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Mike Lopresti | | January 27, 2023

3 stops, 9 days: Big Ten women's basketball is a conference 'on a roll'

Power 10 women's basketball rankings less than 50 days from Selection Sunday

Behold, the big upward trend arrow that is Big Ten women’s basketball.

Five of the top 13 teams in the AP rankings... Big Ten.

Nine of the top 46 in the NCAA’s NET ratings... Big Ten.

Seven of the 35 highest-scoring teams in the nation... Big Ten.

Six of the 23 best shooting teams in the land... Big Ten.

Eleven of the top 40 programs in attendance this season... Big Ten.

Now if only one of them could show up in the Final Four. But we’ll get to that issue in a moment.


What kind of a nightly grind must it be in this conference when Michigan State has handed Indiana its only loss, taken No. 10 Iowa to overtime with 18 lead changes, trailed by one point in the final minute at No. 2 Ohio State... and is in ninth place? “You’ve got to have a really short-term memory in this league,” Illinois coach Shauna Green said.

“This is my 23rd year in the league, this is the toughest I’ve ever seen it, this is the best attendance I’ve ever seen,” said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder, whose 234th win earlier this season gave her the most regular season victories in Big Ten history.

To get a feel for a conference on a roll, let’s make three stops and spend nine days in the life of Big Ten women’s basketball.

Jan. 18. Champaign, Illinois

Illinois student section during women's basketball game

No. 6 Indiana has come to town, the Illinois students pour in 70 minutes before tipoff, and Green is there in the stands to chat with them. This is her first season and if the Illini program is to be revived — there are abundant signs that’s happening — she considers it vital that everyone feels part of the family. Just before the game, amid a teeming atmosphere with nearly 6,000 mostly orange-clad fans, a tape of a little boy pops up on the scoreboard leading the crowd in an Illini chant. That’s Matteo, Green’s first-grade son.

“No top-25 team in the country is running out to a thousand people and no kids. It’s just not happening,” she would say later. “I’ll do whatever I need to do.”

Illinois was playing in front of barely a thousand spectators last season, but that’s when the Illini were finishing a seven-year dark age of going 15-113 against the Big Ten. Green was lured from Dayton, attracted new transfer talent — leading scorer Makira Cook and fellow starter Brynn Shoup-Hill came with her from Ohio — and everything changed. They arrive at their home arena this night 5-2 in the league, 15-3 overall and No. 21 in the AP poll — their first ranking in 8,072 days, or just over 22 years.

There are legions of bouncing little kids in the State Farm Center with their parents because you can’t beat $5 for a ticket. A pep band. Lots of noise. Indiana coach Teri Moren is so taken aback walking onto the court, she mentions to Green, “This is unbelievable. This is not how it was.”

Unfortunately for the Illini, the result is familiar enough. Indiana falls behind early by nine but cannot be held back between the slick post moves of Mackenzie Holmes and the savvy of all-Big Ten guard Grace Berger in her 134th college game. They go for 30 and 18 points, respectively, and the 83-72 result is the 15th win in a row for Indiana over Illinois.

It is also Moren’s 189th victory for the Hoosiers, making her the winningest coach in Indiana women’s basketball history. After the game, the Hoosiers quickly slip into white T-shirts that have a likeness of Moren wearing a crown on the front and '189 and counting' on the back.

“She’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met. She hates to lose way more than she loves to win,” Holmes mentions.

“It’s one of those snapshot moments that you take in your mind and you’ll remember for the rest of your life,” Moren says. “I’m glad it’s over. We can move forward.”

Forward means a nine-day gauntlet against three ranked opponents — No. 21 Illinois, No. 14 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State — but the 17-1 Hoosiers would seem to have the tools for it. They missed the indispensable Berger for a month with a knee injury but now seem fully stocked. This is the team that went to Tennessee and won by 12 and mashed then-No. 6 North Carolina by 24.  “The thing I love about them is they don’t panic,” Moren says. “They don’t get aggravated, they don’t get frustrated. They’re problem-solvers. They’re looking for solutions. That’s a strong, smart, veteran, experienced team.”

Green thinks so, too. “They’re legit. They have every piece you need to get to a Final Four.”

Before leaving the court, Green grabs the microphone to thank the Illinois fans for coming. It has been an important night, showing what can happen in the sport with the right push. Her message to the departing crowd: “We’ll be back. Hopefully you will, too.”

