Indiana women’s basketball has carried its success from an Elite Eight run in last season’s NCAA Tournament over to the 2021-22 season, posting a 14-2 record with less than half of the regular season remaining. Indiana is undefeated in Big Ten play through six games and its only losses have come to then-No. 7 Stanford University and then-No. 2 North Carolina State University.
As Indiana’s Big Ten stretch carries into the latter half of the schedule, Indiana Daily Student beat reporters, Amanda Foster, Matt Sebree and Luke Christopher Norton, share their takeaways from the season so far and look to the future.
Most valuable player
Amanda: Ali Patberg
Graduate student guard Ali Patberg returned to Indiana for her fifth season as a Hoosier and seventh collegiate season overall, which in itself shows her dedication and skill level. While Patberg doesn’t lead Indiana in scoring or rebounds, she’s scored in the double digits in all but four games this season and is averaging 3 rebounds per game. The catch is that most of her contributions come from efforts that don’t show up on the stat sheet; she consistently supplies passes to open teammates and usually defends the opponents’ best players. If Patberg is ever in a lull, it affects the rest of the team’s energy and ability to work together. Her leadership, seniority on and off the court and willingness to sacrifice some of her own shots for more efficient ones from teammates continue to drive Indiana toward success this season.
Matt: Mackenzie Holmes
Throughout the season, Mackenzie Holmes has stood out as Indiana’s most valuable player. When she is on the floor, the offense runs through her on one end, and she serves as the team’s anchor on the defensive end. She leads the team in points, rebounds and blocks this season and was named to the Wooden Award’s midseason watch list. Without Holmes available in its last two games, Indiana has struggled against less talented conference opponents, narrowly escaping a scare from Nebraska in Bloomington and going to overtime before pulling through against Purdue. With a healthy Holmes in the lineup, Indiana has a chance to compete with any team in the country, but without her, the team will struggle to compete and close games out in the Big Ten.
Luke: So far? Mackenzie Holmes. Going forward? Grace Berger.
Junior forward Mackenzie Holmes has been the go-to option in the paint for Indiana’s offense while providing an imposing presence on defense. She led the team in points and rebounds prior to her injury. She’ll maintain a presence on the team’s bench to lift morale, but Indiana will need a new on-court presence to make the biggest plays in the most important moments. The Hoosiers have that in senior guard Grace Berger. Berger is a playmaker with excellent ball handling skills that leave defenses hanging. She also has the ability to make big shots when Indiana has needed it the most, but she passes up on good shots to find open teammates for great ones.
Breakout player of the year
Amanda: Aleksa Gulbe
Aleska Gulbe has, without a doubt, been a solid contributor throughout her time at Indiana. But the senior forward, who has been a close second to junior forward Mackenzie Holmes, has a chance to shine in the final stretch of the season with Holmes on the bench with a knee injury. Gulbe has the capabilities to be an offensive threat from the three-point line, making about 45% of her shots beyond the arc. Standing at 6 feet 3 inches, she’s now the tallest starter for Indiana and could be just as dependable to block shots and grab rebounds. With Holmes on the bench, it’s likely Gulbe will soon be seen as a necessity to lead Indiana to a Big Ten title.
Matt: Kiandra Browne
When the starters need a break, Kiandra Browne has proved that she can change the game’s momentum for the Hoosiers off the bench. Because Indiana’s bench is so shallow, Browne’s consistent production has been vital despite playing inconsistent minutes. Gulbe’s year-to-year skill improvement may be greater, but in terms of importance to the team, Browne has been Indiana’s breakout player.
Luke: Aleksa Gulbe
Aleksa Gulbe has already been a solid contributor in previous seasons. It’s not like she was some fringe player who came out of nowhere this year. She’s taken that extra step and has turned into a force on offense, shooting more 3-pointers on average and scoring 11.5 points per game. I expect those totals to rise as Indiana looks her way more often going forward in Holmes’ absence.
Best bench contributor
Amanda: Kiandra Browne
While Indiana players coming off the bench isn’t all that consistent or guaranteed, one that is becoming more frequent is sophomore forward Kiandra Browne. She has subbed in time and time again for Holmes and Gulbe, and has replaced Holmes in the starting five in Indiana’s two most recent games. Browne operates primarily on the defensive end, drawing offensive fouls and stirring up trouble for opposing offenses.
Matt: Kiandra Browne
Indiana’s bench was always going to be a question mark this season. The team returned all of its starters, but there was uncertainty about where the production would come from when they checked out of the game. With only 11 players currently on the roster, Kiandra Browne’s emergence could not have come at a better time for Indiana. She has not been asked to carry a large scoring load, but has supplied Indiana with a strong interior defensive presence and provided much-needed energy off the bench.
