Welcome to March. It’s tournament season.
Indiana women’s basketball entered the regular season at No. 2 in the Big Ten preseason poll, second only to Maryland. Iowa sat at No. 3. For much of the season, it appeared as though those three teams would be the top contenders in the conference for the ever-coveted double-byes to the quarterfinals in the Big Ten Tournament.
Now, the regular season is over. The bracket is released, and Indiana will play as the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday.
Indiana’s first game will come Thursday, in the tournament’s second round, against the winner of No. 12 Penn State and No. 13 Rutgers. The winner of Indiana’s matchup will go on to play No. 4 Maryland in the quarterfinals Friday.
Indiana beat Penn State 70-40 on Dec. 6 and hasn’t lost to Penn State since 2018. Indiana was scheduled to play Rutgers on Dec. 30, but the game was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols. Rutgers finished the season 13th in the conference.
Indiana will be the favorite in Thursday’s game, no matter who its opponent is. The real test — and possibly Indiana’s biggest game of the tournament — will be against Maryland, in the quarterfinal matchup at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
The Hoosiers and the Terrapins faced off twice in the regular season. The Hoosiers won 70-63 in overtime on Jan. 2, but in the teams’ next matchup, the Terrapins pulled out a 67-64 win to close out the regular season.
While the Big Ten Tournament is monumental, there is a bigger incentive for Indiana: hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA released its latest top-16 seeding Monday night, showing who the top-16 teams in all of Division I women’s basketball would be if the NCAA Tournament started immediately. Indiana is currently projected to be the No. 15 seed.
With a top-16 seed, Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall would be the site for Indiana’s first two rounds of NCAA tournament games between March 18-21.
The Hoosiers’ fanbase has seen tremendous growth in the past few years, and it set a record for the fifth-largest home crowd in program history against Purdue on Feb. 6 with 7,891 fans in attendance.
“The energy that the fans bring definitely helps when we do get in those lows,” graduate student guard Nicole Cardaño-Hillary said after the Purdue game. “Those fans do bring us back up. I’m just so grateful to have that as a fanbase.”
Head coach Teri Moren and the Hoosiers have been clear about their goal to play NCAA tournament games on their home court since before the regular season started. At Big Ten Media Days in October, Moren said hosting creates a big advantage for the home team and brings even more excitement about women’s basketball to the fans.
But when it comes to seeding in the NCAA Tournament, wins and losses aren’t everything.
Moren said before Indiana’s game against then-No. 7 Stanford on Nov. 25 that non-conference matchups help prepare Indiana for Big Ten play and have the potential to influence seeding at the end of the season. Despite Indiana’s 69-66 loss, the Stanford game could still do just what it was meant to for Indiana.
“We want to host,” Moren said before the Stanford game. “We want to be able to be in front of our fans (in) that first round in order to continue to make a deeper run than we did a year ago.”
In order to keep those hopes alive, Indiana will need to succeed in the Big Ten Tournament. This may not mean walking away with a title, but in just about every case, it will likely require beating Maryland on Friday.
A win over Maryland would pit Indiana against Ohio State, Michigan State or Purdue in the semifinals. Indiana beat all three teams in the regular season. A loss would hand Indiana a 1-1 Big Ten Tournament record, which could still allow the team to squeak into the top-16, though it wouldn’t guarantee anything.
An ideal scenario for Indiana to solidify itself as one of the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament would likely include any combination of losses from Michigan, Iowa and Maryland, all of which sit above Indiana in the current projected seedings.
Indiana lost some of its momentum at the end of the regular season, dropping four of its last five games. Winning the Big Ten Tournament would essentially guarantee Indiana that coveted top-16 spot and bring that momentum back.
But Big Ten basketball is unruly, unpredictable and, simply put, good.
The first round of the NCAA Tournament provides another chance to regain momentum, and perhaps a more attainable one for the Hoosiers, who are guaranteed to qualify for the tournament at the very least.
The bottom line is the Hoosiers want to host NCAA Tournament games. Some of that is within their control, and some of it isn’t. But they’re going to do whatever they can to try to make it a reality.
“It showed today how huge it is to play in Assembly Hall,” graduate student guard Ali Patberg said after Indiana’s 70-63 home win over Maryland. “The fans were awesome. There were times I couldn’t hear our play calls. (Hosting) is the ultimate goal.”