Jan. 23, Columbus, Ohio

Iowa vs. Ohio State women's basketball

The Buckeyes are one of the nation’s three unbeatens at 19-0, ranked No. 2 and averaging 86 points a game. Iowa is No. 10 and puts up nearly 88 a night, led by the nation’s No. 3 scorer Caitlin Clark. No wonder they’re expecting a full house of nearly 10,000.

Before the afternoon shootaround, Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff tries to describe his conference.

“We have great coaches, we have great talent, the interest in terms of attendance is up everywhere. I think this is as good a time in Big Ten women’s basketball as I’ve seen since I’ve been in coaching, which is 29 years now.”

McGuff has had several renowned players in his 10 years with the Buckeyes but “this is the best team we’ve had from a chemistry standpoint.” Six different players average double figures but two guards are on the shelf injured; Madison Greene is lost for the season and all-Big Tenner Jacy Sheldon’s return date is uncertain. Ohio State plays fast and the ability to keep the pedal to the floor will be tested in a week where the Buckeyes face two top-10 opponents — Iowa and Indiana — in four days.

“This week is going to tell us a little bit about how our depth has developed. Or not,” McGuff says.

Only top-ranked South Carolina and No. 3 LSU can match Ohio State in perfect records. “We don’t talk about it a whole lot,” McGuff says. “By nature, I have always been, OK, we’ve got practice today and we’ve got Iowa and that’s it. Now, are people around town talking to the kids about it? Of course, that’s part of it.

“This league’s too good. I don’t know when it’s going to come, but I know we’re going to face some adversity in terms of wins and losses and we’ll have to deal with that when that time comes.”

It comes seven hours later.

McGuff had talked about the Big Ten’s growing propensity for scoring. “When I first got here it had a reputation of more of a slower pace. But the offense has really evolved. There are a lot of really good offensive systems and a lot of good players that fit those systems.”

Iowa typifies that as much as anyone with a platoon of veteran point producers. Bluder usually sends out a lineup that includes five women who have combined for more than 420 starts in college basketball. “They’re coaches on the floor now. They know what I’m going to say before I say it,” she says. Clark is a career 27-point scorer outside, Monika Czinano a career 18-point scorer inside. “I can’t imagine there’s a tougher team in the country to prepare for in terms of what our defense has to be,” McGuff had said.

This night shows what he means. Clark goes for 28 points and Czinano tallies 22 even while slowed by foul trouble. Iowa has 24 assists on 31 field goals, 15 of them by Clark, usually to Czinano. To watch her precise passing is like watching Peyton Manning in his prime. None of this is good news for the big crowd, including an older guy sitting in the section at one end with his head painted half scarlet and half gray, wearing a jersey with the name 'Big Nut' on the back. It ends 83-72. South Carolina and LSU are now the only unbeatens.

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Clark grabs her 10th rebound in the final minute, to go with her 28 points and 15 assists. That’s her eighth career triple-double; no other Big Ten man or woman ever had as many. Surely, that must be meaningful for the junior guard who grew up in West Des Moines and has 11 family members who played college sports.

“I would be lying to you if I said it didn’t,” she says afterward, standing outside the Iowa locker room. “It might not hit me right now but maybe later in life it’ll mean a little more to me.

“I think when I’m able to do that it puts my team in a really, really good position to win. I don’t need to score 30 points every night. It’s the 25 and 10 and 10 that really helps us be super successful.”

Bluder mentions how “I keep telling everybody, yes, she led the country in scoring last year but she also led the country in assists per game. People don’t give her enough credit for that. She’s a beautiful passer. She has a pretty good target in Monika. When somebody’s shooting 85 percent from the field, you get the ball to her.”

To understand the rollicking style the Big Ten now presents in women’s basketball, one need only see Caitlin Clark play a game. “If you don’t think Caitlin’s fun to watch,” Bluder says, “something’s wrong.”

There is a fire within these Hawkeyes, born last March when they went into the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed and didn’t get out of the first weekend, shocked by No. 10 seed Creighton 64-62 on their home court in Iowa City. “You know that pain you felt right there at the end,” Clark says. “We’re trying to use that to motivate us as we move forward.”

It has been a tough night for Ohio State but there is no time to dwell. In three days, the Buckeyes head for Indiana. “It will show a lot about our competitive character in the coming days in how we practice and how we show up on Thursday to play,” McGuff says. “It’s not going to be any easier.”

