They are who we thought they were. Week Five had less turnover in the power rankings than any week this year. Blame the teams for scheduling so many games against Division II and III schools, which is how twelve teams acquired a winning percentage higher than 70%. Don't be fooled. The Big Ten is top heavy this year, and has largely disappointed in games against ranked opponents.
The conference's middle class is full of flawed but interesting teams. Purdue and Iowa have veteran players with good coaches. Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Illinois are relying on the kind of young stars who could play better as the season wears along. Any of these clubs could break into the top 25 by the end of the year.
High rise of the week: Michigan (+2)
Free fall of the week: (Tie) Three teams (-1)
1. Maryland Terrapins (10-0. Last Week: 1)
That the Terps will lose to the undefeated Connecticut Huskies is by no means a sure thing. The Huskies looked almost mortal against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and it's within the realm of possibility that Maryland are a better team. What would it take for an upset? To start, they need to stop Breanna Stewart, which they didn't manage to do in last year's Final Four matchup. Maryland's size needs to translate to an advantage on the boards. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough has to play like a star. And the Terrapins probably need to get hot from three-point range. In other words, a lot needs to go right. Still, If Maryland loses by less than ten points, they could rise in the Top 25 polls anyway.
2. Northwestern Wildcats (10-0. LW: 2)
As a team, Northwestern is averaging 12.9 steals per game, the most in the Big Ten by quite a margin. That's 2.9 steals per game more than the second place Spartans, and 2.9 steals separates those same Spartans from the 11th place Golden Gophers. These Wildcats need a healthy diet of turnovers to stay alive, and that applies to their offense as much as their defense. They're at their best attacking in transition, and can get bogged down when they have to run their halfcourt sets. What helps is that the Wildcats commit the fewest turnovers of any team in the Big Ten. With good defense and good enough offense, Northwestern doesn't blow teams away, they grind them down.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes (6-3. LW: 3)
At this point, it's become clear where this Buckeyes' team stands: They are one of the twelve best teams in the country, but are definitely in a tier below the top six. Considering the problems Ohio State has in defending the post, and Maryland's size, it's hard to imagine the Poison Nuts pulling off an upset when they play. That is why Northwestern is ranked higher, even though I suspect OSU is the better team: With Northwestern, we don't yet know how good they can be.
4. Michigan State Spartans (7-2. LW: 4)
Ho, ho, ho! The Spartans acted like Santa Claus for the 2-4 Louisville Cardinals, committing 27 turnovers in a grand display of Christmas generosity. That game is the main reason the Spartans have dropped all the way to last in the Big Ten in turnovers per game, tying them with the Bad News Badgers. Michigan State followed that up with three wins in a row, and the rest of their schedule looks like a cakewalk before the conference season opener. They ought to be 9-2 heading into Ohio State, as long as they can avoid another display of holiday spirit.
5. Iowa Hawkeyes (8-2. LW: 5)
The Hawkeyes came down with a case of fourth-quarter narcolepsy against the Iowa State Cyclones. Up by eight points to start the quarter, they allowed five offensive rebounds, committed six unintentional fouls, shot 4-19 from the field, and still almost won. Iowa missed three free throws in what was undoubtedly their worst quarter of the season, including one by Ally Disterhoft with seven seconds remaining that would have tied the game. The Hawkeyes had been hanging out in the Top 25, but they might have to say buh-bye for now.
6. Michigan Wolverines (7-2. LW: 8)
iViva la revolucion! The youth revolution continues; powered by a couple of Wolverine kits, Michigan has the best team three-point percentage in the conference. Nicole Munger and "Detective" Boogie Brozoski are both already above-average shooters, and senior Madison Ristovski is drilling a staggering 52% of her shots from beyond the arc. Forecast in Ann Arbor calls for raining fire.
7. Purdue Boilermakers (8-2. LW: 6)
In the last edition of the power rankings, I said, "A team that starts four guards should be shooting better than 34% from three." Well, now they are. The Boilermakers' have been lights out, nailing 46% of threes over their last three games. This outburst has them tied for second in the Big Ten in three-point percentage. Ashley Morrissette has been particularly deadly during that span, going 8-12. All right, now we've gotten the full Sharon Versyp experience. This team lives and dies by the three; they can knock off anybody when they're hot, and lose to anybody when they're not. Most worrisome was the loss to Boston College, where the Eagles completely locked down the perimeter, holding the Boilermakers to one make on only four attempts. There are a few Big Ten teams who ought to have the players and coaching to follow that defensive blueprint.
8. Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-2. LW: 7)
If there's such a thing as a good loss, than taking a top 25 opponent into overtime on the road probably qualifies. But dig deeper, and there are causes for concern. Jessica Shepard had her first bad game of her career against the Cal Golden Bears, only managing six points and four rebounds before fouling out early in the extra quarter. She was outplayed by Kristine Anigwa, another freshman phenom, who tilted the game for the Bears with her 29 points. This comes after a solid, if unspectacular, performance against Connecticut: Only ten points on 5-9 shooting. If Shepard keeps disappearing against elite post players, then the Cornhuskers are going to keep struggling in big games.
9. Illinois Fighting Illini (7-1. LW: 10)
It's time to play everyone's favorite game, "Is This Team Any Good?" The Fighting Illini have beaten seven teams they were expected to beat, and have lost to the only good team they've faced, the Miami Hurricanes. Illinois has a couple of interesting pieces, but no depth, and they don't do anything particularly well. Conference wins might be hard to come by; in order to make the March tournament, Illinois probably needs to beat the George Washington Colonials in convincing fashion.
10. Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-2. LW: 9)
The lineup toggling continues. Center Karley Barnes lost her starting spot after the loss against the Duke Blue Devils. Then, three minutes into the game against the Towson Tigers, starting center Jessie Edwards committed a turnover, was pulled off the court and didn't re-enter. Against the Memphis Tigers, whose record is a measly 4-5, coach Stollings started her five best players - all of whom happen to be guards. To be fair, the 6'1" Joanna Hedstrom can play as a forward, but these smaller lineups give the Gophers - already a good three-point team - even more shooting space. One thing to keep an eye on, however, is the bench. Against Memphis, Stollings only had minutes for seven players. Mikayla Bailey is averaging almost 40 minutes a game, and she's cooled down considerably since her hot start, shooting about 25% over the last four games. This team might be getting stretched too thin.
11. Indiana Hoosiers (7-2. LW: 11)
Did you know that three Hoosiers - Tyra Buss, Amanda Cahill, and Alexis Gassion - all live together? They even wrote five entries of a blog about it over the summer. Incidentally, these three are the team leaders in points, averaging 19.0, 13.2, and 11.4 per game, respectively. This might lead you to the conclusion that Indiana has something of a Big Three, but really it's The Big Two And Their Roommate. Gassion ranks as one of the very worst volume shooters in the conference ("volume" being defined as at least ten shots a game.) She's only managed to make 38.7% of her field goals, which is worse than it looks, because she almost never attempts a three-pointer. It's time some of her touches were redistributed to her more efficient friends.
12. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (8-3. LW: 12)
Here's a typical Rutgers' possession, which occurred in the second quarter of the game against Florida State earlier this year: The ball is inbounded to Tyler Scaife, who casually walks the ball up the court, and passes to another guard like Briyona Canty. Scaife makes a perfunctory cut through the lane, which almost never generates an open look. After the lane is clear again, Kahlea Copper will set the first pick of the offensive set, by which time only 15 seconds are left on the shot clock. No wonder Rutgers is so much slower than the rest of the conference in pace, and why so many of their possessions end with Kahlea Copper heaving up a fadeway jumper as the shot clock expires. The Scarlet Knights have shown some really feisty defense of late, and are playing much better than they were at the start of the season. But this offense is absolutely unwatchable.
13. Penn State Lady Lions (4-6. LW: 13)
Another week, another loss to a university that I had never heard of before (no offense to the St. Bonaventure Bonnies.) Maybe it's my own ignorance of American secondary education, or maybe these Lady Lions just aren't very good. Unlike the other struggling teams in the Big Ten, Penn State doesn't kill themselves with turnovers or bad fouls. Penn State is only really bad at shooting, although honestly, that's the second-hardest problem to solve (behind lack of height.) The numbers are grim: 29% from three, last in the Big Ten; and 42% from the field, which is ahead of only the Bad News Badgers. Sometimes the problem is simple. The basketball isn't going into the basket.
14. Wisconsin Badgers (3-6. LW: 14)
Starting center Malayna Johnson was just lost for the season with an ACL injury, a year after her sister Michala suffered the same fate. This team would be trending downwards, if there were anywhere further down to go. The University of Wisconsin Badgers might not be one of the three best teams in the state of Wisconsin. They certainly looked worse than the Green Bay Phoenix on Sunday, and a week before that they were ripped apart by the Marquette Golden Eagles. The UW-Whitewater Warhawks are 7-0, and might get good odds in Vegas if the two teams played. At this point, it would be best to consider the Bad News Badgers as a kind of performance art about the nature of human suffering.