I was about to call these the penultimate power rankings of the season because I really like that word, but then I realized that a week from now, the regular season will be over, everyone will be seeded, and we’ll be ready to play a conference tournament to decide a champion. What on Earth would you need power rankings for at that point? So maybe this is it. But I still got to use “penultimate,” so I’m good either way.
|Purdue Fort Wayne||9||9|
Youngstown State powered through the chaos just beneath them in the standings by rolling up an impressive home sweep in their final regular season games at the Beeghly Center. On Friday, the Penguins pulled away in the third quarter to down Northern Kentucky 62-49 behind Chelsea Olson’s 27, 9 and 3 (an effort that got her named as Her Hoops Stats’ Line of the Night) before the expected rout of Wright State for their senior day game honoring Olson. It’s hard to use the phrase “control their destiny” when an essential part of the Penguins’ path to a regular season title involves going into The Jungle on Thursday and beating a mad IUPUI team, but it is a fact that YSU is the only team in the league that doesn’t need help to finish on top.
After nearly two months of COVID-driven exile, Green Bay’s improbable run to the brink of a regular season title would make for a good book (I’ll repeat myself: a good book). The broad strokes, of course, are that after playing three games between December 12th and January 27th and being relegated to afterthought status, the Phoenix have won ten games in a row, including victories against Youngstown State and, on Saturday, IUPUI. That UWGB has a ridiculous home court advantage isn’t news to anyone who’s been around for the last 30 years or so but the Jags haven’t, so if they didn’t know, they do now. Hailey Oskey and Cassie Schiltz each had 16 points in the win as the Phoenix never really looked back after an 11-4 run to end the second quarter. They also held a really good shooting IUPUI team to 31.6 percent from the floor (including 1-for-12 from Rachel McLimore). Green Bay will now need the Jaguars’ help to get YSU another loss, and their own remaining stretch of games against Milwaukee, Purdue Fort Wayne, and Cleveland State (all on the road) isn’t the easiest closing kick ever. But nevertheless, there’s a clear path to the title for Kevin Borseth’s squad at this point.
It’s hard to fully process just how damaging Saturday was to IUPUI’s regular season title hopes. Entering play the Jags were tied for first with Youngstown State, and while they do play the Penguins next week, it seemed like that clash was setting up as a de facto championship game. Instead, IUPUI finds itself in a situation where their beating YSU mostly helps Green Bay in their unlikely road from obscurity to title contention, with the Jaguars still needing additional help on the Phoenix from Cleveland State or Purdue Fort Wayne next weekend. To be clear, don’t bet against this team once the tournament starts (it’s worth mentioning one more time that two of IUPUI’s four conference losses are COVID forfeits), but right now their odds to win the regular season title are a clear third in my mind.
While Cleveland State survived a massive scare at Detroit Mercy on Saturday, the Vikings nevertheless moved two steps closer to securing fourth place and the final first-round bye in the conference tournament with the win over the Titans, which followed a rout of Oakland on Thursday. Destiny Leo scored 24 and 22 points in the contests and appears to be back on track after a bit of a mini-slump, while Nadia Dumas continues to produces double-doubles with ruthless efficiency and Gabriella Smith is back close to full health. CSU will have to get through UDM again on Monday afternoon (which, though played at Calihan Hall, is actually making up a COVID-washed game scheduled for Cleveland), but should they accomplish that, the Vikings will be a full game ahead of fifth-place NKU and with the head-to-head tiebreaker firmly in hand. With two games left for everyone after Monday, that essentially means that any outcome over the rest of the week other than two CSU losses (at home against Milwaukee and Green Bay) and two Norse wins (at home against Oakland and Detroit Mercy) locks the Vikes in to fourth.
That race for fourth and fifth is significant because while either outcome likely produces a quarterfinal game between CSU and Northern Kentucky, and while neither team’s home court advantage is indestructible, the idea of having to play a first-round game at home, then trudge most of the length of I-71 to play a road game against a tough opponent two days later represents a pretty significant disadvantage to me. Nevertheless, barring a collapse from the Vikings, NKU will likely have to do just that after dropping Friday’s game at Youngstown State. They rallied to score the 15 points of Sunday’s game at Robert Morris to win by – get this – 15, behind 18 points from Lindsey Duvall, otherwise the race would likely already be over. The Norse are just 4-4 since their ten-game winning streak over December and January ended (okay, the four losses were Green Bay, Cleveland State, IUPUI, and Youngstown State, but still) and also saw the departure of capable reserve Carissa Garcia from the program last week.
