Northwestern women’s basketball (5-7, 0-1 B1G) plays its Big Ten home opener this Saturday against fellow early-season strugglers Rutgers. The momentary Christmas break has given teams time to reflect on their concluded non-conference schedule and prepare for the long winter marathon of Big Ten play. It has also provided the wider basketball community with an opportunity to take fresh stock of each program’s progress with 2024 just around the corner. While the season is still in its nascent stages, enough data has amassed for us to take a speculative look at where things stand before conference play heats up.
1. No. 4 Iowa (12-1, 1-0 B1G)
A shocking home loss to Kansas State in mid-November briefly set alarm bells off in Iowa City, but Caitlin Clark and Co. have rebounded to win nine straight, including avenging their defeat to the Big 12 Wildcats just 10 days later. Clark has continued the fine form that saw her propel the Hawkeyes to within a game of the national championship last spring, leading the team in points (30.5), rebounds (7.5) and assists (7.4). The senior guard’s already impeccable three-point shooting has become even more prolific this season — she has averaged 4.6 made threes per game on 39.2% from beyond the arc. With Clark, the consensus No. 1 pick in next year’s WNBA Draft, humbling opponents week in week out, it is no wonder that the Hawkeyes are overwhelming favorites for the Big Ten title.
2. No. 17 Ohio State (10-2, 1-0 B1G)
The Buckeyes have fallen 10 spots from their preseason ranking of No. 7 in the AP Top 25, largely due to an opening day loss to No. 21 USC. Since then, Ohio State has mostly righted the ship, winning nine on the trot (including two victories over teams ranked at the time) before competing well in a six-point loss to No. 2 UCLA. While they lost last season’s top scorer Taylor Mikesell, much of the core that led the Buckeyes to a stunning 19-0 start and an Elite Eight appearance remains in Columbus. OSU has benefited from the consistent performances of senior and WNBA prospect Jacy Sheldon, who spent much of last season sidelined due to a leg injury but has so far averaged 19.1 points per game on 56.0% from the field. Cotie McMahon and Taylor Thierry have also chipped in with double figures for a team which, despite an early hiccup, has shown immense quality.
3. No. 16 Indiana (10-1, 1-0 B1G)
While AP poll voters ranked Indiana above Ohio State for the first time this season in Week Eight, the Hoosiers remain just below in these rankings for the moment, largely owing to their relative strength of schedule. IU’s sole loss was a 96-64 drubbing at the hands of No. 15 Stanford in its second game of the season, but the team has since been perfect, albeit against mostly vastly inferior opponents. Under the reign of head coach Teri Moren, Indiana has become something of a juggernaut in the past four seasons after decades of mediocrity. However, the Hoosiers are looking to recover from last year’s postseason disappointment — after claiming the regular season Big Ten title with a 16-2 conference record, they lost in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals to Ohio State before crashing out of March Madness in the second round as a No. 1 seed. The Hoosiers’ revenge tour has thus far been led by seniors Mackenzie Holmes and Sara Scalia, whose post presence and three-point shooting, respectively, should yield another fruitful season.
4. Penn State (9-3, 0-1 B1G)
Penn State has been among the biggest surprise packages of non-conference play so far, and competed well in its Big Ten opener: a 10-point loss at rivals Ohio State. The Nittany Lions were also minutes away from a seismic upset over No. 8 USC, ultimately falling short by just a single point to the team that beat Ohio State by nine. Few fancied the Lions to compete at the top end of the Big Ten after Carolyn Kieger’s side amassed only four conference wins last season, good enough for a 12th-place finish. Nevertheless, if star duo Makenna Marisa and Shay Ciezki can keep up their hot start, there is no reason Penn State shouldn’t be able to disrupt the traditional Big Ten order.
5. Maryland (9-3, 1-0 B1G)
Non-conference play did not go to plan for this superpower program, which sought to challenge itself with a difficult early schedule following a 15-3 Big Ten record and an Elite Eight appearance last season. Maryland played three ranked teams in its first five games and lost all of them by at least 20 points, including a 114-76 shellacking at the hands of No. 6 South Carolina. Even the Terps’ 13-point win over a struggling Northwestern was largely unconvincing. After starting the season ranked 14th, the Terrapins have now dropped out of the AP Top 25 altogether. If legendary head coach Brenda Frese’s tenure is anything to go by, however, it won’t be long before Maryland starts playing elite level basketball. Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, the Terps have won six out of nine possible regular season conference titles; stretching back further, they have made 13 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Despite the early struggles, it would be silly to count Maryland out until more significant evidence of its demise emerges.
