No. 5 Indiana women’s basketball will look to rebound from a disappointing loss against Nebraska and build momentum going into the final stretch of the regular season when it faces Northwestern on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
Indiana enters the game at 18-4 overall and 10-2 in Big Ten games and is coming off its first loss to an unranked opponent this season, falling 72-55 to Nebraska on Monday. Northwestern sits at 14-9 overall and 6-6 in conference games, most recently defeating then-No. 4 Michigan 71-69 in double overtime.
Here are three things to watch for ahead of Thursday’s matchup.
Northwestern’s offensive abilities outside of Burton
Despite staying in the middle of the Big Ten standings throughout the season, Northwestern has already upset multiple ranked opponents. In addition to beating Michigan on Sunday, Northwestern defeated No. 22 Iowa 77-69 on Jan. 6 in Iowa City, Iowa.
Northwestern won the turnover battle in both upsets, something it has excelled in all season. Opponents of Northwestern turn the ball over nearly 19 times a game on average, leading to the team’s 4.3 turnover margin which ranks third in the Big Ten. Indiana has protected the ball well in most games but Northwestern’s ability to force mistakes quickly has caused trouble for talented teams in the past.
Northwestern does not play a fast-paced offense or shoot 3-pointers at a high volume, instead opting for a style of basketball similar to Indiana’s: a slow, methodical offense that works the ball around to find the best open player.
Running the Wildcats offense is senior guard Veronica Burton, who averages nearly 18 points and 6.4 assists per game to lead the team in both statistics. No other player averages over 8.5 points, but freshman guard Jillian Brown has stepped up recently, scoring 14, 12 and 18 points in her past three games, respectively.
Impact on Big Ten standings
Regardless of the outcome of the game on Thursday night, the top spots in Big Ten standings are incredibly tight heading into the final stretch of the regular season.
With only two in-conference losses, Indiana is the current leader of the Big Ten. However, three teams trail closely behind with three losses each, including No. 9 Michigan and No. 13 Maryland. Two of the three-loss teams, Maryland and Ohio State, play each other on Thursday, which will help Indiana as it fights for seeding in the conference tournament.
Of the four games remaining on the Hoosiers’ schedule, Thursday’s matchup with the Wildcats is the only one not scheduled against a team currently ranked in the AP Top 25.
Return of the Mack
Junior forward Mackenzie Holmes — Indiana’s leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker — could make her return to the hardwood against Northwestern on Thursday. The Wooden Award candidate has not played since Jan. 5 because of a knee injury. During that span, Indiana has gone 6-2.
Holmes dressed and went through pregame stretches and warmups with the team ahead of Indiana’s game on Feb. 12, but did not play in the 76-58 win over Michigan State. She did not travel with the team to Lincoln, Nebraska, but last week head coach Teri Moren said Holmes is making good progress in rehab and will be back on the court before the end of the regular season.
“I think you're going to see her back sooner than later,” Moren said.
If Holmes does make her return on Thursday, it will bolster Indiana’s chances both against Northwestern and beyond. Senior forward Courtney Shaw is Northwestern’s best post player and she averages about 8 points and 10 rebounds per game. Holmes has the potential to take over the game. But even if she does not dominate on Thursday, just getting her back on the court would be a welcome sign for Indiana.