The races for first through third and fourth through fifth are both interesting and consequential. The race for sixth through eight is definitely interesting but probably not all that consequential since each of the teams in question will get a winnable home game in the first round, followed by a quarterfinal game in Youngstown, Green Bay, or Indianapolis. Nevertheless, Oakland likely leads the pack right now thanks largely to the fact that Milwaukee (which is actually a half game ahead of the Grizzlies in the standings as of this writing) has a make-up game against Green Bay today. Although OU was crushed by a brutal snowstorm and by Cleveland State on Thursday, they bounced back for a pretty nice win over Purdue Fort Wayne on Saturday. In that latter contest, the Grizzlies trailed by ten early in the third quarter behind double-digit outings from Kahlaijah Dean, Jack-Jack, and Kendall Folley and now are on the verge of a top-half finish to end a pretty trying season. Not bad.
Despite what I just said, Milwaukee does have a viable path to the sixth seed as well, though it will probably require them to beat either Green Bay at home today or Cleveland State on the road on Thursday. The Panthers have quite a remarkable record this season, in the sense that they’re 10-1 against teams beneath them in the standings and 1-7 against teams above them, so there’s not really a ton they’re doing that’s outside of expectations (a win over NKU and a loss to Oakland, both early in the season, are the exceptions). That maybe doesn’t bode well for the idea of UWM pulling off an upset this week (or, more importantly, in the conference tournament) but with walking double-double Megan Walstad and an extremely strong defense, I still wouldn’t bet against them.
Robert Morris’ late-season surge took a bit of a hit on Sunday when Northern Kentucky flew out of the gates (as things do in Kentucky) to bury the Colonials in a contest that was never seriously in doubt. Prior to that, RMU had a modest stretch of five wins in seven games going to climb into a couple of previously-unthinkable standings conversations, including a solid win over Wright State on Friday behind Sol Castro’s 15 points and five rebounds, while Esther Castedo added 14. Ultimately, RMU needs to find some consistent offense to take the next step as a team – they were 4-for-22 from three against WSU, just to pull a random stat in support of my point – but for a young team that’s exceeded most expectations this season, it’s been a solid go of things. Acting head coach Scott Schneider and company are still in firm position to host a first-round game, though at this point it’s most likely to be a very tough Purdue Fort Wayne team.
While Purdue Fort Wayne got Shayla Sellers back from her scary-looking concussion suffered back on February 5th, the Dons’ story of the week was Sylare Starks, who went absolute HAM against her former team, Detroit Mercy, to the tune of 33 points (the most by any player in a conference game this year) and eight rebounds, before following up with a solid 16-point outing versus Oakland to make a very compelling player of the week case despite her team dropping the contest to the Golden Grizzlies after defeating UDM. PFW now has Sellers and Ryin Ott back from injury, and they’re a Riley Ott away from being as close to full strength as they have been since very early in the season. If the race for sixth through eighth does matter at all, it’s on the point that finishing eighth means you’ll probably have to play the Dons, and I’m not sure that’s ideal, particularly compared to the other options.
After a fairly competitive loss to IUPUI and a win over UIC two weeks ago, Wright State plopped back to reality with losses to Robert Morris and Youngstown State last week, the latter coming by 24 points. It wasn’t all bad news though as the Raiders, behind 27 points from Jada Roberson, led for most of the first half against RMU before being done in by a 5:49 scoring drought bridging halftime leading to a six-point third quarter that saw the Colonials puff their lead from one to 15. Without a doubt, Kari Hoffman’s first season has been a trying one between player departures (both before she was hired and during the season), a severe lack of depth at times, and lots and lots of losing, far beyond what she or the program is used to. Home games against Detroit Mercy and Oakland to close the regular season do at least present the opportunity to end on a high note, though it’s mathematically impossible for the Raiders to finish higher than tenth.
Detroit Mercy won its first game of the season on Valentine’s Day, stunning UIC on a Janna Lewis bucket with less than a second to go to cap off an ugly whistlefest that easily could’ve swung the other way had the Flames not gone a dreadful 15-for-34 from the free throw line, a lot of those misses coming in moments that could’ve gone a long way towards clamping the game down. Nevertheless, LaTanya Collins’ group, a team that I still feel is better than their record (don’t forget that two of their top players, Sydney Searcy and Brandi Washington, are out right now) finally got their much-deserved dub after several close calls. Though they dropped home games to Purdue Fort Wayne and Cleveland State in the following days, UDM very nearly upset the Vikings behind a fierce senior day effort and inside poundings delivered by Lewis and Daija Moses, along with Irene Murua’s finesse game. They’ll get another shot at CSU this afternoon, followed by a trip to Wright State and Northern Kentucky.
While UIC got one of their penalties for leaving the conference without a year’s notice waived and will be allowed to compete for Horizon League championships this year after all, the league’s board of directors voted down an additional proposal that would require me using any additional mental bandwidth on the Flames as they exit the women’s basketball portion of the conference as inconsequentially as possible.