After floundering to a 47-100 record over the past five seasons under head coach Bobbie Kelsey, Wisconsin women’s basketball fired Kelsey, looking for a coach to rebuild and retool the program.
The team found that person in new head coach Jonathan Tsipis, a former Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year, and a key component of Notre Dame’s recruitment corps that built a powerhouse program.
This season, the team has welcomed in eight new players––six of which are freshman. Five had committed to the former coach, and could have decided to leave, but signed on to stay with Coach Tsipis. With so many freshmen, the program and its coach have the building blocks to construct a winning program.
The abundance of freshman serves well for the team’s future, but in the current season, the evidence of growing pains shines through. The Badgers hold a 5-8 record after non-conference play, and those meager five wins easily be eight, as three losses have been by less than 10 points. New players are just getting their wings underneath them in college play, and some like guard Kendra Van Leeuwen and Courtney Fredrickson are learning on the fly, as both started in their first career games. A new coach with more than half of his roster new to the program means chemistry must develop, which can be a slow and painful process.
But, as the season has progressed, the team’s level of play has already shown signs of being revitalized. Junior guard Cayla McMorris has been the Badgers’ top scorer this season, notching 15.7 points per game. She shows fearlessness driving into the lane, often drawing contact, resulting in a plethora of opportunities at the line. Freshman guard Kendra Van Leeuwen often has the ball on a string, zig-zagging her defenders into helping on drives so she can kick the ball out for an easy corner three or basket in the paint. One of the benefactors of corner three kickouts is freshman guard Suzanne Gilreath, who has made 21 of her last 44 three-point attempts after missing her first 10 to start the season.
While the beginning of the season was a myriad of mistakes, the team has turned up the play the last three games. After a 103-61 runaway win against Mississippi Valley State, the Badgers battled Marquette to a five-point loss in which they led coming into the fourth. With the distaste of a bitter loss in their mouths, Wisconsin bounced back against an 8-1 UW-Green Bay squad and stole a win in the final minute for the road upset.
Now, the Badgers begin Big Ten play, ushering in New Years by hosting Michigan in the Kohl Center. With eight of the 12 teams in the Big Ten boasting winning records, Wisconsin will face its best competition of the season.
1, Maryland, ranked No. 4 in the country, 12-0, had a #2 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament
2, Northwestern, 11-2
3, Penn State, 11-3
4, Michigan, 11-3
5, Indiana, 10-3
6, Michigan State, 10-3
7, Ohio State, 10-4, ranked No. 12 in country, No. 3 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament, lost in Sweet 16 to Tennessee
8, Iowa, 9-4
9, Minnesota, 9-4
10, Purdue, 9-5
11, Illinois, 5-8
12, Wisconsin, 5-8
13, Nebraska, 4-8
14, Rutgers, 3-10
After a 31-4 overall record last season––including 16-2 in Big Ten play––the Terps have raced out to a perfect 12-0 record in nonconference play this season. Senior center Brionna Jones entered the 2016 season as a Wooden Watch nominee for the nation’s best player, and she has lived up to that nomination. Jones holds averages of 17.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, utilizing her six-foot-three advantage to lay the ball over hopeless defenders and gobble up rebounds to stop second-chance opportunities on defense. Redshirt junior Malayna Johnson will be depended upon to try and slow down Jones, but if the Badgers help too much, that could leave shooters like senior guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (16.5 ppg) open.
Northwestern Wildcats (11-2)
Coming off an 18-17 record last season, the Wildcats have turned up their play to hold possession of the second spot in the Big Ten, going 11-2 this season. The reason for Northwestern’s elevated level of play is senior forward Nia Coffey, who came into the season averaging 15.7 points and nine rebounds. She’s climbed to greater higher heights this year, dominating the opposition en route to 20.6 points per game and 12.2 rebounds. When the forward goes to work on the glass and registers a double double, she doesn’t just get the standard 10 boards, but instead racks up 16,15 and 14 rebounds. In Northwestern’s toughest game of the season against then No. 16 ranked Florida, Coffey went for 26 points and 14 rebounds when her team needed her the most. She isn’t like anything the Badgers have faced and have not even shown promise of defending a player of her caliber.
Penn State Nittany Lions (10-2)
The Nittany Lions have left their disappointment of a season last year––12-19 overall, 6-12 in the Big Ten––to storm out to a 10-2 start this season. After earning second-team all conference honors from the Big Ten coaches last season as just a freshman, sophomore guard Teniya Page has continued her excellence on the floor. She has improved her scoring from 15.3 points per game to 19.8 this season, which can be attributed to her blistering three point shooting (23-of-47) and her ability to draw fouls (58-of-75 at the line). Paige can often be found lurking beyond the three-point line, waiting for a pass from sophomore guard Amari Carter, who has accounted for a almost a third (29 percent) of all Penn State assists this season. Freshman guard Kendra Van Leeuwen and junior guard Cayla McMorris will be hard-pressed to try and cool the opposing guards without sound rotations and closeouts.