Luke: On offense, Chloe Moore-McNeil. On defense, Kiandra Browne.
Head coach Teri Moren has used her bench for defense while the starting five deals offensive damage. Browne has filled that role well, subbing in for Holmes and Gulbe to help maintain the Hoosiers’ lead. Sophomore guard Moore-McNeil has a similar role, but combines that with a shooter’s mindset and scoring ability. She’s shown flashes of offensive dominance and made 3-pointers when the team has needed it most, and looks to be a key player for Indiana for the future.
Biggest strength and greatest weakness
Amanda: Biggest strength: motivation and determination. Greatest weakness: the bench.
Indiana came into the 2021-22 season with fire and determination to get back to the Elite Eight, and then get even further. That motivation has only increased as the season goes on, and it’s clear in the way the team plays — they don’t know what it means to give up. They have taken their two losses in stride. While all of Indiana’s players have determination, the question remains if it will be enough to make another deep run in the postseason. An already young and inexperienced bench continues to face problems with injuries and COVID-19 concerns, leading to mistakes and close games against less talented teams. To make it far in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, Indiana will have to bolster its bench strength and make sure the second unit has the capabilities to succeed in big games.
Matt: Biggest strength: starting five. Biggest weakness: depth off the bench.
Indiana might be one of the most straightforward teams in the country. The starters have proved that when they’re on the floor, Indiana has the talent and skill to compete with any team in the country, but outside of those five players, the team lacks experience. Kiandra Browne and Chloe Moore-McNeil have provided good play off the bench, but head coach Teri Moren has shown a hesitance to trust her younger players with important minutes, something that will become increasingly important if starters are forced to miss more games.
Luke: Biggest strength: its fight. Greatest weakness: its bench.
Indiana simply does not give up. It does not matter how hopeless a situation may look, the team will fight to the final buzzer. It’s not just in losing efforts either, Indiana has kept the energy up in blowout wins over inferior competition, a mindset that’ll serve it well come tournament time. But Indiana has a thin bench that’s only getting thinner. Add in a growing list of injury and COVID-19 concerns, and that leads to close wins over inferior competition. It can’t afford that if it wants to win the Big Ten and go as far in the NCAA tournament as it says it does.
Game to watch
Indiana beat Maryland 70-63 in overtime in the beginning of January, and there is no doubt the Terrapins will want to flip the script in the final regular season matchup Feb. 25. Maryland has been hailed as the team to beat in order to make it in the Big Ten, and this game will show if Indiana is truly a team capable of winning at that stage.
Indiana potentially has two games left against Iowa on the schedule. The teams were supposed to play Sunday, but the game was postponed because of health and safety protocols within Indiana’s program. Iowa has consistently been one of the best teams in the conference over the past few years and this season it is led by sophomore guard Caitlin Clark. Clark earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors last season and is currently averaging more than 25 points per game this season, the highest output in the country. It will be interesting to see how Indiana attempts to slow down such a talented player in the first game, along with how they adjust and prepare differently when the teams play a second time.
Maryland has solidified itself as one of the heavyweights in the Big Ten. Despite fielding impressive squads in recent years, Moren finally grabbed her first win against Maryland this season after 11 previous failed attempts. The Terrapins will be hungry for revenge once they get Indiana at home in the regular season finale on Feb. 25.
Amanda: I see Indiana finishing with a 22-6 record in the regular season, assuming games postponed due to COVID-19 are made up. Indiana could likely struggle against Iowa, Maryland and Michigan, especially if not all starting five are in top condition. Iowa will be the hardest team to beat with Caitlin Clark averaging more than 25 points, and Indiana’s matchup against Purdue in Bloomington could also be a concern as the Boilermakers will want a win against their rivals after tasting defeat in West Lafayette. But women’s college basketball, especially in the Big Ten, is rife with upsets and unexpected events, and anything could happen.
Matt: When Indiana is fully healthy, it can compete with any team in the country, but in two games at less than full strength, they have struggled. If Indiana can get Mackenzie Holmes back from injury soon and stay healthy the rest of the season, I think they have the potential to finish with a 23-5 record. I expect Indiana to suffer road losses to Michigan, Iowa and Maryland. However, if Holmes’ injury turns out to be more serious and she is forced to miss extended time, I think Indiana will lose more games to inferior conference opponents and finish with a worse record.
Luke: Given Indiana’s bench concerns, I anticipate the Hoosiers will still finish with an impressive 23-5 record in the regular season, counting games which have been postponed. Indiana’s starting five can compete with anyone in the Big Ten, but the Hoosiers could struggle against teams like Michigan, Iowa and Maryland without Holmes. Indiana is still a top team in its current state once it has more time to account for its losses. Don't forget that.