A few hours north on this Monday, Indiana has to fight off No. 13 Michigan 92-83 in a game where both teams hit 50 percent from the 3-point arc. There are no soft nights in the Big Ten. “Hard is good,” Bluder says. “If you can survive hard, it’s going to make you so much better. That’s what we are, we’re surviving hard.”

Jan. 26, Bloomington, Indiana

Indiana women's basketball vs. Ohio State

Ohio State is Indiana’s fourth game in 15 days against a ranked opponent and the most glittering of all with both teams in the top six. The fans are hyped, with students lining up two hours early. By tipoff, the lower section of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall is packed with a crowd of 10,455, the largest ever for an Indiana women’s regular season game.

The thunder from the stands is never louder than the third period when the Hoosiers bury the Buckeyes with a 27-6 fusillade. “They’re giving us energy, they’re giving us momentum, they’re like an extra teammate out on the court,” Holmes says of the fans, whom she helps inspire with 26 points and 11-for-13 shooting. “You couldn’t even hear whistles blow sometimes.”

It ends 78-65, leaving Indiana not only 19-1 but 6-0 against ranked opponents. Ohio State is the Hoosiers’ highest-ranked victim in 29 years and the win puts them alone at the top of the conference, a half-game up on Iowa. Indiana’s one and only Big Ten regular season title came 40 years ago. Current coach Moren had just finished her college career as a Purdue Boilermaker.

This night shows not only the Hoosiers’ veteran leadership but also the value of a newcomer. Freshman Yarden Garzon, a native of Israel who has the 6-foot-3 height of a post but the shooting range of a guard, scores 20 points against the Buckeyes and is third in the nation in 3-point shooting.

The dominance of Indiana’s performance suggests all sizes of future possibilities: A conference championship, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, a long stay in March... the Hoosiers’ horizon seems to broaden by the day. Taking it a day at a time is exactly what Moren is mandating, to a veteran team wise enough to listen.

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“If you’re chasing something the way we’re chasing something, you can’t overlook and you can’t obviously make the moment bigger than what it is,” Moren says. “The potential is there. We’ve seen it. But I also know this can be a funny game, We try to really be careful with keeping our heads down and keeping the noise out and just talking about what’s next.”

In other words, no looking ahead.

“We don’t allow ourselves to do that,” Moren says. “Who knows, right? But we’re not going to put a number on anything because we’re not going to limit this team as we move forward.”

For No. 2 Ohio State, it has not been a pleasant week, sliding from unbeaten to two defeats in four days. They could use Sheldon getting back. "We need to really kind of find out who we are, I should say get back to being who we are,” McGuff says. “We played two great teams this week and we didn’t play well enough and they both deserved to beat us. We’ve got to take that information and get back to practice and make sure we get better and can be at our best come March.”

Ah, March. All the glowing records and rankings and attendance figures will not be the narrative then. This will be: The Big Ten badly needs someone — anyone — to make a splash.

Maryland women's basketball vs. Michigan

There’s much to this league that grabs attention, with all its ranked teams. On this same Thursday that Indiana whips Ohio State, No. 10 Maryland tops No. 13 Michigan 72-64 with a relentless defense that has forced 89 turnovers in its last four games. But rightly or wrongly, a conference is heavily judged by who’s there at the end. Only one Big Ten school has ever won the national championship — Purdue 24 years ago. The last Final Four entrant was Maryland in its debut season in the conference in 2015. The last championship game appearance was by Michigan State and that was 18 years ago.

It has been hard to close the gap on the elites of women’s basketball — the South Carolinas, the Connecticuts, the Stanfords. This is not the men, where the stars from the top teams are often on the next plane to the NBA draft. “Over the years the Connecticuts of the world were getting the best players and keeping them for four years and it was really hard to crack that group,” McGuff says. “Now there are a lot more good players.”

No matter how well the early rounds of the tournament go — the Big Ten put Michigan in the Elite Eight and three more teams in the Sweet 16 last spring, an impressive feat at that — someone needs to make a deep run to Dallas in April for this league to get its due.

“We need to get to the Final Four. There’s no doubt we have to do that,” Bluder said earlier in the week.

McGuff agreed. “I think that’s the next step. It would validate how good we are. There are several teams this year that could make a run that could get them there.”

What the past nine days hinted is that Indiana might have the best shot of all. “I find it hard to believe that there’s a better conference in the country than the Big Ten right now,” was Moren’s comment on the night her Hoosiers moved into first place.

So it seems. The Big Ten is a hit show. But check back in late March.

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