The return from the holiday break and to conference play provided no shortage of big games and unexpected results, all of which came together to cause rankings movement (in one direction or the other) with every team in the top nine last week.
|Purdue Fort Wayne||9||8||-1|
While Youngstown State has yet to face a pair of massive tests in the form of fellow contenders Northern Kentucky and IUPUI – though the Penguins visit the former this week – YSU has handled everything thrown at it so far, including a brutally physical win over rival Cleveland State on Saturday, following up a dominant effort against Purdue Fort Wayne on Thursday. There’s nothing not to like about the Penguins, particularly their defense and the fact that just about everyone who plays significant minutes has blown up at some point this season. Lilly Ritz is a bona fide player of the year candidate who has continued to add to her legend through things bleeding all over her 35 jersey after taking an elbow to the face against CSU, then emerging from the Beeghly Center corner wearing number 1 to finish a 20 point, 14 rebound effort.
Northern Kentucky’s fifth win in a row to climb to 9-3 overall was its most impressive yet, as the Norse went into Indianapolis on Friday and took down IUPUI on their home court by a 54-53 score in a game they led most of the way before surviving a late comeback. It’s hard to truly say that the Norse slowed Macee Williams down when the Jags’ star had 23 and 11, but Grayson Rose (10 rebounds, three blocks) and Emmy Souder found enough answers as the game went on, as Williams’ production disproportionately came in the first half. NKU also held reigning player of the week Rachel McLimore to just two points on 1-for-11 shooting, while Lindsey Duvall and Ivy Turner took turns balling out, as the duo combined for 43 of their team’s 54 points. A scheduled game at UIC on Sunday was declared a no contest due to breakthrough COVID cases in the Flames program.
In IUPUI’s defense, the Jaguars were without Destiny Perkins over their two games last week, including the loss to NKU where one could certainly argue that she would have made a single point’s worth of a difference. They bounced back on Sunday to club Wright State in a rematch of last season’s conference championship game that, given the changes in WSU’s program since then, felt absolutely nothing like one. It’s hard to argue that Austin Parkinson’s squad needed a get-right game after a single one-point defeat to a very good team, but…at the same time, even with the stunner in Iowa City two weeks ago, IUPUI went into the game at 4-2 since their COVID pause in November with two of those wins against sub-300 NET teams (Butler and Detroit Mercy). Whatever the case, getting McLimore (a game-high 26 points on 8-for-15 shooting) back on track after the NKU game certainly isn’t a bad outcome.
Cleveland State’s list of questions continued to grow after their pair of games last week, road losses to Robert Morris and Youngstown State. The Vikings, already dealing with season-long absences from key players like Taylah Levy and Aminata Ly, found its usual group of ten active players reduced to eight by Saturday with Brittni Moore and Raevyn Harris out. Depth concerns aside, CSU has also run into severe offensive issues. Destiny Leo still got hers for the most part with 22 points against the Colonials and 16 versus the Penguins, though she was held well below her typical percentages in both games, with her combined 1-for-9 from three standing out on the stat sheet. Other than Nadia Dumas and her reliable putback game, nobody is shooting the ball well for the Vikings, as the squad hit 32.1 percent from the floor and 17.5 percent from behind the arc over the two losses.
Green Bay demonstrated the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln’s famous “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt” line by not playing any games while others in this tier, particularly Cleveland State and Milwaukee, struggled in theirs. Furthermore the COVID issues that led to the unexpected weekend off were on the side of the opponents, Detroit Mercy and Oakland, with the first of those two situations resulting in a forfeit win when the Titans did not receive a hardship exemption to the Horizon League COVID policy. The Phoenix will take their 6-4 (3-2) record to IUPUI and UIC this week.
A week after saying that Oakland barely deserved to hang on to the seventh spot, I moved the Grizzlies up to sixth because…well, just that kind of week. Nevertheless, OU earned the promotion with an extremely impressive 66-53 win at Milwaukee despite having numerous players out, including <inhales> Brianna Breedy, Lamariyee Williams, Breanna Perry, Olivia Sims, Alona Blackwell, and Aaliyah McQueen (and don’t forget that head coach Jeff Tungate is away from the program too). They did it in the best way possible, with solid contributions up and down the board and a strong defensive effort that held Megan Walstad to nine points. Those absences were pretty clearly explained when Oakland was shut down by COVID midway through their road trip, though they received a no contest ruling for their scheduled game at Green Bay on Saturday. Nevertheless, OU’s 5-7 (3-2) record somehow looks miles better than their 4-7 (2-2) one did.
