NOTE: There will be no Hoopla next Monday, Dec. 27. Because of that, the What to Watch section will have the top games over the next two weeks. See you the next two Thursdays, and I will be back with more basketball stuff on Jan. 3.
It was a good week overall for the Big Ten, which was an embarrassing Illinois loss away from a perfect week in non-conference play. There are a few teams I want to talk about, but the big one has to be Michigan.
The Wolverines Earn First Ever Top Five Win
Michigan avenged its Sweet 16 overtime loss from last season, taking down then-No. 5 Baylor 74-68. It again took overtime to do it, but this time the Wolverines did not have star forward Naz Hillmon for the extra frame after she fouled out on a call that was questionable at best, terrible at worst.
When Hillmon went down, it felt like this was going to be a tragic repeat of the NCAA Tournament matchup. Instead, Michigan buckled down and executed its offense excellently while winning the rebounding battle against a very talented Bears team.
Much like the last matchup between these two teams, it was Leigha Brown who became Michigan’s best player. She scored 23 points in the losing effort, and came back this year by scoring 25 points in the win on Sunday, shooting 7 of 16 from the field and 11 of 13 from the free throw line while adding 5 rebounds and 4 assists.
It was an exceptional performance that was led by her deadly midrange game, but it was also more than Brown who made this upset win happen. Hillmon earned a double double (15 points, 10 rebounds) but was inefficient (6 of 19) and prone to turnovers (5 TOs), so even when she was in, this Wolverines team could not get carried simply by her excellence.
Cue freshman Laila Phelia, a top 30 prospect nationally who has been thrusted into a starting role due to Amy Dilk’s injury. Phelia has been steadily improving as she’s been thrusted into significant minutes in her first collegiate season, and The Bucket Problem did a great dive prior to the Baylor game about her early rise.
Then, they were vindicated. Phelia played 32 pivotal minutes and added 12 points, 5 rebounds, a block and 2 steals in an all-around excellent showing. She buried a crucial three in the fourth quarter and gave Jordan Lewis fits on her way to a missed layup in the final seconds that helped force overtime. It was a strong outing, and one that Michigan needed.
Above all else, this game proved that the Wolverines are more than just Hillmon, and that they can take down the upper echelon of teams, something that was unclear after they were decimated by Louisville just a few weeks ago.
NaLyssa Smith, potential future No. 1 draft pick, did what she does with 21 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks, but Michigan won anyway. Baylor was outrebounded 50-35 and Michigan outscored the Bears 29-3 in second chance points. This was a tremendous performance and a well-earned win for a Michigan that could be something special if we see more performances like this one.
Nebraska and Purdue Continue to Impress
Let’s get the first one out of the way here: Nebraska fucking rocks.
The Cornhuskers are now one of seven undefeated teams left in the country, and one of two to be 11-0. The other is No. 1 South Carolina. Nebraska is beating teams by an average of 29.6 points for game and have not shown a major weakness anywhere unless you consider having too many contributors a bad thing.
Eight players average at least 5 points per game, and none average more than 15. Nine players average at least 10 minutes per game, and none average more than 27. This group has an insane amount of depth and can beat you in a wide variety of ways.
Coming off an impressive 21-point win over Drake — a good team, mind you — Nebraska has a game against Wyoming it should win before moving back into Big Ten play. The next five games will tell us what this Cornhuskers team is really made of:
@ Michigan State
I’m not sure how this stretch will go, but the fact that I think Nebraska can compete here is massive. What I do know, though, is that I can’t wait to watch.
Now, let’s talk about Purdue.
The Boilermakers are in their first year under head coach Katie Geralds and were not a team I had a ton of high hopes for. But here they are with an 8-4 record and a handful of very impressive victories. The first was a 12-point victory over Illinois State that Her Hoops Stats gave Purdue a 28.3 percent chance to win. Then it was two over Florida State (18.6 percent win probability) and Georgia Tech (27.7 percent) in back-to-back games.
All four of Purdue’s losses have been pretty reasonable to this point, though it probably should not have lost to Dayton by 16. Still, to be 8-4 with a very real chance to move to 11-4 in the next three games is exceptional work by Geralds and company.
How have they done it? Similar to Nebraska, there are a lot of players proving themselves. Six players are averaging 7.5 points per game or more, with Madison Layden (12.8 PPG) leading the team. Along with Layden, Ra Shaya Kyle has also been very productive for the team (11.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG) in somewhat limited action (19.3 minutes per game).
I bring these two up because they are both also just sophomores. They can be the nucleus for this program trying to get to new heights under Geralds. The offense has been clicking more as of late for this team as well, with 183 points in the past two victories.
The Big Ten slate is cruel, and Purdue still might be a year away from the NCAA Tournament. But make no mistake, this is terrific progress already for the Boilermakers, and they’ve already proved me wrong once with this strong start.
What to Watch
As mentioned above, I am taking next Monday off. So, let’s look at the five best matchups over the next two weeks.
No. 15 Iowa vs. IUPUI, 12/21, 3 p.m. — B1G+
Iowa is up to 5-2, but still needs to get some kinks worked out heading into conference play.
IUPUI is no slouch with a 4-2 record and No. 41 national rating on Her Hoops Stats. This team took Michigan to overtime to start the year and was looking dominant prior to an upset loss to Ball State. The Hawkeyes should win this, but they will need to look sharp.
Northwestern vs. Oregon, 12/21, 9 p.m. — BTN
Oregon may not be ranked after falling to 6-4, but this is still a strong team loaded with talent that will be favored heading into Evanston.
I was higher than most on Northwestern this season, and Veronica Burton is my current conference player of the year with how she’s performed in the early stages. The Wildcats might start to get some national recognition if they can take down the Ducks here.
Michigan State vs. Nebraska, 12/30, 2 p.m. — B1G+
Conference games are back, and we get to see If our beloved Cornhuskers can keep the magic going. Assuming they beat Wyoming, this will be a 12-0 team that probably still isn’t ranked because the AP Poll is a crock of shit.
Anyway, this should be an excellent matchup to watch, as it is a battle between a team with one star and a team that has no true star. Nia Clouden is a machine — she scored 50 points in a loss to Florida Gulf Coast as I was writing this — but she lacks enough help to make this team elite.
Can Nebraska exploit that? If it can, then that is a good sign that this hot start is going to continue into Big Ten action.
No. 9 Michigan vs. No. 24 Ohio State, 12/31, noon — BTN
There’s a lovely little rivalry game here on New Year’s Eve, and it’s another interesting matchup of conflicting styles.
Ohio State’s lineup is built to defend more effectively against other teams reliant on guards, so what will it do when Hillmon comes to town? As a reminder, last time Hillmon was in Columbus, she also scored 50 in a loss. Rebeka Mikulasikova did the primary defending on her in that game, too, which is troubling for the Buckeyes.
If Michigan plays like it did against Baylor, I do not think this will be close. If Ohio State can get hot from deep and limit Hillmon even a little bit, the Buckeyes will have a shot.
No. 8 Indiana vs. No. 6 Maryland, 1/2, 3 p.m. — ESPN2
The best has been saved for last once again.
I don’t even know what I have to say here: These are the two best teams in the Big Ten fighting it out in a matchup of good versus evil. Can Indiana get an early edge on usual kingpin Maryland, or will the Terrapins show they are still the top dog everyone has to try and take down?
Both of these teams have a great starting lineup but lack depth. If Diamond Miller can be back for the Terps, it will be a game-changer. Regardless, I cannot wait for this matchup.
On Thursday: My Top Albums of the Year
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