Thursday, December 23, 2010

Big Ten Women Wrapping Up Non-Conference Season

The Minnesota Gopher women wrapped up non-conference play with another uninspired win--but a win--last night, 82-74 over 4-and-8 Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks were within 73-68 at 1:30 and 78-74 at 0:19 before a Katie Loberg 2 + 1 iced it for the home team.

The Gophers finished up 8-and-5. The losses included:

• The good--75-79 to 10-1 Wisconsin-Green Bay while shooting 54 percent from the field

• The bad--68-75 at 4-5 Alabama A&M while shooting 63 percent from the charity stripe

• And the ugly--56-103 at #2 Baylor

The wins featured the same.

• I saw one of the good ones, 73-63 over the 6-5 Pitt Panthers, and there was also a 63-58 win over 7-4 Virginia Tech in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Prettiest of all, perhaps, was a 71-67 win vs. 7-6 North Carolina State In Reno, NV, in which Leah Cotton scored 25 points.

• The bad--97-81 to 7-5 Dayton at the Barn

• Last night's win was ugly, an 8-pointer despite shooting 54 percent, as the Gophers committed an all-too-typical 24 turnovers.

More broadly speaking, there's been a lot of good things that have happened--specifically, the emergence of Cotton, Kristen Dockery and Katie Loberg. Cotton is 2nd on the team in scoring at 16 ppg and shooting 50 percent, compared to 3 points and 25 percent shooting a year ago. Dockery is playing more minutes per game (22) than she played all of last year (18), and is scoring 6 ppg on 56 percent shooting. Loberg is the 3rd leading scorer and rebounder at 10 and 4 and is shooting 58 percent from the field. Last year she scored 2 ppg on 35 percent shooting.

As a team, the Gophers are shooting 46 percent from the field, one of the better figures among Big Ten teams, and they're out-rebounding their opponents 39-34.

But the Gophers are losing the possession game. Opponents have 14 more offensive rebounds than the Gophers, and Minnesota has a whopping 60 more turnovers than their opponents. So opponents have launched 10 more FG attempts per game than the Gophers, and so that 46 percent FG percentage has resulted in 13 less actual FG than the opponents. Assists are almost dead even at 15 per game for each side.

But it's those turnovers, 20 per game, that really stand out. There were 26 in the home loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay, 20 in the shocking loss at Alabama A&M, 24 last night against Northern Arizona.

Still, the future would seem to promise improvement with the emergence of the sophomores (Cotton and Loberg) and the freshman class (Kionna Kellogg, Sari Noga and Micaella Riche) already contributing (7 points in 30 minutes per game). Congrats also to coach Pam Borton as last night's win made her the winningest Gopher women's coach ever with 173 wins.

But a .500 record (8-8) would have to be considered a moral victory in a Big Ten season that opens next Thursday, Dec. 30 at Illinois, then continues with Indiana and Iowa at home on Jan. 2 and Jan. 5.

The schedule, for the record, is fairly neutral. The Gophers will be playing Illinois and Penn State just once each, and obviously you wouldn't mind playing them twice. In particular, we don't get Penn State at home. On the other hand, we don't have to play Ohio State and Purdue twice either, and specifically we won't get a virtually automatic loss in Columbus.

The Big Ten

If not the Gophers who, then, will contend for the Big Ten title? Well, right now the non-conference records are as follows.

#14 Iowa 12-1
#12 Michigan State 12-1
Northwestern 11-2
#13 Ohio State 8-2 with Duquesne and Bethune-Cookman remaining
Penn State 10-3 with Bucknell remaining on the schedule
Purdue 8-3 with Western Illinois remaining
Minnesota 8-5
Michigan 7-5
Indiana 6-6
Illinois 5-7 with California still to go
Wisconsin 5-7

But here's how it will look going into the Big Ten tournament come March.

1. Ohio State 13-3, 23-5, #7

All-American Jantel Lavender scores 25 points on 58 percent shooting, and adds 10 boards. Samantha Prahalis, Tayler Hill and Brittany Johnson also score in double figures, though Prahalis' 31 percent shooting thus far is a worry and the depth isn't what it's been. Still, the Buckeyes won't go undefeated in the conference, but 3 losses is pretty much rock bottom. 15-1 wouldn't be a surprise.