Michigan Wolverines (11-3)
The Wolverines currently have four players averaging double digits on their roster. Junior guard Katelynn Flaherty leads Michigan with 20 points per game as well as shooting 86 percent from the free throw line. Behind Flaherty is sophomore center Hallie Thome, freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick and senior guard Siera Thompson. Thome is averaging 12.7 points per game while also pulling down 6.3 rebounds per game. Gondrezick is not far behind Thome, contributing 12.5 points per game. Thompson adds 10.3 points per game while also dishing out five assists per game.
Indiana Hoosiers (10-3)
The Hoosiers have just three losses, coming from Western Kentucky, Auburn and North Carolina State. Indiana is led by junior guard Tyra Buss, who averages 19.5 points per game and 4.2 assists per game. Also contributing big for the Hoosiers’ offense is senior guard Alexis Gassion and junior forward Amanda Cahill. Gassion does just about everything for Indiana, averaging 13.9 points per game, second on the team, pulling down 6.2 rebounds per game, second on the team, and dishing out 4.3 assists per game, first on the team. Cahill is averaging just shy of a double-double, dumping in 12.9 points per game and collecting 8.2 rebounds per game, which leads the team.
Michigan State Spartans (10-3)
Michigan State is led by players on both ends of the spectrum. Senior guard Tori Jankoska has been the motor of the Spartans this year, averaging 21.9 points per game, shooting an impressive 88 percent from the free throw line and grabbing 7.8 rebounds per game, which leads the team. Freshman guard Taryn McCutcheon is fourth on the team in scoring, notching 7.7 points per game, but leads the team in assists with 5.2 per game. Michigan State’s losses this year all came at the hands of powerhouse teams: Syracuse and Oregon on the road, and Notre Dame at home.
Ohio State Buckeyes (10-4)
Although the Buckeyes control the seventh spot in the Big Ten rankings, they hold the No. 12 rank in the country. Ohio State has four players averaging double-digits, one being redshirt junior forward Stephanie Mavunga, who is averaging 13.3 points per game and 11.8 rebounds per game. Junior guard Kelsey Mitchell leads the Ohio State offense with 22.4 points per game, shooting 81 percent from the free throw line and handing out 3.5 assists per contest. Redshirt sophomore guard Sierra Calhoun is contributing 11.1 points per game. Rounding out the ranked Buckeye team is senior forward Shayla Cooper. Cooper enters conference play averaging 11.6 points per game and has the second most rebounds on the team with 6.8 per game. Ohio State is coming off a season where they possessed a No. 3 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament and made it to the Sweet 16 before getting eliminated by the Tennessee Volunteers.
Iowa Hawkeyes (9-4)
The Hawkeyes are led by senior guard Ally Disterhoft, who leads the team in scoring with 17.4 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game. Also pitching in big on the offensive side is sophomore forward Megan Gustafson and sophomore guard Tania Davis. Gustafson is averaging a double-double, scoring 16.9 points per game and grabbing 10.4 rebounds per game. Davis is averaging 9.5 points per game. Davis also leads the team in assists per game with 3.6.
Minnesota Gophers (9-4)
The Gophers enter Big Ten play with four players averaging double-digits and one averaging a double-double. Led in scoring by junior guard Carlie Wagner, who is averaging 18.1 points per game and 5.1 rebounds per game, Minnesota also has junior center Bryanna Fernstrom. The six-foot-five Fernstrom is averaging 12 points per game while also grabbing 10 rebounds per game.
Purdue Boilermakers (9-5)
Purdue is led by two strong upperclassmen guards, senior guard Ashley Morrissette and junior guard Andreona Keys. Morrissette leads the Boilermakers in scoring with 14.4 points per game. She also adds 4.3 assists per game and is shooting 82 percent from the free throw line, which leads the team. Keys is averaging just nine points per game, but leads the team in rebounds with 6.4 per game, and is second in assists per game with 3.6.
Illinois Fighting Illini (5-8)
The Fighting Illini find itself as the first team below .500 in the Big Ten conference, taking losses from Wake Forest, Memphis and Ohio among others. Illinois is led in most categories by two players: sophomore forward Alex Wittinger and freshman guard Brandi Beasley. Wittinger is averaging 15.1 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game. Beasley comes in second in scoring with 11.4 points per game and is handing out 3.8 assists per game, which leads the team. Look for Beasley and Van Leeuwen to trade punches when Illinois finds itself in Madison in late February.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-8)
Entering Big Ten play at 4-8, one spot above last, is Nebraska, led by sophomore forward Jessica Shepard, who averages a double-double with 17.9 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game. Shepard will definitely cause problems for the Badgers, but helping defensively on the forward does not appear as though it hurts opponents too much.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (3-10)
One year ago, Rutgers finished 8-10 in the Big Ten and had an overall record of 19-15. Halfway through this season they have already tied their number of losses from last year.
Controlled by junior forward Kandiss Barber and junior guard Shrita Parker, Rutgers is having a tough time getting things in motion this season. Barber leads the team in scoring and rebounding with 9.6 points per game and 5.6 rebounds per game. Barber is shooting a dismal 41 percent from the free throw line. Parker is arguably the most valuable player on the Scarlet Knights. She enters Big Ten play with 9.1 points per game, is second on the team in assists, and is shooting 92 percent from the free throw line. These two players will definitely be tough matchups for whomever Tsipis decides to stick on them, most likely Van Leeuwen or McMorris on Parker and McMorris or Howard on Barber.