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Big Ten Women’s Basketball Power Rankings: A pair of unexpected leaders

After a wild start to conference play, the Hawkeyes and Wildcats are undoubtedly the current cream of the crop.

Big Ten women’s basketball has opened conference play with an absolute bang, with multiple teams proving to be top competition not only in the conference, but in the nation. Preseason underdogs have risen to the occasion, and some of the mighty have already fallen multiple times.

However, with two months left of regular-season play, the title is still anyone’s game in what has quickly established itself as the most wide-open, entertaining conference in the country. Without further ado, our first edition of these power rankings:

1. #22 Iowa (14-3, 5-1 B1G)

The Hawkeyes have torn through early Big Ten play and solidified themselves as a top team in both the conference and the nation as a whole. They currently share the first-place spot with Northwestern and Rutgers after having won each of their last five matchups following a conference play-opening loss to Nebraska, defeating some of the Big Ten’s best in the process.

In this past week’s AP Poll rankings, they earned a spot for the first time all season as the 22nd-ranked team in the country. After destroying Illinois by almost 40, the Hawkeyes went on to defeat Northwestern, Maryland, and Indiana consecutively, an absolute murderer’s row, before star point guard Kathleen Doyle keyed a remarkable comeback against depleted Minnesota – putting the Hawkeyes in a great position to take on the weaker teams remaining on their schedule, starting with Wisconsin tomorrow.

Without 2018-19 Big Ten Player of the Year Megan Gustafson, there were all sorts of questions about the Hawkeyes heading into this season. So far, they have answered the vast majority of them.

2. Northwestern (15-2, 5-1 B1G)

Outside of Iowa, Northwestern is without a doubt the hottest team in the Big Ten, having won three straight nail-biters against competitive opponents. While the Wildcats were snubbed in the AP Poll top-25 rankings last week, they are almost guaranteed to have a spot in the upcoming poll, as they now hold the No. 1 spot in the Big Ten following their overtime upset of Indiana.

Since entering conference play, Northwestern has added some great victories to its resume, including wins over now-No. 20 Maryland and No. 15 Indiana (on the road). Its only conference loss came to the impressive Hawkeyes, but the ‘Cats bounced back well and won three straight following the defeat.

With the entire team doing their part right now, NU is on a roll and has proved to be a force to be reckoned with nationally aa contender to win the Big Ten this year. Next up: Penn State comes to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday.

3. #20 Maryland (13-4, 4-2 B1G)

The Terrapins entered Big Ten play as the team to beat but suffered some unexpected losses early on to Northwestern and Iowa. However, Maryland is back on the rise again, having won its last two games against Michigan and Nebraska and somehow remaining in the rankings despite two unranked losses in conference play.

The upcoming matchup against a newly-defeated yet talented Indiana team will be especially telling for the Terps and could be a turning point in both their season and within the conference as a whole. Maryland and the Hoosiers will tip things off at 7 p.m. Central on Monday night in College Park in a game that will be televised on BTN.

4. Rutgers (15-2, 5-1 B1G)

Rutgers has also thrived in early conference play and put together some respectable wins. The Scarlet Knights remain undefeated in the new decade and have won 11 of their past 12 games under storied head coach C. Vivian Stringer, with the only loss since November coming to No. 15 Indiana.

While they have taken care of business for the most part, their past four wins were all against mid-level Big Ten talent, so their true standing in the conference will be more evident once they face higher-level competition in the coming weeks. First, though, Michigan State comes to Piscataway on Monday night.

5. #15 Indiana (14-4, 4-2 B1G)

After establishing itself as a top team in the nation during nonconference play, No. 15 Indiana has suffered a few recent blunders that have chipped away at its powerhouse reputation. In their first 16 games, the Hoosiers only dropped two, both to top-10 opponents.

However, in their past two matchups, they were upset by two seemingly lesser conference opponents, No. 22 Iowa and Northwestern, though both losses did come in overtime. Indiana remains a powerhouse, as they did defeat South Carolina, the current No. 1 team in the country, earlier this year, but they will have to regroup quickly if they want to remain a leader in the Big Ten. That starts Monday night in primetime against the Terps.

6. Nebraska (13-4, 3-3 B1G)

Nebraska has put up solid play early in its conference schedule as well. While the Huskers dropped their last two games, the excusable losses came to talented Rutgers and Maryland squads.

