Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Second Season: The Minnesota Gopher Women and the Big 10

Minnesota Gopher Women's Outlook

The Minnesota Gopher women turned the corner from the first to the second season by winning 2 out of 3 conference games--losing a heart-breaker at 1st place Purdue, then hammering Indiana at home, and withstanding a Northwestern rally to win their 1st road game of the year. All in all, enough to renew a sense of optimism among Gopher women faithful.

Yet this optimism would have to be described as cautious. Pam Borton's Gophers, after all, have been down over the past several years, and rely on a freshman for their offensive production more so than any other Big 10 team. And, on top of that, the schedule is not much of a help. With the Big 10's 16-game schedule, every team plays 5 opponents twice and 6 once. The voids in the Gopher schedule include all 4 of the #9 through #12 teams, whereas we play all 4 of the currently rated teams twice apiece. And the schedule concludes with a pair of games at #22 Penn State and #19 Ohio State.

Given the degree of difficulty presented by the schedule, any continued success would have to begin with a win next Thursday against 1st place Purdue. A week ago I would have said that this wouldn't/shouldn't be possible but after barely falling short at West Lafayette, I'd say this game is now a toss-up. A win, and 9-7, 17-13 would seem possible. Still not enough for an NCAA bid, but enough to declare that the future will be better than the recent past.

If so, we owe it all to that freshman guard, Rachel Banham from Lakeville North. Banham is the Gophers' leading scorer at 15 ppg (on 40 percent shooting), with 5.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. Senior guard Kiara Buford adds 14 ppg (on 44 percent shooting), with 4 boards, 3.5 assists and 2 steals. Junior post Katie Loberg is much improved at 10 ppg with a t eam-high 7..5 rebounds, but she still shoots below 40 percent.

The Gophers overall are, in fact, not a good shooting team and they also turn the ball over a little too much. So, they're prone to the same devastating droughts that have hurt so much in recent years. And, so, while that 9-7 Big 10 record mentioned above remains possible, 7-9 is more likely and would be an acceptable conclusion to this rebuilding/reloading year.

Life at the Top

The pre-season coaches' poll had Penn State, Purdue, Iowa and Michigan State 1 through 4, with multiple time defending champion Ohio State only slated for 5th place. But the most recent national rankings more closely resemble our sense of reality in the Big 10:

#9 Ohio State 2-0, 15-0
#18 Purdue 3-0, 13-3
#19 Nebraska 2-0, 13-1
#22 Penn State 1-1, 11-3

Well, the Buckeyes and Boilers at #1-2 seems familiar. But Nebraska and Penn State at 3-4? Not so much. This is, of course, the Cornhuskers' 1st year jn the Big 10 and its national ranking totally unexpected. Coach Connie Yori is the Big 10 Coach of the Year so far in 2011-2012. Soph forward Jordan Hooper has blossomed with 21 points and 9 boards per game, giving the Huskers a leg up on the inside in what has become a guard-oriented league.

Penn State, of course, had plenty of success under former coach Rene Portland but, since her departure, not so much. Now coach Coquese Washington and guards Alex Bentley, Maggie Lucas and Zhaque Gray have the Lions contending for a Big 10 title again. Bentley, the pre-season Player of the Year, is scoring 19 pppg with 5 boards and 3 steals; Lucas is adding 15 ppg with 2 boards, 6 assists and 3 steals; and Gray is at 11 ppg, 3 boards and 2 assists. And it helps their cause that, again, there's not a lot of really strong inside players in the league this year, unlike, say, the Ohio State teams of the recent past.

Ah, Ohio State. Surely they miss all-America posts Jessica Davenport and Jantel Lavender, who seem to have roamed the paint for the Bucks for the past decade or more. Surely they miss them! Well, they're 15-0 and very likely to be 17-0 before losing for the 1st time at Michigan State or, failing that, 21-0 before losing to the Gophers at Williams Arena. And, surprise, it's not pre-season all-conference choice Sam Prahalis leading the charge, it's our own Tayler Hill from Mpls. South with 22 ppg. Prahalis, to be sure, is next with 18 ppg plus 5 boards and 7 assists. And the fact is that most Big 10 teams this year are unequipped to exploit the Buckeye's lack of strength in the pivot.

The Middle of the Pack

This is where the Gopher women reside with the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan.

I thought Iowa would contend, and of course they did for a half at Ohio State last night, leading by as many as 16. But the Buckeyes caught up by half-time and pulled away to an 84-71 win. The fact is that Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder has had trouble figuring out how to deploy her 3 guards including senior Kamille Wahlin from Crookston, MN; junior Jamie Printy; and freshman Sam Logic. The 3 score about 36 ppg among them, barely more than the Gopher trio of Banham, Buford and Leah Cotton; and shoot only about 40 percent as a group. Logic was rated more highly than Banham coming in but has had to compete with Wahlin for the ball, and so she's had the tougher time adjusting.

Michigan State usually contends and this year they've again found a way so far. Pre-season all-conference pick Lykendra Johnson hasn't blossomed, however; she's scoring 9.5 ppg. Senior guard Porsche Poole is leading the way with 11 ppg, so I think you can say they're doing it with mirrors.

Michigan continues to improve, thanks in part to Minnesota guards Courtney Boylan (13 ppg on 49 percent shooting) and Kate Thompson (9 ppg). But with Ohio State and Penn State up next, their middle-of-the-packness will shortly be reinforced.

They Also Ran

Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin are now 0-11, and this is where they shall remain until another year. Northwestern is young and was expected to improve dramatically. But injuries and youth have put those plans on hold. Time will tell when Illinois, Indiana and the Badgers can escape "also ran" status anytime soon.

In Summary

1. Ohio State 14-2, #1 seed conference tournament, tournament champion; 30-2, NCAA bid
2. Penn State 12-4, #2; 22-7, NCAA bid
3. Purdue 12-4, #3; 23-8, NCAA bid
4. Nebraska 11-5, #4; 23-7, NCAA bid
5. Michigan State 9-7, #5; 18-13, WNIT bid
6. Iowa 8-8, #6, 3 wins (2 upsets) in conference tournament, runner-up; 18-14, WNIT bid
7. Michigan 8-8, #7; 19-11, NCAA bid
8. Minnesota 7-9, #8;16-16, WNIT bid
9. Northwestern 5-11, #9; 15-15
10. Illinois 4-12, #10, 1 upset win in conference tournament; 11-20
11. Indiana 3-13, #11; 8-22
12. Wisconsin 3-13, #12; 7-22


Sam Prahalis, Ohio State, g
Tayler Hill, Ohio State, g
Alex Bentley, Penn State, g
Maggie Lucas, Penn State, g
Jordan Hooper, Nebraska, f

2nd Team

Brittney Rayburn, Purdue, g
Jamie Printy, Iowa, g
Rachel Banham, Minnesota, g
Kendall Hackney, Northwestern, f
Karisma Penn, Illinois, f

3rd Team

Morgan Johnson, Iowa, c
Lykendra Johnson, Michigan State, f
Kiara Buford, Minnesota, g
Lindsay Moore, Nebraska, g
Taylor Wurtz, Wisconsin, g

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