With five Big Ten Teams in the AP Top 25 preseason poll — the most the conference has ever had since the rankings began — March Madness might as well begin with the start of conference play. Thankfully, fans are welcome back inside stadiums to witness the chaos. Here are how all 14 Big Ten women’s basketball teams stack up — for now, at least.
It’s easy to justify Maryland’s placement at the top of the pre-season podium. Ranked No. 4 in this year’s AP poll, the Terps are poised to avenge both their Big Ten regular season and tournament championship runs. Junior Ashley Owusu returns as one of three unanimous Coaches’ Preseason All-Big Ten Pre-Season Team selections, and she will continue to lead last year’s number one scoring offense in the country alongside fellow guard and All-Conference team member Diamond Miller. Maryland also returns its other three starters as they seek to venture past the sweet-sixteen this year and add NCAA tournament hardware to their already crowded trophy room.
Indiana might be the hottest team in the conference as they come off their first NCAA elite-eight appearance in nearly 40 years. The Hoosiers jumped from No. 16 in last season’s pre-season poll to No. 8 currently, and similar to Maryland, they return all five starters from last year’s squad. While their offensive play falls slightly below that of the Terps, Indiana has one of the best defenses in the nation, as they held Big Ten opponents to the lowest total field-goal percentage and led the conference in defensive rebounding. With junior guard and All-Big Ten Pre-Season Team member Mackenzie Holmes at the helm, the Hoosiers have a shot to claim the conference title.
There are few true freshmen who can take an unranked team into the top ten in less than a year, but fortunately for Iowa, Caitlin Clark did just that. Now a sophomore, Clark is the reigning national leader in points-per-game, scoring at an average of 26.6 per contest. Clark returns along with senior Monica Czinano, who was the other keystone that helped Hawkeyes to the title of second best scoring offense in the country last season, just behind the Terps. No. 9 ranked Iowa also returns the rest of its starters and is looking to use the momentum from its sweet sixteen appearance to bolster a strong start and an even stronger finish this year.
Michigan is yet another Big Ten team that is coming into this season off a sweet sixteen berth. Lead by consensus 2021 Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon, the Wolverines are expected to validate their highest AP poll position ever at No. 11 in the pre-season rankings. Michigan had one of the best defenses in the Big Ten last season, leading the conference in total rebounds and holding opponents to the lowest average 2-pt percentage of all 14 teams. Hillmon will look to continue her reign as the conference’s most highly touted player as she joins her teammate and fellow pre-season All-Big Ten Team member Leigha Brown in furthering the Wolverines’ chances at a deeper postseason run.
Now this is the point in the rankings where standings become a bit fuzzy, but Northwestern genuinely has a chance to compete for a share of Big Ten glory. Senior Veronica Burton is in her prime, as she was named to three preseason watchlists before the Wildcats’ first regular season game and spent her summer starting for Team USA’s AmeriCup squad. With Burton as the two-time reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year at the center of Joe McKeown’s heralded Blizzard Defense, Northwestern will be tough to score on this year, which is especially useful in a conference full of strong offensive teams. If Burton can lead the Wildcats, which also houses a top ten recruiting class of freshman, to greater heights on the offensive end of the floor, Northwestern can seriously shake things up in the Big Ten this year.
6. Ohio State Buckeyes
Most rankings would put Ohio State above Northwestern, and some would even place it above Michigan, but its four-loss fallout at the end of last season combined with several missed matchups due to COVID-19 still leaves room for debate. Are the Buckeyes for real, or is their No. 17 AP preseason ranking a fluke? The addition of senior guard Taylor Mikesell from Oregon does shed some light on the hype, and OSU returns key players Madison Greene and Jacy Sheldon as well. The Buckeyes are certainly capable of playing with the better teams in the conference, but the question of if they can actually pull out wins against them remains.
Michigan State is a team that started last season strong but could not cement itself amongst the best teams in the conference once Big Ten play rolled around. Though the Spartans dealt Indiana one of its two losses last season, they don’t offer anything substantial that would move them up in this year’s rankings. Though their offense displayed several bright spots behind pre-season All-Big Ten Team member Nia Clouden, MSU’s defense struggled against conference foes by allowing the fourth most points-per-attempt in the Big Ten. Unless they are able to play up to more formidable opponents and give themselves a chance on offense, the Spartans look like a middle-of-the-pack team.
8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers was actually one of the better teams in the Big Ten last season, that is, if you discount the seven consecutive conference games it missed due to COVID-19 protocols. However, the Scarlet Knights did win nine straight after their hiatus, including victories over Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State. Much of their success, though, was due to All-Big Ten First Team member Arella Guirantes, who closed the door on her collegiate career after her redshirt senior year. Despite Guirantes’ absence, the surge of success Rutgers experienced at the tail-end of its 2020-21 campaign does indicate it could be competitive in meaningful games.
The Cornhuskers never quite managed to hang with the Big Ten’s top few teams, but they did pull off some surprisingly solid wins against upper-mid-tier teams like Northwestern and Ohio State last season. Junior Sam Haiby is fresh off a All-Big Ten Second Team campaign and remains a reliable player for the Huskers to build around this season. However, one of Nebraska’s main issues last season was an inability to control the flow of games with the talent it had, which contributed to a team record of just below .500. That being said, the Cornhuskers will still be candidates for coming out victorious in trap-games and should not be overlooked by statistically better opponents.
Penn State struggled in the Big Ten last season, only winning six games against conference opponents. While their scoring totals were not indicative of a bottom-tier team, the Nittany Lions’ defense was abysmal, landing them in last or second to last in nearly every opponent scoring category. However, they were surprisingly solid from behind the arc, ranking second in the conference with a 33.2% three-point rate and first in percentage of points from downtown. Nonetheless, in a conference with offensive powerhouses like Maryland and Iowa on the docket, poor defending teams like PSU will not succeed even if their scoring totals are up to par.
With only four conference wins last season, Purdue also doesn’t look like it’s in line for any upward mobility just yet. Additionally, last year’s leading scorer and All-Big Ten Second Team member Kayana Traylor transferred to Virginia Tech, leaving the Boilers with the difficult task of rebuilding a team once anchored around her. Yes, Purdue can beat teams like Wisconsin and Illinois and maybe the occasional Nebraska or PSU, but it can’t compete with the rest of the conference just yet.
The Gophers finished last season ahead of both Penn State and Purdue in the Big Ten’s final standings, but after a 69-66 loss against Jacksonville University in their season opener, things aren’t looking too good. However, Minnesota does return junior Jasmine Powell, who earned her spot as a member of last year’s All-Big Ten Second Team. Powell cannot carry the team on her own though, and it will take more than one offseason to improve a Gopher defense that was one of the worst, if not the worst, in the conference.
Women’s basketball might just be one of the only sports in which Wisconsin is not consistently a conference contender. The Badgers won a dismal two games in Big Ten play last year, managing to scrape by both Ohio State and Illinois, and lost by an average of 16.1 points per contest. Sydney Hilliard, one of their two playmakers from last season (along with Imani Lewis, who departed), is returning, but her 14.5 points per game last season barely placed her at 20th in the conference. With that, all signs point to Wisconsin remaining at the bottom of the table this year.
Illinois was the only team in the Big Ten to not have a single player mentioned in any All-Big Ten team list, including honorable mention, last season. The Illini won three conference matchups and lost the rest by an average margin of 13 points. To top it all off, they scored an average of just under 60 points-per-game, cementing them at dead last in the Big Ten. They will win a game or two this season, but the Illini clearly aren’t prepared to stir up any conference drama for the time being.