2. Iowa 12-4, 23-6, #15

The Hawkeyes are, of course, Gophers South with Kachine Alexander (14 points, 9 boards, 2 steals) and Kamille Wahlin (12 points, 3 assists) among their top contributors. Iowa has 2 common opponents with the Gophers--they beat Southern by 24, we beat 'em by 15; and they hammered Virginia Tech by 29, we won by 5. Iowa's schedule is a mixed bag--no games at Michigan and Indiana, nor do they get Northwestern or Purdue at home.

3. Michigan State 11-5, 22-7, #21

The Spartans lost to Baylor by 26, we lost to them by 47. They beat Dayton by 12, we lost by 16. But we beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee by 13, the Spartans beat 'em by just 7. But, hey, they're 12-1 with good wins at #15 Florida State 72-64, and 71-57 over #17 Texas. Senior Kalisha Keane has emerged as their leader with 16 ppg on 46 percent shooting, versus last year's 7.5 points and 39 percent. The Spartans do NOT play at Northwestern or Purdue, nor do they get Indiana and Penn State at home.

4. Northwestern 9-7, 20-9

OK, are the Wildcats for real? I mean, here's a team that won 31 games while losing 124 (10-80 in the Big Ten) from 2004 to 2009. Until last season, they hadn't had a winning campaign in 13years. But, yeah, they're for real. An 18-15 record a year ago included twice as many Big Ten wins as the previous year, plus a pair of NIT wins in March. Now in his 3rd season as head coach, Joe McKeown has brought respectability more quickly than anyone could have predicted.

Of course, even more credit for the turnaround has to go to 6-5 center Amy Jaeschke, a returning 1st team all-Big Ten selection who is now scoring 24 ppg with 9 rebounds on 57 percent shooting. Other returning starters include Kendall Hackney, Beth Marshall and Brittany Orban, and all 3 are scoring in double figures for the Wildcats.

The Wildcats beat Northern Arizona by 18, versus the Gophers 8 point margin over the Lumberjacks. And like most Big Ten teams, the schedule is pretty neutral--they're deprived of the opportunity to lose at Iowa, and also of the chance to beat Indiana and Michigan. Nor dpo they play Michigan State. Northwestern is for real and the 1st winning record in conference games in a blue moon would seem to be in order.

5. Purdue 8-8, 17-11

On paper the Boilermakers are a mess, with 11 different women starting at least 1 game. But, hey, their only losses are to #7 Texas A&M, #16 Notre Dame and #22 Maryland, though it's true the A)&M loss was of the monumental variety (100-55). And they've been distracted by Drey Mingo's meningitis and the resulting cancellation of a trip to a tournament in Mexico. Mingo, the team's 3rd leading scorer, is now back in the lineup and so I'll guess that Purdue will do what it always seems to do when it is in rebuilding mode, which is play in the vicinity of .500 in the conference.

6. Penn State 7-9, 18-12

The Lady Lions are 10-3 but lost to Drexel, at home, on Tuesday night 84-73. Thank goodness there's another tune-up against Bucknell next week. By way of comparison with our Gophers, the Lions beat Dayton by 5 (we lost by 16) and lost to Wisconsin-Green Bay by 5 (we lost by 4). Penn State can score with Maggie Lucas, Alex Bentley, Zhaque Gray and Mia Nickson all averaging in double figures. But they can give up the points, too--107 to Dayton, 113 to Boston College, 84 to Drexel, and so on. Penn State plays Iowa and Michigan State just once, and that can't be bad. But they play Indiana and Wisconsin once, and that can't be good.

7. Minnesota 6-10, 14-15
8. Michigan 6-10, 13-15
9. Indiana 6-10, 12-16
10. Wisconsin 6-10, 11-17

Distinguishing among the also-rans is desperate work, though I can tell you that Wisconsin struggled early on without the services of point guard Alyssa Karel, a Cretin-Derham grad, and then forward Lin Zastrow. Not only that, but the Badgers played by far the Big Ten's toughest non-conference schedule. They lost to Wisconsin-Green Bay by 26 (the Gophers lost to UWGB by 4), and they beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee by 16. The Gophers defeated UWM by 13. And when they traveled to #5 Duke, the Badgers lost by just 59-51. Karel leads the Badgers with 14 ppg and 2 assists, while Tara Steinbauer (of Bloomington Kennedy) is 3rd in scoring at 11 ppg and leads with 7 rebounds.

