I could write a broad opening statement here but let’s be honest, you just want to see what I said about your team. So let’s go.
|Purdue Fort Wayne
I really like what I’ve seen from Youngstown State so far, with the Guins reading as a much better team than preseason projections. Lilly Ritz has been a walking double-double, Chelsea Olson has been Chelsea Olson, and they’re getting contributions from everyone who sees the floor. YSU can beat anyone in the league when they’re connecting from three, and they showed on Saturday that they can find another route when things aren’t clicking from behind the arc. It’s a crowded field near the top of the rankings, with four teams sweeping the opening Horizon League weekend (not to mention the IUPUI situation), but YSU has the most impressive collection of wins among those teams, including two over the MAC, a league HL teams often struggle with, as well as a road win at Oakland to open the conference schedule.
Who owns the nation’s longest active winning streak? It’s Cleveland State, believe it or not, with the Vikings’ 2021 WBI title combined with a 5-0 start to this season adding up to eight victories (NCAA champion Stanford, WNIT champion Rice, and skipped-the-year-altogether Princeton have lost this season). Sure, there’s a strength of schedule argument to be made, especially after CSU managed to grab a win from IUPUI without facing them on the court, and Chris Kielsmeier’s squad struggled with UIC’s press on Saturday, but nevertheless, the Vikings look like a serious conference contender at this point. Destiny Leo has taken over point guard duties and may be a darkhorse player of the year candidate, while home run threat Gabby Smith has stood out among the newcomers.
If you can tell me that you know exactly where IUPUI should be in these rankings, you’re lying. Technically, of course, the Jags are 1-3 (0-2 Horizon League) record thanks to a pair of COVID forfeits this past weekend, but at the same time, the available game evidence still points to them probably being somewhere better than third. Austin Parkinson’s squad went to Ann Arbor on opening day and nearly pulled off a stunner against No. 11 Michigan, then they followed it up with a solid win over Bowling Green, the MAC’s defending regular season champion. I’ll take my chances on Macee Williams and company proving themselves once they get back on the court, but until then, they’re two games behind the conference leaders.
I was set to bury Milwaukee until Saturday. The Panthers opened the season by dropping a game they should’ve won at Ball State, then followed it up with a loss to a tough North Dakota State team (with the Bison losing decisively to Green Bay two days later) and a boat race at Florida State. You don’t necessarily expect things on trips to play an ACC or a Big Ten school of course, but you’d like to see your conference favorites at least be competitive in those games, as IUPUI was at Michigan. Then conference games rolled around, and suddenly Milwaukee was Milwaukee again, sweeping Wright State and NKU. Birds were chirping, the sun was shining, Megan Walstad was Walstading with 32 points and 20 boards over the two games. I’m still not entirely convinced that we didn’t overrate the Panthers in preseason, but it’s not looking quite as bleak anymore.
Until Saturday, I strongly considered placing Northern Kentucky first largely because the Norse were extremely impressive in their Horizon League opener. Essentially, they walked into Kress and absolutely choked out Green Bay, which isn’t something many have done over the years. NKU’s stats were eye-catching in that game, as Lindsey Duvall had 19 points while Grayson Rose dominated the paint with 12 points, 18 rebounds, and six blocks. Just as impressively, Camryn Whitaker’s squad held Phoenix stars Meghan Pingel and Sydney Levy to zero points on a combined 0-for-17 from the floor. And then…they went to Milwaukee two days later and couldn’t finish the perfect weekend. The Wisconsin trip is brutal, so some slack is deserved, and we’ll see how NKU responds in their next HL games, when Cleveland State and Purdue Fort Wayne visit Highland Heights.
Oakland probably deserved a better fate in their Horizon League opener against Youngstown State, a game that saw the Penguins hit everything while the Grizzlies hit a lot less than that en route to an 11-point loss. Still, Jeff Tungate’s pressure defense gave YSU fits, it’s not hard to envision an alternate reality where OU takes that game, and there will certainly be others down the road where the team’s ability to make up a lot of points quickly will work in their favor. Oakland bounced back with a win over Robert Morris ahead of a big (or B1G) trip to Michigan on Monday to climb to 2-2 (1-1 HL), and while Kahlaijah Dean has been leading the way as usual, OU has been getting very good balance. Kayla Luchenbach has been a solid inside presence, while Breanne Beatty and Brianna Breedy (totally different people, believe it or not) have knocked down plenty of big shots.
