Anybody’s game

Mark Heise

Minnesota women’s basketball coach Pam Borton said during the last weekend of the regular season that there was no clear favorite to take the Big Ten tournament.

2008 BIG TEN WOMEN’S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT
March 6-9
Conseco Fieldhouse
Indianapolis

While that may be true, there are still teams that are a little more likely to win than others, as all 11 will square off this weekend at the Conseco Field House in Indiana with a guaranteed NCAA tournament spot on the line.

Starting with the top seed and working down to the bottom, here’s a look at what each team brings to the table.

#1: Ohio State

The Buckeyes won the lottery when signing freshman center Jantel Lavender and it’s paid big dividends for the regular season conference champions, offering them yet another dominant offensive player to compliment senior guard Marscilla Packer.

The inside/outside combination of the two have combined to average nearly 33 points per game.

But Ohio State has shown chinks in its armor this season, going just 6-6 on the road, accounting for all but one of the Buckeyes’ losses.

Michigan State, Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois have all beaten OSU this season, and the Gophers, Spartans and Illini are all on the Buckeyes’ side of the bracket. It could make the road to the tournament championship a tougher one than expected for the Ohio State.

#2: Iowa

In one of the bigger surprises of the year, the Hawkeyes tied Ohio State for the conference title, despite being picked to finish seventh in the preseason poll.

The Hawkeyes made use of returning their entire starting lineup, and embraced a team-offense approach with no offensive standout.

Iowa boasts four players exceeding nine points per game as a total of 13 Hawkeyes have scored this season.

Junior forward Wendy Ausdemore has proven to be a deadly shooter from the outside, hitting 70 three-pointers this season while averaging above 45 percent from beyond the arc.

Junior guard Kristi Smith has also shown great strides this season, averaging 12.9 points per game for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa lost twice to Ohio State and once to Purdue and Michigan State. The only team of the bottom six to beat the Hawkeyes was No. 7 Michigan, when the Wolverines surprised Iowa in the opening game of the Big Ten season.

#3: Purdue

Purdue protected its home court very well throughout the year, going 9-1 in its home state, losing only to in-state rival Indiana.

Outside of the state of Indiana, the Boilermakers were a different team, losing 6-of-8 Big Ten games.

Fortunately for Purdue, the conference tournament is in Indiana, but not on the Boilermakers’ home floor. Purdue will have to prove that it can win away from home to work its way through the tournament.

The Boilermakers will rely on their junior post tandem of Lakisha Freeman and Danielle Campbell, as the two average 12.5 and 12.3 points per game, respectively. Don’t expect Purdue to get a big boost from a home crowd, at least in the early stages, as the winner of No. 6 Indiana/No. 11 Northwestern play the Boilermakers right off the bat.

#4: Minnesota

Junior guard Emily Fox said she was excited and she probably has reason to be, as the Gophers have beaten every team in the Big Ten this season with the exception of Iowa, a team Minnesota will not have to face unless both reach the championship game.

Fifth-seed Michigan State will be Minnesota’s first team to play, a team that the Gophers beat handily twice this year.

Minnesota is led by Fox, averaging 17.3 points per game, and two posts in senior Leslie Knight and sophomore Ashley Ellis-Milan, scoring 14 and 10.5 points per game, respectively. With sophomore guard Katie Ohm’s recent emergence as a consistent scoring threat as well, the Gophers have plenty of options on the offensive end.

The question mark with this team concerns consistency, as Minnesota hasn’t held a winning streak longer than three games since picking up its first loss Nov. 24.

On a two-game streak already, the Gophers would need to extend it to five games to complete their goal of a tournament championship.

#5: Michigan State

Picked to place in the top three during the preseason polls, the Spartans struggled early with their young team, starting the season with a 5-7 record.

But Michigan State pulled things together late, winning five of its last six games to sneak into a top-five finish, earning the last bye of the tournament.

Sophomore center Allyssa DeHaan leads the Spartans with 14.8 points per game, and is a defensive force as well, contributing 120 blocks over the year.

Michigan State might not have wanted to end up where it did however, facing Minnesota, the only team to beat the Spartans twice, in the first round.

Should Michigan State advance, either Ohio State, Wisconsin or Illinois would be waiting in the next round, and that is good news for the Spartans, as they hold a 3-1 season record against these three teams.

