Big Ten's depth poses strong challenge for women's title run
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — It took four days for the No. 2 Ohio State women to go from unbeaten to second place in the Big Ten.
If the Buckeyes don't find a fix quickly, coach Kevin McGuff knows the slide could accelerate.
Here, in perhaps the top women's basketball conference as February looms, nothing is a given. With four teams ranked in the top 11, six in The Associated Press Top 25 and all six within three games of the league lead, every night seems like musical chairs. And every night, it seems someone else is being left out.
On Thursday, it was McGuff's team again.
“I think there are several teams in the league, that if they play their best basketball down the stretch, can make a deep run in the (NCAA) Tournament and maybe to Dallas," McGuff said after a 78-65 loss at No. 6 Indiana. “There are a lot of teams that have upperclassmen with great experience. Indiana is one of them, but that's really across the Big Ten and, obviously, that makes it difficult.”
This week's first two games gave McGuff a glimpse of how tough the final month of the regular season might be. After starting 19-0 and climbing as high as a school-record tying No. 2, Ohio State's quest for a perfect season came crashing down Monday night on its home court with an 83-72 loss to No. 10 Iowa. Then came the trip to Indiana where they were greeted by a mariachi band and another regular-season record-breaking crowd of 10,455. The previous mark stood 11 days.
Meanwhile, the Hoosiers' win, coupled with their 10-point victory Monday at No. 13 Michigan, suddenly has Indiana's swelling fan base dreaming about adding a third line to the conference championship banner. The Hoosiers won the 2002 Big Ten Tournament title but their only previous regular-season crown came in 1983.
Still, record-setting coach Teri Moren and her players recognize the next month will be as difficult or more difficult than the first three months, which included a nine-game stint witout all-conference guard Grace Berger.
“They're all big if you ’re chasing something the way we’re chasing something,” Moren said. “You can’t overlook anything and make the moment bigger than it is.”
So far, Indiana's only stumble came at Michigan State on Dec. 29.
But anything can happen with 10 of 14 teams entering Friday with winning records and some outside the leading pack building momentum.
Yes, Indiana (19-1, 9-1) seems well-positioned with a 6-0 mark against ranked teams including its only scheduled meeting against perennial power No. 10 Maryland. They even own road wins at Michigan and No. 22 Illinois.
What's left? Two matchups against the Hawkeyes (16-4, 8-1) and potential national player of the year Caitlin Clark, two more against resurgent rival Purdue (14-6, 5-5) and rematches with the Buckeyes (19-2, 8-2) and Michigan (16-5, 6-4).
Iowa’s three losses all came to ranked teams — UConn, North Carolina State and at Illinois — and now it must navigate a final month that includes two dates against Maryland and trips to Nebraska and Penn State in addition to the Hooisers.
Ohio State still plays Maryland twice, travels to Michigan and Penn State and hosts the Hoosiers. And, of course, nobody will forget about the Terrapins, winners of 10 their last 11, or even Illinois, which has only won two of its last five but also has only two games left against ranked foes.
In fact, everyone is expecting February to be as wild and wacky as any championship chase in the country.
“The potential’s there, we’ve seen it,” Moren said of her team making a third straight deep postseason run. “But I also know this can be a funny game, right? If you’re not ready night in and night out, you’re always in jeopardy of coming up short.”
Especially in the Big Ten.
AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25