Green Bay has looked better than a seventh-place team so far, but the middle of the Horizon League pack is extremely crowded, and the game results – a loss to NKU, and a 1-1 mark this past weekend against teams that Milwaukee swept – sort of box things in a bit. Meghan Pingel has been a revelation so far this season, as the redshirt senior who has mostly been a pass-first guard during her career suddenly started scoring a ton of points, including 22 against NDSU in what is probably the team’s most impressive win. As mentioned, she was held off the board against the Norse, a major factor in that result, while Hailey Oskey and Brooklyn Blackburn took the lead roles in Saturday’s win over Wright State. A brutal upcoming schedule might also mean that we’re unlikely to get a better read on the Phoenix in the near future.
If you’re a Purdue Fort Wayne fan and you’re reading this, and you want to say “Hey, we’re 3-0 and just swept our Horizon League weekend too, why are we down here?” I get that. The 3-0 mark is a bit awkward since the Dons got one of those wins via IUPUI forfeit but didn’t have to give one back when their own COVID issue wiped out a non-conference game at Ball State, so basically PFW is a couple rulebook revisions from being 2-1 on the exact same resume. Nevertheless the Dons – who have already topped last season’s win total – look primed to make things interesting in the middle of the standings thanks to Shayla Sellers, who had a career game against UIC on Thursday, and the Ott sisters.
I think if you asked Robert Morris, they’d feel like they could be 4-0 overall instead of 1-3, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong about that. The Colonials’ opener against St. Bonaventure and their most recent game at Oakland, in particular, were games where RMU led for substantial portions of the 40 minutes before fading late. Sol Castro has been good once again, but this season, Esther Castedo has also risen to the top of the stat sheet. Castedo has seen her role increase gradually throughout her career, and while her 23 points against Detroit Mercy was an outlier, some sort of sustained contribution beyond Castro would be significant. RMU reads as a strong defensive team that needs to make their shots count, but they do have upward potential.
After watching UIC in person on Saturday, I’m extremely impressed with the Flames. They have a very young and talented team, and were a couple more big shots and a couple fewer fouls away from taking down Cleveland State. Jaida McCloud continues to be one of the conference’s elite x-factor players who can match up with just about everyone and do just about everything, with her 24 and 7 line against the Vikings standing as the most recent evidence. UIC pressed for an entire half – not an easy thing to do, try it if you don’t believe me – and put future opponents on notice that half court is earned, not given. Kristian Young and Keona Schenck have also been great for the league’s Chicago entry.
I don’t know how many games Detroit Mercy will win this year. It probably won’t be a ton if we’re being brutally honest, but after watching the Titans repeatedly get off the mat and nearly stun Youngstown State on Saturday, I remain convinced that they’re absolutely going to ruin a good team’s week at some point this year. UDM is essentially a roster with no shared history, they’re a bunch of players from all over who couldn’t find what they were looking for somewhere else, and they’re playing like they have a chance to re-write some stories. It’s hard not to root for a situation like that. Louisiana Tech transfer Irene Murua has sort of taken the mantle as LaTanya Collins’ go-to player, but I really liked Daija Moses against YSU and Imani McNeal and Sydney Searcy have been good as well.
Wright State hasn’t been within single digits of anyone yet this year, and while they’ve had a tough opening schedule (Bradley and Toledo in their non-conference, then road games at Milwaukee and Green Bay this past weekend), it’s hard to find many reasons to believe that the defending league champs won’t finish near the bottom of the standings this season. The flip side of that, of course, is that Kari Hoffman had a massive rebuilding job in front of her and her track record suggests that WSU won’t be down here for too long. As projected by most, the Raiders’ leading returners, Destyne Jackson and Jada Roberson (who entered, then exited the transfer portal over the summer) have been their best players to this point.