#6: Indiana

The Hoosiers face off in the opening round against Northwestern, the worst team in the Big Ten.

Indiana beat the Wildcats by an average of 23 points in the two games the teams played this season, and will essentially have home court advantage throughout the tournament, with the Hoosiers’ fan base in the same area as the tournament.

That advantage may be erased in the second game as Indiana would face Purdue, which will make this potential second-round matchup interesting. Like the Boilermakers, the Hoosiers are also a measly 2-6 outside of the state.

Indiana may have the advantage offensively, as the Hoosiers have four players scoring ten points or more each night this season, led by sophomore guard Jamie Braun’s 15.3 per game. The Hoosiers are on the downswing however, having gone 4-5 in the second half of the season.

#7: Michigan

First-year coach Kevin Borseth said before the year started that his team would be undergoing a long rebuilding process, even stating that he had worked with some players to shoot with only one hand.

It might have been a quicker fix than he expected.

The Wolverines surprised many with their ability to win some tough games, topping Iowa, Purdue and Michigan State at home while beating Wisconsin on the road.

In the seventh slot, Michigan will start the tournament against Penn State, a team it split games against during the regular season.

The Wolverines rely on fairly balanced scoring as well, with four players scoring more than nine points per game, and none averaging 11.

Sophomore center Krista Phillips leads the team with 10.8 points per game, while shooting over 47 percent from the floor.

#8: Wisconsin

Another underachiever this year, the Badgers were also expected to finish in the top three.

Wisconsin instead struggled to reach .500, and will face No. 9 Illinois for the right to play top-ranked Ohio State in the quarterfinals.

Led by senior guard Jolene Anderson, the Badgers are an offensive-minded team with several players happy to shoot the ball.

Anderson averaged 19.8 points per game this season, while senior guard Janese Banks contributed 13.4 points per game. Wisconsin doesn’t have a third go-to type player, but instead use five others that average at least five points a game.

The Badgers squeaked past Illinois at home and lost to the Illini on the road, but assuming they hold their seed and advance, they could provide a good matchup against Ohio State.

#9: Illinois

Illinois’ offense runs through sophomore forward Jenna Smith. The more touches she gets, the more shots she gets. And the more shots she takes, the more teams will double her, leaving an open player on the perimeter.

When Smith is working hard away from the ball, the Illini are a strong team. Smith’s 18.9 points per game and 9.7 rebounds lead the team, with junior guard Lori Bjork adding 9.8 points.

But if Smith doesn’t put up her usual numbers, the team struggles. Illinois won just a single conference game when Smith scored less than 16 points this year.

In two games against Ohio State, the Illini won by four at home, and lost by a single point on the road. Should Illinois upset Wisconsin on the road, they could also offer the Buckeyes a challenge.

#10: Penn State

Don’t let that 4-14 record and 11-game losing streak fool you ñ this team has the ability to compete with every team in the league.

Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, they’ve also shown the ability to lose to every team in the league, including Northwestern for the Wildcats’ only win of the year.

Penn State is scheduled to start the tournament off against Michigan, with Iowa waiting for the winner. The Wolverines are one of the four teams the Nittany Lions managed to beat this season.

The Nittany Lions have strength in the guard position, as their top three guards, Tyra Grant, Kamel Gissendanner and Brianne O’Rourke average 13.7, 13.4 and 11.3, respectively.

Over the course of the season, Penn State has hit 71 more three-pointers than its opponents, and will need to be hot if it is going to make a run for a title.

#11: Northwestern

Like Penn State, the Wildcats’ only shot at an NCAA tournament berth is through winning this championship. But with a 1-17 conference record, it doesn’t seem likely.

Northwestern was outscored 1079-843 in its 17 Big Ten losses, averaging a 14-point difference in each loss. The only game the Wildcats won was over Penn State, and it snapped a 16-game losing streak.

The Wildcats aren’t likely to make it to the second day, but if they do, it will be thanks to freshman center Amy Jaeschke. Jaeschke averages 13.6 points per game and nearly seven rebounds, but is the only player to average double digits in scoring on the team.

Northwestern will face off against Indiana in the opening round, fighting a strong and balance offensive front along with the Hoosiers’ home crowd advantage.