Indiana has won at least one game while there.

The 2020-21 team did more than just win once, though. This Hoosiers team was different, and bulldozed through their first two opponents before upsetting No. 1 seed NC State in the Sweet 16 on their way to the Elite Eight. Yes, Indiana fell there to eventual runner-up Arizona, but this team earned the program’s first ever Sweet 16 and Elite Eight appearances, and it sets the stage for what should be another terrific year for this team.

Indiana

Last year’s record: 16-2 Big Ten | 21-6 Overall

While the expectations were high heading into the past season, things did not start out on the right foot for the Hoosiers. They started the year 2-2 with losses to Kentucky and Tennessee, but ultimately righted the ship to win 16 of 18 in the Big Ten, the only losses being to Maryland and Ohio State.

While Indiana’s offense wasn’t a weak point, ranking seventh in the Big Ten with 74.4 points per game, it was the Hoosier defense that led to such a big year. Indiana allowed 59.9 points per game, second in the conference. This was less due to an abundance of turnovers, but more so because of excellent defense on the shots opponents did put up. Teams shot 37.6 percent from the field against the Hoosiers, tops in the Big Ten.

But speaking of turnovers, Indiana mostly avoided those, committing 11.1 per game, fifth-fewest in the country. While keeping control of the ball, the Hoosiers were also deadly efficient in the offense they wanted to run, shooting 45.4 percent from the floor and averaging 0.90 points per play, via Her Hoops Stats. Those numbers were ranked 21st and 20th in the country, respectively.

What this team couldn’t do is shoot threes. Indiana shot 28.0 percent from behind the arc, second-worst in the Big Ten. It just wasn’t the team’s game last year, and the Hoosiers didn’t pretend it was. That could be more of the same with the same starting five coming back for another round.

I can talk numbers and stats on why Indiana was a great team last year, because it was. But this is a team that you need to watch to get the full picture.

There was something special about the Hoosiers and how they operated, and this starting five with Grace Berger, Nicole Cardano-Hillary, Aleksa Gulbe, Mackenzie Holmes and Ali Patberg was the reason why.

These five started 17 games together last season and went 15-2, compared to just 6-4 when Cardano-Hillary came off the bench. It clicked with this group, and each of them brings something important to the table.

Let’s start with Berger, who is an all-around talent with one of the best mid-range games in the conference. She is an unselfish player that also has a mean streak to take over when needed, and she really shined in that role last season.

Holmes took a monumental leap in her second season with Indiana, leading the team in points and blocks. Her 3.0 blocks per game was also seventh in the NCAA. The third-year forward is, simply put, one of the best interior players in the Big Ten, right there with the Naz Hillmons and Monika Czinanos.

Gulbe and Cardano-Hillary have been excellent contributors in the starting lineup, with the former excelling as a rebounder (6.9 per game) while still showing the ability to stretch the floor to the perimeter. Cardano-Hillary is a key veteran on the team who, despite not shooting the ball well last year (35.8 field goal percentage), added a team-high 1.4 steals per game and hauled in 3.7 boards per contest despite standing at just 5-6.

Let me take a moment to talk about Ali Patberg. She was the third-most productive member of Indiana’s roster statistically, there’s no denying that. But what Ali Patberg brings to the Hoosiers is part of the reason I think they made this magical Elite Eight run last March. Patberg is the emotional leader for this team on the floor, and her decision to return for this year is a major reason I don’t see a slip-up on the horizon.

Yes, Patberg is a productive player, and she brings more to the table than just her passion. But, on the floor, she feels like the heart and soul of Indiana, more so than any player has been to their respective team that I have watched in my time covering the conference.

Patberg wasn’t supposed to be here. She chose Notre Dame over her hometown Hoosiers, but tore a knee ligament as a freshman and never played for the Fighting Irish. That was six seasons ago. She is now 25 years old and still playing college basketball thanks to a redshirt season plus a free year of eligibility due to COVID-19. That experience has been, and continues to be so critical for Indiana, who, like Patberg, is not supposed to be here with the top teams in the Big Ten.

Losing six players should give me pause. I should be worried about regression from a program that never reached the Sweet 16 before last year. And yet, I just don’t see it happening. Jaelynn Penn was a tough loss, but it’s one the Hoosiers dealt with in the middle of last season when Penn opted out for the remainder of the year 14 games in.

Penn started in the 10 games Cardano-Hillary didn’t, and Indiana was a better team with the change. The rest of the losses hurt depth, which will be the big question mark if the Hoosiers ever have any injury issues.

These additions will try to help with that. Caitlin Hose did not get much of a chance to shine with Georgia last season, but did shoot the three efficiently when the opportunities came. Hose also has three seasons of collegiate experience to add to a ridiculously experienced core.

There is room past the starting five for the three true freshmen to get opportunities, and any sizable contributions from any of them will boost the Hoosiers’ overall chance to reach their goals. Keyarah Berry is one to watch, as she absolutely lit it up in Georgia, finishing second in state history with 3,340 total points.

I also wouldn’t count out Kaitlin Peterson or Mona Zaric. Peterson averaged 25.0 points and 5.7 steals per game (!!!), numbers that seem valuable to me. Zaric has also played in Europe for 12 years, and that type of overseas experience can make for a quicker transition to the collegiate game.

Indiana is not a flashy team, and it doesn’t do one particular thing exceptionally well. But the Hoosiers are damn fun to watch because they are so likable. This is a program that has never seen success at this level, and it is doing it with what often feels like a rag tag group that is so cohesive that they are exceptionally difficult to beat.

If the three-point shooting improves, this is a team that can make the Final Four. And Patberg could be the key here, as she went from a terrific shooter from deep the past two seasons to a below average one last year.

Get back to shooting 38-40 percent from deep, and you have three dominant scorers to lead the charge.

Indiana majorly lived and died on five players down the stretch last season, and may have to do that again with the transfers out of the program this offseason. But there aren’t many other starting fives I would want to put my life on the line for, both because of their individual talents, and more because of how they have all come together.

The Hoosiers felt like the protagonists last season, and it was a terrific run to watch. But there’s no reason to think the sequel should go any differently. Maybe, just maybe, it can be even better.

Every protagonist needs a good villain.

Next week, we will look at the No. 1 ranked team for the Big Ten preview. Before that, I will have a new post on a random topic for you on Thursday.

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