Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Mike Siroky's Big Ten Report: Seeking Validation From the Heartland

By Mike Siroky

The Big Ten (known now as the B1G) seldom gets the respect as a top conference.

Yet, with realignment, the conference is likely the third best (behind the SEC and the (ACC).

No. 11 Penn State has a sub-Regional at home and seems destined for the Sweet 16 again. Same with No. 17 Purdue, although the Boilermakers lost in the second round the last time they hosted.

Nebraska could play a Regional at Lincoln, though they’d be a No. 3 seed at best and only with a deep run in the conference tournament that starts Thursday.

No. 16 Nebraska has made noise ever since joining the conference. No. 19 Michigan State and No. 23 Iowa gives the conference as many ranked teams as any other conference in the land.

Those are the at-least 20 game winners, with Minnesota sitting on 19 for the usual first qualifier for NCAA consideration. Indiana is 18-11, was ranked for part of the season but stumbled home 3-7 in its endgame.

Even Ohio State, on a major incline with new coach Kevin McGuff, is building a backbone for future success. Michigan’s Kim Barnes Arico remains one of the hottest young coaches in America. If UofM can afford to keep her, she’ll dominate.

For instance, she will assist South Carolina coach Dawn Staley on this summer’s 18-Under National team for USA Basketball.

“Being from the East Coast, I grew up in the same era as Dawn Staley,” Barnes Arico said.

“I enjoyed watching how she played the game with such drive and passion. She has not only proven to be one of the greatest players to ever play the game but also to be one of the best coaches of our generation. The success she has had at Temple and South Carolina, building powerhouses at both schools, is truly incredible.

“I have watched her from afar with great admiration and respect. I am truly looking forward to coaching with and learning from her.”

When Rutgers and Maryland join next season, two more traditions arrive. Even moreseo with Hall of Fame and 900-game winner coach C. Vivian Stringer who led Iowa from 1983-1995, won six conference championships, qualifying for six Elite Eights and the 1993 Final Four.

So, with a firm base for now, the the conference heads into its league tournament back in Indianapolis again.

The Nittany Lions (22-6) bested Purdue and Michigan State, split with Iowa and then got poleaxed by 20 at Nebraska to close February. They are 8-2 in their final 10 games, another NCAA qualifier. It is their third straight conference regular-season title.

Nebraska (22-6) is 9-1 down the stretch but the last one was a real shellacking at Purdue, by 16, giving the Boilermakers a sweep. They split with Michigan State, each side winning by more than 10 at home. The Cornhuskers have been a force ever since joining conference and senior Player of the Year Jordan Hooper, a scoring entity, is why.

Purdue (21-7) traditionally finishes well. They have the longest-serving coach in alumna Sharon Versyp and flourish every year in the conference tournament. She is one game away from career win 300. Purdue is the No. 4 seed having tied with but beaten Iowa in their only game. Purdue’s usual leader is senior K.K. Houser, once the niftiest point guard in the league.

She tore her ACL in January and did make an appearance in the season-ending win over Nebraska – mainly for Senior Day – but her overall loss diminishes the Boilermaker expectations.

Michigan State (21-8) is flexing new national muscles. The Spartans are also 9-1 in the homestretch, the lone loss by 20 at Nebraska. The January loss to Penn State decides the regular-season title as each is 11-3 in conference.

The Big Ten gives byes to its top four teams, so the conference tournament starts Thursday.

The statistical leaders are set, of course.

In league games. Minnesota junior guard Rachel Banham became the first Gopher since Carol Ann Shudlick in 1993 to lead the Big Ten in scoring, 23.3, the best since Penn State’s Kelly Mazzante averaged 25.1 in 2002.

Freshman teammate Amanda Zahui B. –a 6-5 center from Sweden -- is the first Gopher to lead the conference in rebounding since Janel McCarville in 2005, averaging 11.5. She was the unscoutable entity in the league coming into the season.

Iowa junior Samantha Logic led the Big Ten in the assists at 8 per game, the highest since Penn State’s Helen Darling’s 8.5 in 1999. Classmate Bethany Doolittle averaged 3.4 blocks per game, which is the most in a single season since Michigan State’s Allyssa DeHaan averaged 4.3 in 2007, and became the first Hawkeye to lead the conference in the category since Tangela Smith in 1998.