Milwaukee, of course, was on the other end of that game, one that counts as a pretty rough loss by just about any standard. The best free throw shooting team in college basketball history is still connecting from the line (15-for-16 against Oakland, and their 83.1 team percentage is second in the nation right now), but continues to struggle from most other places (their 36.9 field goal percentage is 278th). While all is not lost – the Panthers’ 4-2 Horizon League record actually has them tied for second with Cleveland State, and one of those four came against Northern Kentucky early this season – it’s getting harder and harder to see UWM as a team capable of winning a conference title after being a clear preseason favorite. The Panthers, like Green Bay, also received a forfeit win from Detroit Mercy, thanks to UDM’s COVID outbreak.
Robert Morris fans have every right to be mad at me for their lack of more significant movement despite a fantastic weekend for the Colonials, I’ll put that up front. On Thursday, the Colonials absolutely suffocated Cleveland State 63-55, after holding the Vikings to just a pair of free throws over ten minutes of game time at one point. That run took a contest that was tied 33-33 early into the third quarter into rout territory, with the score 48-35 well into the fourth quarter. Alejandra Mastral bolstered a fantastic three-point effort by the Colonials by connecting four times from deep, while Esther Castedo added three triples among her 18 points. A win two days later against Purdue Fort Wayne didn’t involve quite as many style points, though the Colonials held the Mastodons under 50 points and received a balanced effort with all five starters between six and 11 points. I’m not quite prepared to say that RMU’s 5-6 (3-3) record means the same thing as Oakland’s 5-7 (3-2) or Green Bay’s 6-4 (3-2), but with their next game at Northern Kentucky on Friday, I’m certainly open to changing my mind.
Whether it’s the continued absence of Ryin Ott or something deeper, Purdue Fort Wayne has struggled a ton of late. The Dons have now lost six straight games (Ott, for what it’s worth, went down in the second game in the streak), the latest of those being losses at Youngstown State and Robert Morris last week. The Penguins held PFW’s star trio of Riley Ott, Shayla Sellers, and Sylare Starks to 21 combined points, just two of those from Ott, while RMU shut out Starks two days later. PFW, like travel partner Cleveland State (which, not so coincidentally, also struggled against YSU and RMU last week), is scheduled to host Oakland and Detroit Mercy this week. Should those two teams be through their COVID issues by the weekend, that represents a good opportunity for Maria Marchesano and company to get back in the win column.
In a hastily-scheduled Gem City Jam game against crosstown rival Dayton on Friday (replacing a COVID-spiked contest at UIC), Wright State showed extremely well against the Flyers, a top 100 NET team. The Raiders lingered in a game that looked like a potential blowout early on, eventually pulling to within 61-60 on a Jada Roberson bucket with 6:08 left before fading late and losing by ten. The contest was a glimpse of WSU at its best, with Roberson leading the way with 20 and 7 before fouling out, while Destyne Jackson fired home her usual 16 and Channing Chappell put on a three point and defensive clinic. While their more recent game, at an angry IUPUI team on Sunday, didn’t go quite as well (the Jags led by 20 or so most of the way before eventually winning by 15), I’m starting to believe that the Raiders are one of those teams capable of playing their best ball by the end of the season while making a little noise closer to the middle of the standings.
UIC was one of three Horizon League teams that were in COVID protocol this week, one of two that had those issues cancel both scheduled games, and the only one that received hardship determinations and no contest rulings for those games. The contests in question were at home against Wright State and Northern Kentucky, although the Flames’ issues extend back before the holiday, with their last completed game taking place on December 18th against Saint Louis. That stretch will hopefully end this week, with Milwaukee and Green Bay planning to head to the Windy City.
The Horizon League either revised or reinterpreted its COVID game cancellation policy – it’s not entirely clear which – when the Omicron variant started to claim an increasing number of games last month. While early-season cancellations automatically tagged IUPUI and Wright State with forfeit losses, league commissioner Julie Roe Lach is now liberally applying a hardship exemption that allows her to declare a no contest instead of a forfeit when a team’s COVID issues involve vaccinated individuals. Most canceled Horizon League games for both women and men are now considered no contests, but Detroit Mercy’s women’s team became a notable exception last week when it took forfeit losses for scheduled games at Green Bay and Milwaukee even as UDM’s similarly-stricken men’s team received no contest rulings (draw your own conclusions there, I suppose). The Titans, now 0-11 (0-6), are scheduled to visit Cleveland State and Purdue Fort Wayne this week.