Parity the theme for this year’s Big Ten

BY JON FRANK | MARCH 03, 2011 7:20 AM

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The inaugural day of basketball in the Big Ten Tournament essentially serves as an opportunity for the league’s bottom-tier teams to press on to Friday’s quarterfinal round and get a shot at upsetting one of the conference elites.

The top five teams are absolved from competing on day one, and will instead open play Friday. These five squads hope to avoid an early departure from Conseco Field House in Indianapolis.
No. 5 seed Ohio State

The Buckeyes (19-9, 10-6) are hot.

After tough losses earlier in the season, Ohio State has gotten its act together. Six-straight victories — including wins over then-No. 25 Penn State and then-No. 8 Michigan State — are evidence that the squad is still capable of competing with the nation’s elite.

“It’s just an accumulation of things that fell into place,” Buckeye head coach Jim Foster said in a teleconference on Tuesday. “Our defense has gotten better, and we’re sharing the ball.”

No. 4 Iowa (Ranked No. 24 nationally)

Like the Buckeyes, the Hawkeyes (22-7, 10-6) are playing top-level basketball right now. Back in the top-25 rankings for the first time since early February, head coach Lisa Bluder has guided her team to five-straight wins.

Currently projected as a No. 5 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament by ESPN.com analyst Charlie Creme, Bluder’s Bunch will face Ohio State on Friday. The Hawks split the regular season with the Buckeyes, going 1-1, but have not competed against Foster’s team since a Jan. 24 loss in Columbus.

Friday’s tiebreaker will likely help the winner’s NCAA Tournament résumé, and Iowa’s ability to create offense in the second half could be its key to victory.

“Our second half, we’ve put up numbers,” Iowa senior guard Kachine Alexander said. “At Northwestern, we put up 63 points in one half. It’s kind of unheard of … I feel like our offense is starting to click.”

No. 3 Michigan

Perhaps nobody expected to see the Wolverines comfortably sitting in the conference’s third spot.

After going 7-10 against conference opponents last season, the Maize and Blue fell in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament to Michigan State. There was no NCAA Tournament invitation.

But this season is different. Coach Kevin Borseth has transformed his team into a legitimate contender to win the tourney. Wins over Ohio State and Iowa proved that Borseth’s squad deserves its high seed.

No. 2 Penn State

The Nittany Lions (22-8, 11-5) took care of business in conference play this season. Their Big Ten record includes two wins over the Hawkeyes and a victory over the Buckeyes.

Most notably, Penn State leads the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 77 points per game. Led by freshman standout Maggie Lucas, who averages 16 points per game, the squad brings a balanced attack to the court, featuring three players who average double-digit points.

Despite the second seed, the Nittany Lions aren’t persuaded that the road to a Big Ten championship will be easily traveled.

“It’s anybody’s tournament for the taking,” head coach Coquese Washington said in a teleconference on Tuesday. “Whoever gets on a run is going to be the champion.”

No. 1 Michigan State (Ranked No. 11 nationally)

The No. 11 Spartans lead the Big Ten in defense. Only giving up 55 points per game, Suzy Merchant’s squad is a handful for any offense.

Their ability to use size and strength to box out has earned them a plus-eight rebounding margin — also the best in the conference.

Second-chance opportunities, size, and Kalisha Keane — who averages 16 points per game — makes Sparty a strong contender to not only make a run in Indianapolis but also in the NCAA Tournament.

“What makes [Keane] special is her ability to pass the ball and make the players around her better,” Merchant said in a teleconference on Tuesday. “She has a high IQ for the game.”

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