The standout moment of their season – while it may not have seemed so at the time – was their 78-69 win over Iowa, who has proved to be one of the top contenders in the conference since. If Nebraska can get back on track and put together more victories like that, they could become a challenging opponent for many, especially given their fierce home court advantage. They host the Wolverines Sunday afternoon on BTN.

7. Michigan State (10-7, 3-3 B1G)

Michigan State was another team that entered its nonconference schedule on a high. The Spartans were ranked for the bulk of nonconference play but dropped their final two matchups to Syracuse and West Virginia before beginning their Big Ten schedule.

They then proceeded to drop three of their first six conference matchups, including an inexcusable loss to Penn State. MSU is another team that is looking to get back on track but will face an uphill battle with tough conference matchups ahead, kicking off with the ever-difficult trek to Piscataway that they face tomorrow.

8. Ohio State (10-7, 3-3 B1G)

Ohio State has played as expected so far in Big Ten play, putting together some solid wins and facing some hard-fought losses to top talent like Maryland. Their results were much more inconsistent in non-conference action, where they pushed teams like UConn to the brink and even knocked off #6 Louisville while suffering disappointing losses to Ohio and South Dakota, but the young Buckeyes seem to have settled down a bit.

OSU anchor the middle of the pack in the conference and will continue to fight for well-earned wins against the Big Ten’s best after a close Thursday loss to MSU. A prime opportunity to get over .500 in conference play awaits in the form of Illinois on Sunday.

9. Michigan (12-5, 3-3 B1G)

After a strong start to nonconference play garnered them a spot as a top-25 team in the nation, Michigan fell out of the rankings following three conference losses. The Wolverines dropped two games to Maryland and fell to a less-talented Ohio State team last week.

Naz Hillmon and the maize and blue are slowly slipping out of conference title contention, and must turn their season around soon. An impressive road win against the Cornhuskers would be one way to kickstart that process.

10. Purdue (12-6, 3-3 B1G)

After winnings its first two conference games, Purdue dropped three straight to Rutgers, Indiana and Northwestern – all understandable losses to the Big Ten’s toughest competition. The Boilermakers bounced back to defeat Illinois with hopes of improving its conference track record during the remainder of the season and maybe making an NCAA Tournament push (the conference may just be deep enough for ten teams to make it in).

A home win against a Minnesota squad that just lost its best player is necessary for that run to be a possibility.

11. Illinois (10-7, 1-5 B1G)

Illinois faced a front-loaded Big Ten schedule this season, with its first four games coming against Northwestern, Iowa, Indiana and Rutgers. After getting absolutely destroyed in all four, the Illini earned a solid win over Minnesota before falling to Purdue in its most recent matchup.

Luckily for Illinois, its upcoming opponents are much more manageable, and the team may well be able to add to its Big Ten resume with some solid wins soon. Right now, the conference’s bottom four looks lost, but Illinois may have the best chance to dig themselves out of the pit.

12. Minnesota (11-6, 1-5 B1G)

After winning 11 straight and its first conference matchup against Penn State, Minnesota has absolutely cratered, dropping each of the five games they have played in 2020. Before Thursday’s devastating loss to Iowa, the Gophers were hit with the news that junior guard Destiny Pitts, the team’s leading scorer and best player, will transfer after head coach Lindsay Whalen sat her for the last seven minutes against Northwestern and suspended her indefinitely for “bad body language.”

Minnesota has more than enough talent to bounce back from this stretch even without Pitts, as their low point, the loss to Illinois, came without the talented Bello sisters, who skipped the trip in protest of Pitts’ suspension. They have shown some promise even through their losing streak by only losing to Northwestern and Iowa by a combined three points.

Ultimately, they desperately need at least one win in their next two games, against Purdue and/or Wisconsin, in order for Whalen’s sad to avoid completely falling apart.

13. Wisconsin (9-8, 1-5 B1G)

Wisconsin has faced plenty of challenges in Big Ten play. After a decent nonconference performance, the Badgers only pulled out one conference win against an equally challenged Penn State team.

Following the win, they dropped their last three to Nebraska, Michigan State and Michigan and have yet to face some of the toughest opponents on their schedule, though they have hung with the mid-level teams they’ve faced so far.

14. Penn State (7-10, 1-5 B1G)

Penn State has struggled all season long and especially in conference play. The Nittany Lions have only found one Big Ten win over Michigan State and haven’t kept too many of their other games close. Still, though, PSU has the ability to pull off a big upset, and Northwestern will have to be wary on Sunday against a team that Joe McKeown has beaten just once across his entire coaching career.