Michigan has stubbornly refused to jell under coach Kevin Borseth but a 68-55 win last night over #24 Boston College says that maybe they're getting there. Of course, just 4 nights previous they were demolished 67-48 by 5-5 Detroit. Will the real Wolverines please stand up? Guards Kate Thompson (Wayzata) and Courtney Boylan (Chaska) come off the bench for Michigan, and score about 10 points between them on about 40 percent shooting.

The Hoosiers have been about as erratic as the other Big Ten also-rans, losing to Florida Gulf Coast and Toledo and Miami (OH) while beating #24 Nebraska 67-61. Jori Davis scores 17 ppg but on just 37 percent shooting, while Georgie Jones, formerly of St. Paul Central and Marquette, has finally gained her eligibility. She joined the Hoosier's starting lineup just last week and has scored 13.5 ppg with 6 boards in 2 games to date. Other than Jones (59 percent), the Hoosiers are not a good shooting team.

11. Illinois 4-12, 9-19

Is Illinois really a last place team? I mean, they beat Cal Poly 104-63, this being the same Cal Poly whom the Gophers beat 66-52. But on the other hand, the Illini lost to N.C. State 73-57 at home, whereas we knocked off the Wolfpack 71-67 in Raleigh. Karisma Penn is Illinois' leader with 17 ppg, 9.5 rebounds and 51 percent shooting. But everybody else is scoring in single digits and shooting in the low 40s at best.

Big Ten Tournament

OK, a little optimism.

#6 Penn State over #11 Illinois
#7 Minnesota over #10 Wisconsin
#9 Indiana over #8 Michigan

#1 Ohio State over #9 Indiana
#7 Minnesota over #2 Iowa
#3 Michigan State over #6 Penn State
#5 Purdue over #4 Northwestern

#1 Ohio State over #5 Purdue
#7 Minnesota over #3 Michigan State

#1 Ohio State over #7 Minnesota

All-Big Ten

Jantel Lavander, Ohio State, C, Player of the Year
Amy Jaeschke, Northwestern, C
Sam Prahalis, Ohio State, G
Jamie Printy, Iowa, F
Alex Bentley, Penn State, G

Maggie Lucas, Penn State, G
Kachine Alexander, Iowa, G
Kalisha Keane, Michigan State, F
Morgan Johnson, Iowa, C
Karisma Penn, Illinois, F

Kamille Wahlin, Iowa, G
Tayler Hill, Ohio State, G
Brittany Rayburn, Purdue, G
Kiara Buford, Minnesota, G
Alyssa Karel, Wisconsin, G

Coach of the Year--Joe McKeown, Northwestern

The Future

I see the Gophers getting to 17-16, and thus getting a bid to the NIT. Let's say they win a pair to finish 19-17. You may have thought 6-10 in the Big Ten a bit pessimistic, but 19-17 overall would have to be an optimistic forecast.

Still, the future looks better yet. Only China Antoine and Kristen Dockery will complete their eligibility this year. And God bless them both. Antoine was a nobody when recruited, but has been the Gophers' best player from time to time and a solid contributor at all times over the past 2 years, except when turning the ball over (3 times a game thus far in 2010-2011). Dockery has finally overcome the injuries that kept her on the sideline for 4 years, and she has been a revelation.

Along with Dock, Leah Cotton and Katie Loberg are much improved as sophomores. The juniors, Kiara Buford, Brianna Mastey and Jackie Voigt are still pretty much the players they were a year ago, though it's true that Buford has raised her scoring average from 13 to 16 and her shooting percentage from 40 to 48. But it's also true that as she's tried to assert herself, her turnovers are up from 2 to 4.

And, as noted, the freshman class has shown promise, while point guard Rachel Banham will be joining the program next year as the Gophers' highest rated recruit since the ill-fated class of 2008. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, rather let's leave it with a final summary for 2011:

May the freshman class improve as much as last year's freshman class has improved. And may everybody cut down on their turnovers. If all of that happens, the upside could possibly be a winning record (at about 19-17). But there's no more upside than that and a lot more downside. Frankly, a 1st round loss in the Big Ten tournament, a final record of 14-16, and no NIT bid would seem more likely than the rosy scenario presented above. There, I said it.

But next year, I guarantee 19 wins. Oops, I got ahead of myself again. Unfortunately, seasons like 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 have that effect.

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