Freshmen are making their mark among Big Ten women
The Big Ten women’s basketball tournament will be a showcase for the conference’s wealth of young talent – and there’ll be lots of scoring if the regular-season trend continues.
The tournament opens with four games Thursday in Indianapolis. The winner of Sunday’s championship game earns an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
For the second straight year, the top four seeds are No. 11 Penn State (22-6) and No. 19 Michigan State (21-8) – the regular-season co-champions – and No. 16 Nebraska (22-6) and No. 17 Purdue (21-7).
Purdue, which has won six straight games, is the two-time defending champion. The Boilermakers have put together their longest win streak of the season, and the longest current streak in the Big Ten, without point guard KK Houser. The three-year starter tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee on Feb. 2.
”I feel really good about the team,” Purdue coach Sharon Versyp said. ”The Big Ten is exceptionally tough day in and day out. We’ve played the top teams in the country, we’ve beaten Nebraska twice. Right now we hopefully have a good (NCAA) seeding no matter what happens.”
While the Boilers rely on experienced players, a lot of other Big Ten teams have had newcomers play prominent roles.
”This is the strongest freshman class I’ve ever seen,” said Lisa Bluder of No. 23 Iowa, who’s in her 14th season with the Hawkeyes and the Big Ten’s longest tenured coach. ”That bodes well for the future of our conference.”
Michigan State relied heavily on two freshmen to finish with five straight wins and tie Penn State for the regular-season title. Aerial Powers led the Spartans with 13.8 points and 8 rebounds a game, and Tori Jankoshka averaged 12.7 points.
Jankoshka, Michigan’s Miss Basketball last year, took over at point guard after junior Kiana Johnson was suspended in early February for violating team rules.
”Tori was the one who without a doubt has really given us a spark,” MSU coach Suzy Merchant said. ”She gives us a different dynamic to our offense. She was ready, and she’s super intelligent when it comes to the game of basketball.”
Powers was joined on the league’s all-freshman team by Indiana’s Larryn Brooks, Iowa’s Ally Disterhoft, Northwestern’s Nia Coffey and Minnesota’s Amanda Zahui B.
Zahui B. was freshman of the year after averaging 15.1 points, 2.9 blocks and a Big Ten-leading 11.3 rebounds.
”We were hoping to eventually see what she’s doing, but not this quick,” Gophers coach Pam Borton said. ”A lot of the credit goes to Amanda. She came in and dropped 25 pounds, is in great shape and is coachable. She’s shown up every night and put up numbers. That’s unusual for any freshman.”
Nine freshmen rank among the top 30 scorers in the league, whose teams have combined for 197 70-point outings compared with 131 last season. There have been 82 80-point games compared with 56 in 2012-13.
Northwestern (15-14) plays Ohio State (15-17) in the tournament opener. Other games Thursday match Iowa (23-7) against Illinois (9-20), Michigan (17-12) against Indiana (18-11), and Minnesota (19-11) against Wisconsin (10-18).