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Big Ten tournament preview: Hoosiers ride nine-game win streak with chance to improve NCAA Tournament seeding

A nine-game win streak to finish the regular season has the Indiana women’s basketball team positioned as the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament. The Hoosiers are playing some of their best basketball of late, and look to continue their historic season on March. 11 versus the winner of Michigan State and Penn State. 

On Monday, Indiana rose one spot in the AP Top 25 poll to No. 9, which marks the highest ranking in program history. Indiana’s 16 conference victories also set a program record in a season where the Hoosiers played two fewer conference games than usual due to COVID-19.

Let’s break down the most intriguing storylines of the 2021 Big Ten tournament. 

A potential matchup with the unknown

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights women’s basketball program was put on pause for nearly a month in January due to COVID-19. Before the pause, Rutgers held a 5-3 record and looked like a middling Big Ten team with losses to Iowa and Nebraska.

While extended pauses have proved to be detrimental for most teams, it had quite the opposite effect on the Scarlet Knights. Since returning from the break on Feb. 7, Rutgers has rattled off nine wins in a row, which is tied for second in the Big Ten with Indiana for the conference’s longest active win streak. Maryland has won 10 games in a row. 

Leading the way during this hot streak for Rutgers has been one of the Big Ten’s best backcourts — Arella Guirantes and Diamond Johnson. Guirantes is ranked third in the Big Ten in scoring with 20.8 points per game behind Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and Naz Hillmon, and Johnson is ranked ninth at 17.4.

Rutgers has claimed a number of impressive wins during this streak, with a win at Northwestern and most recently taking down Ohio State 71-63. While Guirantes and Johnson have been lighting up the scoreboard all season, it is actually the strength of the Rutgers defense that has led to nine wins in a row.

The Scarlet Knights are giving up the fewest points per game in the conference at 56.2. Rutgers has played the fewest games of any Big Ten team this year, which could make this number misleading, but its defense has been impressive, nonetheless. 

Indiana’s first matchup with Rutgers was scheduled for Jan. 18 in Bloomington, which came during the heart of Rutgers’ COVID-19 pause. Because of this, the two teams have not played each other this year.

Indiana and Rutgers both received a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament after finishing second and third in conference, respectively. Indiana plays the winner of No. 7 Michigan State versus No. 10 Penn State, and Rutgers awaits the winner of No. 6 Iowa versus No. 11 Purdue. 

This sets up a potentially intriguing matchup between Indiana and Rutgers in the tournament semifinal, which would include two teams that have not played each other this year. With both teams on nine-game winning streaks, this matchup has the makings of one of the tournament’s best games. 

Can Indiana finally beat Maryland?

Under the leadership of head coach Teri Moren, Indiana has posted two of the program’s best-ever seasons over the past two years. The Hoosiers were projected in the four or five-seed range in last year’s NCAA Tournament before it was canceled due to COVID-19, which makes Indiana even more eager for a postseason run in 2021.

The Hoosiers are currently projected as a three seed in the NCAA tournament, but can potentially jump a line with a deep run in the Big Ten tournament. But this would require Indiana to defeat what has been its Achilles heel over the past two seasons: the Maryland Terrapins.

Last year, Maryland won both regular-season matchups with Indiana, and dominated the Hoosiers 66-51 in the Big Ten Tournament. The Hoosiers and Terrapins played just once in the regular season this year, and, again, Maryland left victorious with a 84-80 win at home. 

On Jan. 4, Grace Berger did her best to keep Indiana competitive with Maryland, scoring 26 points and dishing out seven assists. But it still wasn’t enough to take down the balanced scoring attack of the Terrapins, who had two players score 20 points and two others in double digits.

Maryland lost two key contributors from last year’s team, but haven’t skipped a beat. The Terrapins are led by a duo of sophomore guards in Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller, who average 18.7 and 17.5 points per game, respectively. Katie Benzan, Chloe Bibby and Mimi Collins average double-digit points for the Terrapins, too, and if it wasn’t for a foot injury to Angel Reese, Maryland would have six double-digit scorers.

Getting into a shootout with Maryland usually isn’t the best gameplan, as the Terrapins average a Big Ten-best 91.3 points per game. Because of this, it will be imperative for Indiana to play one of its best defensive games of the year if it wants to take down Maryland.

As the top two seeds in the Big Ten, a possible Indiana-Maryland matchup can only occur in the tournament finals. If the favorites win, this would require Indiana to defeat No. 7 Michigan State and No. 3 Rutgers en route to the conference finals on March 13 at 2 p.m. ET.

Indiana’s quarterfinal game on March 11 can be seen on Fox Sports 2 at 6:30 p.m. ET. With a win on Thursday, the Hoosiers would advance to Friday evening’s semifinal game. This game will tip off 25 minutes after the first semifinal game at 2 p.m. ET and is also televised on Fox Sports 2.

In the event that Indiana makes its way to a highly-anticipated tournament final versus Maryland, ESPNU will be broadcasting this game at 2 p.m. ET on Sunday. 

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