Lady Hoopyball Tournament Preview: Big Ten Edition.

Ed: bumped because Maggie Lucas is amazing and also scares me. --CG

It’s March, the regular season is wrapped up, and brackets are flying around the office, which can only mean that it’s Tourney time!

So how was the Penn State Lady Lions road to the Tournament? Not too shabby:

Big Ten Player of the Year, Maggie Lucas? Check.

All Big Ten First Team member, Alex Bentley? Check.

All Big Ten Third Team member, Nikki Greene? Check.

Big Ten All Defensive Team members, Alex Bentley and Dara Taylor? Check.

Big Ten coaches and media Coach of the Year, Coquese Washington? Check.

14-2 conference record and Big Ten regular season champions? Check.

Number #1 seed in the 2013 Big Ten Women’s Tournament? Check.

Big Ten Tournament title? Soon…

Regardless of the outcome against Nebraska this past weekend, ultimately an 82-67 victory, the Lady Lions were guaranteed the number 1 overall seed in the Big Ten Tournament. This is the second straight regular season title for the Lady Lions and number 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament. But will they be hoisting the trophy this Sunday afternoon at Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, Ill. or will another shootyhoops team knock of the favorites?

Similar to last year, the Lady Lions are entering the tournament as the number 1 seed and the regular season BIG title. In 2012, however, the Lady Lions were upset by eventual BIG tournament champions Purdue in the semi-finals 66-68. The Lions are a year older, a year better and hungry for that post season trophy, they are also playing some of their best basketball right now. Even Coquese agrees "I like where we are, we are playing pretty good basketball. I like the energy we have and the offensive balance we have." It will not be easy for the Lady Lions to win it all, there are several teams that are also playing some of their best basketball at the end of the year who can challenge Penn State for the championship. Let’s take a look at the bracket to see what the Lady Lions have to do to win it all this year, shall we?

The first game to start off the BIG tourney is # 7 Iowa vs. #10 Northwestern, which is scheduled to tip at 11:30 am this Thursday on BTN (all games are broadcast on BTN except for the title game which is on ESPN2). Iowa enters the game with an 8-8 conference record, having won 3 of their last 5 games, including their regular season finale against Northwestern, 62-45. The Hawkeyes has some impressive wins this year, including wins over six ranked opponents, two over the Boilermakers alone. Northwestern comes into the game with a 5-11 conference record and having lost 3 of their last 5 games. The Wildcats has a knack for keeping games close even when they are overpowered; Penn State only beat them by 4 in early January. Iowa and Nebraska split their regular season series, but it seems that the Hawkeyes might have the momentum going into this game. This could be a real close hard fought game, with the possibility of the game only being settled in the final minute or two, if not overtime.

Following this game is #6 Illinois taking on # 11 Wisconsin. Illinois comes into the game with a 9-7 conference record having also lost 3 of their last 5 games, including a blowout loss to Penn State. Wisconsin comes into the tournament with a 3-13 record, with one of those wins coming over Penn State. They have lost their last 5 straight games, and lost both of their regular season games against Illinois. Even though the Badgers hasn’t gotten many W’s this year, their last three games, all against good competition, shows that they are very good team and competitive, having only lost to both Northwestern and Nebraska by 2 each. But Illinois should take this one, unless Tim Beckman decides to show up to lend some support in that case I am going Badger upset.

Third match of the day belongs to #8 Minnesota and. #9 Ohio State. Minnesota is a dangerous team; they lead the league in shooting percentage and play great defense. The Golden Gophers come to the game with a 7-9 conference record, winning 3 of their last 5, and having beaten Ohio State twice this year and have a late season win over Penn State. Ohio State comes in with the same conference record, 7-9, but has won 6 of their last 8 conference games. Even though the Buckeyes dropped both of their regular season games against Minnesota, their last matchup was a 1 point game. Just like the Iowa/Northwestern game, this one should also be a close defensive game, with a possible overtime needed to decide the winner here.

The final matchup in the opening round of the tournament pits #5 Michigan vs. #12 Indiana. Michigan comes in with a 7-9 conference record having lost 3 of their last 5 games, but the good news for the Wolverines is that they play the Hoosiers. Indiana, unlike their men’s team, is not very good this year. Indiana comes in with a 2-14 conference record and having only won 1 of their last 5 games, randomly against a ranked Purdue team. Michigan should get an easy win here, unlike when the men last played Penn State (Michigan hate for life!!).

Friday sees the debut of the top four seeds in the Tournament, Penn State, Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan State respectively. Friday’s action starts off with #2 Nebraska taking on the winner of Iowa vs. Northwestern. The Huskers comes into the tournament with a 12-4 record having won 10 straight before falling to Penn State Sunday. Whomever the Huskers play they should be able to beat them quite easily, unless they are experiencing a hangover from being beaten soundly by the Lady Lions.