Here’s the tournament schedule with seedings and overall records:

Thursday

No. 8 Ohio State (15-17) vs. No. 9 Northwestern (15-14); No. 5 Iowa (23-7) vs. No. 12 Illinois (9-20); No. 7 Michigan (17-12) vs. No. 7 Indiana (18-11); and No. 6 Minnesota (19-11) vs. No. 7 Wisconsin (10-18).

Friday

No. 4 Purdue (21-7) vs. Game 2 winner; No. 3 Nebraska (22-6) vs. Game 4 Winner; No. 2 Michigan State (21-8) vs. Game 3 Winner; and No. 1 Penn State (22-6) vs. Game 1 Winner.

Semifinals Saturday and finals on Sunday.

Penn State head coach Coquese Washington learned how to win as a player at Notre Dame.

“It's the first time in program history that we have won three Big Ten Championships in a row," she observes. "For a program that has such a storied legacy, to be able to do something that this program hasn't done before, it's pretty hard.”

She said the upperclass leadership is a key to success.

"They played like seniors," said Washington. "They played the way you want seniors to play. They came together and all had really good nights and played well for us, which all culminated with a Big Ten Championship. It's a great way to go out."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder has been cautioning her team that winning now gets the attention of the NCAA Selection Committee, so focus remains a priority. Iowa matches up with Illinois, the same team they ended the season against, to start the league tournament.

“Hopefully, they’ll have a lot of confidence knowing we swept them,” she said.

“Twenty-three (wins) sounds really good, but 24 sounds a lot better.”

Interestingly enough, the Hawkeyes have not lost a televised game on the conference network, the only team to do that this season.

Nebraska’s Connie Yori, in her 12th season, is the conference Coach of the Year for the second year in a row.

She had a scare when she got dehydrated due to what was later termed an infection and collapsed in her front of her bench during a game against Indiana.

She has since recovered, of course, and accepts all accolades in honor of the team.

All five starters found spots on the all-conference teams, led by Player of the Year Jordan Hooper. The coaches expanded the all-conference teams to 10 each this season.

“Wow, what an amazing honor,” Hooper said. “It is obviously a tremendous honor to be the Big Ten Player of the Year, especially since it was voted on by the conference coaches. It's more exciting, though, that our whole Starting Five and Coach Yori were honored.

“That is unbelievable,” Hooper said. She has been all-conference for three straight seasons. “I think that says a lot about the amount of work we put in to get better throughout the season, and it also says a lot about the ability of our coaches to make us a better team.”

“I am thrilled for our players,” said Yori. “They put in a ton of work to get better all year long. It is really gratifying to see that hard work recognized and rewarded by the other coaches in the conference.”

All-Conference

Unlike many other conferences, the Big Ten coaches look beyond simple won/lost records as a sole criteria for league honors. So here we go:

Player of the Year

Jordan Hooper (senior) Nebraska

Defensive Player of the Year

Dara Taylor (senior) Penn State

Freshman of the Year

Amanda Zahui B., Nebraska

Sixth Man of the Year

Whitney Bays (junior) Purdue

Coach of the Year

Connie Yori, Nebraska

First Team

Ameryst Alston (sophomore) Ohio State; Rachael Banham (junior) Minnesota; Nia Coffey (senior) Northwestern; Ariel Edwards (senior) Penn State; Hooper; Michala Johnston (junior) Wisconsin; Samantha Logic (junior) Iowa; Tear’a Laudermill (junior) Nebraska; Maggie Lucas (senior) Penn State; Courtney Moses (senior) Purdue; and Rachel Theriot (sophomore) Nebraska.

Second Team

Larryn Brooks (freshman) Indiana; Emily Cady (junior) Nebraska; Bethany Doolittle (junior) Iowa; Cyesha Goree (junior) Michigan; KK Houser (senior) Purdue; Annalise Pickrel (senior) Michigan State; Taylor; and Zahui B.

All-Defensive Team

Doolittle; Klarissa Bell (senior) Michigan State; Hailie Sample (junior) Nebraska; Taylor; and Zahui B.

Freshmen of the Year

Brooks; Coffey; Ally Disterhoft (Iowa); Aerial Powers (Michigan State); Sahui B.



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