Baffled by the Big Ten

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPNET SportsZone


FEBRUARY 14, 1997

The column didn't want to get written this week. I'd sit down to start typing, and the keyboard would try to walk away. A little piece of lint on the screen started singing off-key. The phone rang, the dog barked, the wind howled.

It's because I have this dread of my main topic, the crazy Big Ten.

Sub-consciously, I'm creating distractions. I even started thinking about other things I had trouble writing about.

Victorian Prose and Poetry midterm paper, 1986. This class was way deeper than I was. The topic: What was the motivation behind some why-doesn't-he-get-to-the-point poem.

Lit majors would do 75-page papers that always seemed to have something to do with the Iliad; the sum of my thoughts was, "I've watched enough 'Falcon Crest' episodes to know everything is motivated by lust or greed. The end."

So it came time to turn in the paper and ... I went to the Big Eight women's tournament. Dropped the class and took some pea-brain history course that summer to make up the credits.

Which brings me back to the Big Ten. Basic here's-the-facts history is a lot easier than subjective analysis of an obtuse subject.

And the Big Ten is as obtuse as it gets this season in college hoops. How many would have guessed a couple months ago that the big-big-big game of the season would be this Sunday's Illinois at Michigan State contest? I could talk to you about Big Ten history. But try to explain what's happened so far and predict what will happen in the final games of the regular season and the postseason tournament? Oh, sure.

So I turned to the experts, the Big Ten fans, and was relieved to know that they also are puzzled by their beloved conference.

I don't say this lightly. Big Ten fans analyze like IHOP makes flapjacks.


BadgerBen: "I couldn't believe they wore the red scrunchies in their hair last night. They always wear black scrunchies on the road against opponents who play mostly zone."

ImaHawk: "I beg to differ, Ben. In 1995 against us, they wore wore white scrunchies in that very situation."

LuvLions "Sorry, Hawk, that was 1994, and they were closer to beige than white."

I'm kidding, I'm kidding. I like Big Ten fans a lot. They support their teams -- the conference has the best attendance in the nation. And if anybody's hip to what's going on, it's them.

So I'm not going to tell them anything they don't already know. For the rest of the country, we'll try to explain.

We can start with a basic truth: Iowa is the chief culprit in the confusion. Virtually every preseason poll had the Hawkeyes in the nation's top 10. By Christmas, they were out entirely. Now to make the NCAAs, Iowa (11-10, 6-6) almost certainly needs to win the Big Ten Tournament.

Amy Herrig has had her moments, as have the Hawks. Sometimes the team they were expected to be shows up -- like when they beat Michigan State and Northwestern. But, among other things, they also lost by 12 at home to Michigan. It's a scrappy bunch of Wolverines, but the Hawks should defend their Iowa City turf better than that.

Injuries have slowed them, but the lack of a leader -- point guard Stacy Frese transferring to Iowa State really hurt -- may be the true dagger.

I wonder if Iowa isn't a bit like North Carolina last year -- a great assemblage of individual talent going in different directions. The '95-96 Tar Heels would have won a Jump, Shoot and Rebound competition, but they couldn't win many games. Marion Jones returns from a redshirt year and is such a fantastic leader, everybody else falls into sync.

As opposed to falling in the sink, which may sound impossible but is the kind of wacko thing that would happen to a Penn State player. The Lions might be considered a disappointment because they are 13-9, 6-6 and need to go to work hard to make the NCAAs.

But if you look at the losses, none of them are horrible. Five in a row were to Alabama, Louisville, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Georgia -- all away from home. A lot of teams could lose those five.

Wisconsin (15-7, 7-5) hasn't been as flaky as Iowa, but did lose four in a row before a little non-conference pick-me-up vs. Cleveland State on Tuesday. The Badgers have Iowa at home this Friday then have to close the regular season at Purdue, Illinois and Penn State. Ugh.

The buzz is the Badgers also are suffering from lack-of-leader syndrome, with injured Katie Voigt missing the season. Keisha Anderson is a terrific player, but not a vocal one. Which is no knock on her, just something the team needs from somebody else.

Badgers fans may think a bit wistfully about might-have-beens if former Wisconsin high school stars Angie Halbleib (Kansas) and Anna DeForge (Nebraska) had gone to Madison.

