It’s been a year of records in women’s basketball in the Big Ten.
Purdue senior Brittany Rayburn tied the NCAA record with 12 3-pointers in a game during a win over Minnesota on Jan. 12. Ohio State senior Samantha Prahalis set the conference record for most assists in a career with 896 and also scored a school-record 42 points in her last game at Value City Arena. And Michigan senior guard Carmen Reynolds broke the program record for most 3-pointers in a career on Jan. 30 at Wisconsin and currently holds the top spot with 200.
But there is one more.
The Big Ten has never sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament, even with the tournament’s expansion to include 64 teams. This year, the conference has enough depth to send that seventh team to the Big Dance.
That seventh team would be Michigan.
Despite a late-season collapse in which the Wolverines (20-11 overall) lost six of their last nine games and suffered tough road losses to Penn State and Wisconsin, they have put together a strong résumé for the selection committee.
Michigan played a respectable nonconference schedule this year, opening up the season with a road win against a quality Florida squad. The Wolverines recorded signature wins against Iowa State — who is expecting to earn a sixth-straight berth to the Big Dance — and Illinois State.
They also won their division of the Paradise Jam back in November, winning three games in three days, and played then-No. 6 Maryland down to the wire in College Park. The Wolverines compiled an 11-2 nonconference record for one of the best starts in program history.
Then they picked up coveted win number 20 in the Big Ten Tournament last weekend.
Michigan’s record speaks for itself.
But if the record isn’t enough, Michigan has an RPI of 45 — which takes into account the team’s winning percentage, the opponent’s winning percentage and strength of schedule — and a strength of schedule of 43, two of the main factors the selection committee looks at. Half of the Big Ten teams have RPIs in the top 50, and the Wolverines have the fourth-toughest schedule in the conference.
But I’m not here to scrutinize the stats or break down each game to determine whether or not Michigan should get a bid. The Wolverines deserve inclusion in the field of 64 because of their success playing through a strong conference schedule.
The Big Ten has developed into one of the toughest, grittiest conferences in the nation. Four of the 12 teams have been ranked this season, with two more receiving votes at some point in the season: the Wolverines garnered votes eight times this year. And now that the Big Ten Tournament has played out, there are multiple teams looking for postseason bids.
The Boilermakers received the automatic qualifying bid for the Big Ten, and the top three teams — regular-season champion Penn State, Ohio State, and Iowa — are locks. Nebraska, which finished sixth in the regular season, made a run to the championship game in the conference tournament, proving itself worthy of an at-large bid. And Michigan State, after starting off 8-6 in nonconference play, finished 11-5 in the conference and recorded two wins over Penn State late in the season. That should be good enough for a spot in the tournament.
That makes six. So where does Michigan fall among these teams?
The Wolverines finished seventh in the Big Ten with an 8-8 conference record. It’s a mediocre conference record, but they beat two top-25 teams in the conference — home against the Buckeyes, handing them their first loss of the season, and Nebraska on the road.
They also played it close with Iowa and Michigan State — a team with a better record but worse RPI and strength of schedule than Michigan — and both the Hawkeyes and Spartans got hot near the end of the season.
Michigan finished the regular season with 19 wins, knowing that a strong showing in the conference tournament would boost its résumé. The Wolverines did just that. They defeated Illinois in the first round with the help of an excellent performance from one of the conference’s best defenses, but they ended up losing in the quarterfinals to Ohio State.
Not losing in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, not having any ugly losses in the conference and not playing poorly in the nonconference schedule all help Michigan’s case.
But more importantly, the Wolverines did everything they needed to in one of the most physically demanding conferences in the nation.
And that should be enough. The Big Ten is one of the deepest conferences in the country, and it’s about time that the committee recognizes that good basketball isn’t just played in the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference.
I may not be able to influence the selection committee, nor am I the next Joe Lunardi — or Charlie Creme, if you prefer the women’s bracketologist — but from what I’ve witnessed over the course of the season, the Big Ten is powerful enough to have seven teams go dancing this year.