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Merchant begins NCAA Tourney talk, Big Ten deserves high ranking

January 31, 2011

MSU women’s basketball head coach Suzy Merchant speaks at her weekly Monday morning press conference. The No. 11 Spartans are coming off of a loss Sunday to No. 18 Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena but plan on bouncing back big with a win Thursday over Wisconsin. The Badgers aren’t ranked nationally but are tied for first place in the Big Ten with Penn State. Their 7-2 conference record put them just ahead of the Spartans at 6-2. Merchant answers questions about the Iowa loss, the parody in the league this year and the 16-game conference schedule.

Photo by Anthony Odoardi | The State News

Even in women’s basketball it’s never too early to talk about March Madness.

The No. 11 Spartans suffered their third loss of the season at the hands of No. 20 Iowa on Thursday, but they still are in prime shape to hear their names called early when Selection Monday comes around.

At this point in the season, the team’s résumé nearly looks flawless.

The Spartans stand at 18-3 — including a 6-2 record in the Big Ten, the conference with the highest RPI in the country.

They lead the league in scoring defense, rebounding margin and offensive rebounds and also are among the top five in scoring offense, 3-point percentage, assists and turnover margin.

On paper, the Big Ten conference should be a lock to have at least one No. 1 seeded team, but at her Monday morning press conference, MSU head coach Suzy Merchant didn’t seem so confident.

“If Ohio State had not had those struggles, if they had run the table, maybe they might have had the opportunity for a No. 1 seed because they have a good national presence with (five) Big Ten championships in a row,” Merchant said. “But now, I don’t know, but that will be interesting to see what happens come March.”

Since the 2005-06 season, the Big Ten conference has been dominated by Ohio State.
The Buckeyes had just 12 conference losses in those seasons, and the first three years they lost two times or less.

For the Buckeyes’ best two records ­— 29-3 in 2006-07 and 28-4 in 2007-08 ­— they were awarded a No. 4 seed and a No. 6 seed.

Last season, the Buckeyes went 29-6 and earned a No. 2 seed but lost to Mississippi State in the second round.

The team losing in an early round could weigh on the judges when selecting the top Big Ten seed this year.

“I think sometimes what we find a little bit in that national piece (is) it seems like there’s other conferences and other teams and programs that have always traditionally carried those No. 1 seeds,” Merchant said.

“I don’t know, it will be interesting to see how that might be, depending on how teams finish out. Certainly you have the powerhouses doing well at this point, and three of them that look like they could be a No. 1 seed and that fourth one is open.”

The three teams Merchant mentioned likely are No. 1 Baylor, No. 2 Connecticut and No. 3 Duke, and with traditional powerhouses Stanford and Tennessee behind them, a one seed for the Big Ten is hopeful at best.

This season, the Big Ten has been up and down. Nationally speaking, MSU and Iowa are ranked, but the Hawkeyes (5-4) are fifth in the conference standings and the Buckeyes (4-5) are seventh. Penn State (7-2) and Wisconsin (7-2) currently are tied for first place, with MSU (6-2) right behind them.
“I think on the women’s side of things, there used to be tiers,” Merchant said. “There used to be the top two or three teams and then the middle pack and then the bottom third.

“Now, it’s not like that. There is no definitive top (or) bottom. There’s a lot of parity in the league and I think there’s been a lot of turnover in the league, and a lot of resources that have been put into different programs that maybe haven’t had it in the past.”

As the calendar flips over to the month of February and people start counting the days until tournament time, Merchant and the Spartans insist they will continue to keep each game in focus, but knocking the five-time defending champions off certainly is in the back of their minds.

“We talk and think about the next game, but (a conference title) is a goal of every team out there, and certainly our team is no different,” Merchant said. “I think that way too. I think that’s healthy and natural, but I just don’t think you can get ahead of yourself. There’s just too much of the season left.”

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