Now for the teams that have been better than expected: Illinois and Michigan State are on top with 18-4 and 10-2 records and are locks for the NCAA Tournament. Good for those schools -- they know what it's like to be doormats.

Hustle and team play seem to be the key for both. The Illini's Ashley Berggren (18.2 ppg) is among the league's scoring leaders; the Spartans' Nicole Cushing-Adkins (58.5) is atop the field- goal percentage leaders, though she currently has tendinitis in her right elbow and will be evaluated on a game-by-game basis.

Meaning she may not be available when the Spartans meet Purdue on Friday or the Illini on Sunday.

In third place is Purdue. The Big Ten coaches picked the Boilermakers eighth in preseason.

Made sense, considering how thin they are after all the off-season turmoil; though Purdue revisionist history says there was no turmoil.

Nevertheless, the Boilermakers (13-8, 9-3) are in a position to play themselves into the NCAAs. Steady Jannon Roland, the senior who's been through it all at Purdue, is leading the way.

There are other individuals to take note of: Northwestern's Michele Ratay leads the league in scoring along with Wisconsin's Anderson, both at about 19.6 per game.

Minnesota (1-12, 3- 20) holds down the cellar spot, but Angie Iverson is a rebounding machine at a league-best 12.26 per game.

Michigan State's Tamika Matlock averages almost eight assists, and Indiana's Quacy Barnes gets 3.65 blocks per game.

So what have we established here? The overused "parity" applies to this conference -- sort of like the collection of 8-8 and 9-7 teams the NFL always has battling for playoff spots in the final weeks of the season. Where you have to use a slide rule, a protractor and a compass to map out all the possibilities.

OK, we're done for now. Wasn't as bad as Victorian poetry after all.

Buffalo alert

Colorado dropped from the AP poll in December, and apparently the only thing that might get the Buffs back in is a victory over Kansas. Which they'll have a chance at this Saturday in Boulder. CU lost by three in Lawrence, Kan., on Jan. 25.

CU has some legitimate griping to do with the poll voters, considering it has beaten Texas Tech and Nebraska, who are both ranked this week. The Huskers won't last long, though, because they were upset at Kansas State on Wednesday.

Buffs senior Erin Scholz seems like one of those cool, dry-witted Coloradans who eats sprouts on multigrain bread and can dissect the global economy. Asked how coach Ceal Barry is motivating her team, which is not totally without worries about making the NCAAs, Scholz was honest.

"There's nothing to hide, and we're not dumb," she said. "We know what it takes to get in the tournament. It's a different perspective -- we've never had to wonder before about getting in. I think it's good for us."

Devilish ending

Don't read this, Virginia fans, it will bring back unpleasant memories.

Duke rallied and beat N.C. State 96-95 in overtime Wednesday. The Blue Devils backcourt of senior Kira Orr and sophomore Hilary Howard combined for 54 points, 19 rebounds, six assists, five steals and just five turnovers.

"They've each had outstanding games individually, but never both like that on the same night," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said of her guard tandem. "Down the stretch, they hit every big shot for us; they just wouldn't let us lose."

Orr hit a 25-foot 3-pointer vs. State to tie it with two seconds left and send it into overtime.

Gee, we've never seen that before. How about the 1995 ACC Tournament semifinals, where Orr hit a bomb at the buzzer to take U.Va. into OT, then hit a clock-beating two-pointer in the extra period to win it.

Wednesday's contest was your typical Triangle rivalry matchup: High-level play and high drama.

Here's my gripe -- it was scheduled on the same night as North Carolina's men vs. N.C. State. If the ACC really wants to promote women's hoops, the league has to do whatever tinkering with the schedule necessary to avoid this.

Do not have two of the Triangle men's teams playing each other on the same night that two of the women's teams play each other. It guarantees the women -- no matter how great a game they play -- get totally overshadowed.

I'll hit this topic harder at another time.

Final shots

Other interesting stuff this weekend: Georgia-Vandy on Friday; Stanford-Oregon on Saturday; Alabama-Florida and Tulane-DePaul on Sunday.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star writes a regular women's basketball column for ESPNET SportsZone. Her e-mail address is