March Madness is here at last. If the ever-present RPI, the usual strength-of-schedule measurement tool used to decide who ultimately gets in the NCAA tournament after automatic bids are locked in, it appears the bids of the five Big Ten schools — regular season champs Maryland and Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana — are assured regardless of what happens this week in Indianapolis.
But for other clubs, such as Northwestern, Penn State and Iowa, all with above .500 records, is this a make-or-break week for them?
“We are all fighting for post-season [consideration],” noted Indiana Coach Teri Moran as all 14 Big Ten women’s basketball coaches spoke on Monday’s conference call with media, including the MSR. “I don’t know how the Big Ten has gotten its respect throughout the season. It has been a grind for all of us” playing in a 14-team league, she said.
“It is the great league. I don’t know if the outside world knows how deep it is,” reiterated Northwestern Coach Joe McKeown, whose ninth-seeded Wildcats take on Iowa, the eighth seed.
“I think the Big Ten in general needs to get a little respect and get 6-7 teams in” the NCAAs, advised Purdue’s Sharon Versyp. The fifth seeded Boilermakers will face the Nebraska-Illinois winner Thursday.
The women’s Big Ten tournament begins Wednesday with two games: Nebraska/Illinois and Rutgers/Wisconsin. The winners face a rested first-bye opponent on Thursday.
“I feel we have shown some improvement in the last few games,” stated Nebraska Coach Amy Williams of her squad.
“Our goal is to win the Big Ten tournament championship” but the third-seeded Wolverines will be in the NCAAs nonetheless, added Michigan’s Kim Barnes Arico. “Our team is really excited and really motivated.”
The Big Ten tourney “is a new season. It provides everybody with something new. We are excited to play and go against Northwestern again,” stated Iowa’s Lisa Bluder on Thursday’s 8/9 matchup, the first of four contests scheduled on the tourney’s second day. “I am glad we are playing on a neutral court.”
Maryland Coach Brenda Frese points out, “I think the Big Ten tournament will be extremely competitive.” She said that motivation for her players, the regular season co-champs and second seed “is pretty easy. This is an extremely motivated group.”
“We are playing for March,” said Michigan State Associate Head Coach Amaka Acucua on the sixth-seeded Spartans. She is one of three Black women coaching in the tourney. “We made our path a little bit harder,” she told the MSR. “We’ve been an up and down team. We have to do well in the tournament, to prove to the NCAA committee and prove to people what kind of team we are trying to be and have become. I think our inconsistency has been our Achilles heel.”
When asked on the possibility of playing four straight days — they play the Rutgers-Wisconsin winner on Thursday, “It is not going to be an easy task,” continued Agugua, who’s coaching in place of Head Coach Suzy Merchant, who is on medical leave.
“We have a tough first game” whoever we play, said Ohio State’s Kevin McGuff. The co-regular season champs will play the Northwestern-Iowa winner Friday.
“We are trying to clean up things. We have to be consistent defensively” against Iowa, said McKeown, who added that his club is looking at the experience of last year’s tournament, when the Wildcats went 3-1 as a building block leading into their game against Iowa. “I think we are both fighting for our NCAA lives. The winner of our game will play the No. 1 seed. I think we both [will] play with a chip on our shoulders on Thursday.”
Neither Wisconsin (#11) nor Rutgers (#14) is expected to play past this week due to their poor records coming into March. They play each other Wednesday and neither one of them assured of at least a second game of post-season competition. Badgers Coach Jonathan Tsipis hopes a “nice run” in the conference tournament, beginning against Rutgers.
“We might surprise ourselves,” said Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer of her 14th-seeded club.
“We’ve played a tough non-conference [schedule] and have a solid RPI. We still have wins to get,” noted Minnesota Coach Marlene Stollings on their post-season NCAA chances. “We have our work cut out for us in the tournament for us in post season play.”
Minnesota (#7) plays Penn State (#10) on Thursday. Both clubs are considered among the youngest in the conference. “We got a pretty young team. We’re starting two freshmen and two sophomores. They just needed time in conference play to jell a little bit better,” said Lady Lions’ Coquese Washington.
When asked about the Gophers, Washington said, “They got people who can put up points,” especially redshirt sophomore Kenisha Bell and junior Carlie Wagner —“two of the better scorers in the conference. Their ability and capability to put up a lot of points is something that you worry about.
“They get a lot of points off second chance opportunities because they are quick and active on the offensive glass. We definitely have to have a strong defensive and strong rebounding effort against them.”
Penn State “has a lot of momentum and is playing some of the best basketball at late,” said Stollings told the MSR and is impressed with the team’s guard trilogy — sophomore Teniya Page, senior Lindsay Spann, and sophomore Amari Carter “is really special and can go off at any moment.
“They have a lot of weapons. They are an explosive team, very athletic. We do like our matchup and is excited to play them on a neutral floor.”
“I’m looking forward to going to Indianapolis and competing in the Big Ten tournament,” said Washington.
“This Big 10 tournament will be exciting,” predicted Purdue’s Sharon Versyp.
They said it
The goal is to “play a perfect game. The game in front of us is the most important game.” —Brenda Frese.
“I don’t think there is a magic answer. Whatever it is that you do well, you have to do that well for three, four, five days in a row. If we can be who we are, we have a shot on being successful.” —Coquese Washington
“You want to play your best basketball in March. I think our players have bought into that since I’ve been here.” —Joe McKeown
“March is here. This is what you play for, train for.” —Kim Barnes Arico.
“Everybody’s goal should be to win it all. You got to win the first one to get a chance to play that second [game].” —Lisa Bluder
“You can’t feel pressure and you have to play loose” and not let the obvious pressure of post season play get to you. “You got to worry about yourself.” —Sharon Versyp
“We have wins to get.” —Marlene Stollings
“You have to have poise on the offensive end, and have a different gear on defense.” —Matt Bollard
“We’ve been having jitters the entire year. I can’t take it. It’s been a heck of a strain this year.” C. Vivian Stringer
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.