The second game of the day will see #3 Purdue take on the winner of Illinois/Wisconsin. The Boilermakers had an up and down year, at one point being ranked as high as #11 in the nation. They enter the tournament with a 10-6 conference record having lost 3 of their last 5 games. Even though Purdue is limping into the tournament they should be able to get out of the second round, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Purdue lose their opening game they seems to be the most vulnerable of the top four seeds. In the history of the tournament, this will be the 19th edition; though, Purdue has won 8 titles, the most out of any Big Ten team, they knows how to win this tournament, but will that history help them this year?

The third game of the day is #1 Penn State taking on the winner of Minnesota/Ohio State. GoPSUSports had a great summary of how the Lady Lions played this year and their offensive prowess:

The Lady Lions have been ranked in the Top 10 all season nationally, peaking at #6 in the Associated Press Poll in November and have been among the national leaders in scoring offense and three-point field goal percentage all year. Penn State is riding a 20-game home court winning streak, which is the third-longest active streak in NCAA Division I. The Lady Lions posted a perfect 14-0 record at home to earn the 10th unbeaten home slate in school history. Penn State paced the Big Ten in scoring during conference play, accounting for 74.4 points per game, nearly six markers better than the second-ranked team. In addition, the Lions led the league in field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage to become the first team in conference history to lead the Big Ten in all three categories in a single season.

The Lions won their only regular season games against Ohio State and split their series with Minnesota. Minnesota poses more matchup problems for the Lady Lions, and if they indeed make it out of the first round, which they have a very good chance of doing, it will be a tough game for Penn State to win. If you are a PSU fan, you will have to do something that we all hate to do – root for Ohio State as a OSU win in the first round will be very beneficial for a first round Penn State win. If Minnesota wins, the Lady Lions will be looking for some payback for their late season loss to the Gophers, but they have the tools and talent to take the game regardless of who they play. Coquese knows this will be a tough game, "No matter who we play on Friday (Minnesota or Ohio State) it is going to be a challenge." But this doesn’t frighten Coquese and the lady Lions since she feels that "we will go into the tournament confident that we can play well. We’re capable of putting together 3 good nights of basketball."

The final game of the second round pits #4 Michigan State against the winner of Michigan/Indiana, which will most assuredly be Michigan. Michigan State has a 10-6 conference record and comes into the tournament having won 3 of their last 5 games. Again, assuming that they play Michigan, the two team split their regular season games, with Michigan only winning the second contest by 1 point. So this should be a good matchup.

After these two opening rounds it really remains to be seen who enters the final round of competition Saturday before the championship game Sunday. Penn State, would, if they win their opening round, play the winner of the Michigan State game. I can see anything from pure chalk to crazy upset after upset and anything in between.

In order to have Penn State be the last team standing Sunday afternoon there are a few aspects of their game they, in my opinion, need to focus on. The first is to create turnovers. The Lady Lions are one of the best in the BIG but also the country in causing turnovers. When they can do this consistently throughout the game it allows for them to get into their transition offense, where the Lady Lions are at their most dangerous. What the Lady Lions aim for is to constantly push the pace of the game. Fast pace and high scoring is what Coquese wants to see, that way they can use their superior talent and speed to control and dictate the entire pace of the game.

Secondly, limit fouling while causing fouling. Most games that the Lady Lions played this year ended with major foul trouble for most of the team, especially our centers and bigs. Keeping Nikki Greene, especially, on the floor as much as possible will be a big key for Coquese. If she gets into early foul trouble the Lions can rely on Mia Nickson and Talia East to come in to rebound and hopefully put back some misses under the basket. Coquese can also count on Tori Waldner to help spell Greene or Nickson to help add some size and length to the Lions. Keeping Penn State out of foul trouble is only half of the equation, the other is driving to the basket and keep the aggressive nature of the offense going to force the other team to defend the lane to hopefully get them and foul the Lady Lions for and 1 situations throughout the game. Penn State does have some excellent foul shooters, so getting into the bonus or double bonus will be beneficial at the end of the halves.

Finally, get Maggie Lucas open early and often. Machine Gun Maggie is one of the best perimeter shooters in the nation, in all divisions. Setting up screens, and back door cuts for her to heat up early will prove to be valuable throughout the game. Just this past Sunday, Lucas hit 11-20 from the field including 8-13 from behind the arch. This proves what Coquese says about her star guard "Maggie does not take many bad shots. She takes the shots that she wants to take. I expect her to make every shot. She puts in the work." What many teams are doing is limiting her ability to shoot the three, with double teaming and playing extremely tight, harassing defense. If the defense on Lucas is not allowing her to get any open looks, though, this doesn’t completely hamper the Lions ability to score since Alex Bentley, Dara Taylor, and Ariel Edwards are there to help drive the basket and contribute the occasional three.

If Penn State can create turnovers that lead to points, limit fouling and get Lucas open the Lady Lions will have great success in this Tournament and hopefully in the next tournament as well.

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