6. Minnesota (11-1, 1-0 B1G)
Picked dead last in Inside NU’s pre-season power rankings, Minnesota has started the season surprisingly well with just one entry in the loss column heading into Big Ten play. Sterner tests undoubtedly await the Golden Gophers, but the early signs point to a turnaround not dissimilar to Penn State’s, having also finished last season with just four conference wins. New head coach Dawn Plitzuweit has made an early impression after a one-season stint with West Virginia, where she led the Mountaineers to an NCAA Tournament appearance. Sophomore sharpshooter Mara Braun is a standout, averaging 20.3 points per game. Minnesota’s non-conference schedule was admittedly littered with mediocre opponents, but a gritty 60-58 win over Purdue to open Big Ten play justifies its position in these power rankings.
7. Nebraska (9-3, 1-0 B1G)
A road loss to Kansas has somewhat soured what was a largely promising non-conference slate for the Cornhuskers, who opened their Big Ten schedule with an impressive 80-74 win at Michigan State a week prior. Their other two losses were competitive showings against TCU and Creighton, two teams who currently sit in the AP Top 25 after strong starts to the season. Junior center Alexis Markowski has made a big leap from last year and leads the team in scoring (17.3), complementing senior guard Jazz Shelley’s consistent production. Nebraska will be hoping to improve upon an eighth-place, 8-10 Big Ten season, and appears to have laid the foundations for doing just that.
8. Michigan State (10-2, 0-1 B1G)
The aforementioned home loss to Nebraska is the only thing keeping Michigan State in the bottom half of these rankings. Otherwise, MSU has had a solid yet unspectacular start to the season, taking care of business against several undermatched teams and losing to Creighton by 14 points. The Spartans have shared the wealth in terms of scoring thus far, with four players averaging double-digit points. Leading the pack is fifth-year senior Moira Joiner, whose 16.8 points per game represents a marked improvement on her previous four campaigns. DeeDee Hagemann and Julia Ayrault have also contributed heavily, averaging 14.3 and 14.1 points per game, respectively. We’ll know a lot more about this team’s true colors after a daunting run of games sees it face Penn State, Iowa, Maryland and Ohio State to ring in the new year.
9. Michigan (10-3, 1-0 B1G)
An inconsistent non-conference slate was punctuated by an embarrassing 23-point defeat at Toledo, but the Wolverines showed major signs of improvement as they began Big Ten play with a comprehensive, 84-48 rout of Illinois. Whether the real Michigan is the team that showed up in Urbana-Champaign or the one that lost by 17 at home to Florida a week later remains to be seen. Fans in Ann Arbor will be hoping the team can build upon five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, but doing so will require an improvement from Michigan’s star players. Junior Laila Phelia leads the team in points per game, but her shooting splits so far (35.6/30.5/81.6) have noticeably declined from last season. UM’s only other returning starter, senior Cameron Williams, is more of a presence on the boards than a scorer, meaning newer players will have to step up and contribute if the Wolverines want to compete at the top of the Big Ten.
10. Wisconsin (7-4, 0-1 B1G)
The Badgers have shown some positive signs in their search for a first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010. Their four losses have come against formidable opposition, and they even hung with Iowa for nearly an entire half in their first Big Ten game of the season before eventually falling 87-65. While significant strides still must be made before Wisconsin returns to the promised land, what is most promising for Marisa Moseley is the performances of her younger players. Sophomore forward Serah Williams is a force to be reckoned with, leading the team in both points (16.1) and rebounds (9.0), while freshman D’Yanis Jimenez is second in scoring with 11.5 points per game.
11. Purdue (7-5, 0-1 B1G)
Purdue’s 7-5 record may be misleading, as it played a more challenging non-conference slate than many of its peer institutions, but the Boilermakers didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory in blowout losses to No 4. UCLA (92-49) and No. 14 Notre Dame (76-39). Head coach Katie Geralds led Purdue to a national championship as a player and has started to turn this sleeping giant of a program around in her two seasons at the helm, but the Boilermakers look to be in danger of taking a step back from their First Four appearance last year. Like with Wisconsin, the best news for Geralds is the strength of her newer recruits. While senior guard Abbey Ellis has led the way so far with 14.9 points per game, freshmen Rashunda Jones and Mary Ashley Stevenson have both hit the ground running, receiving substantial minutes and contributing 10.9 and 9.1 points per game, respectively.
12. Illinois (6-5, 0-1 B1G)
After five years of wallowing in and around the Big Ten basement under Nancy Fahey, first-year head coach Shauna Green worked a miracle by delivering 11 conference wins last season, four more than Illinois had achieved in Fahey’s five seasons combined. Coming off a First Four appearance, the Fighting Illini were much hyped this offseason and began the year ranked 23rd in the AP Poll. Yet, it appears Green’s magic might have worn off in the early stages of the season, as Illinois has struggled to recapture its winning formula. The Illini’s 36-point loss to Michigan was followed up by consecutive home defeats to mid-tier SEC teams in Missouri and Arkansas. Genesis Bryant’s play has remained rock solid, but last year’s top scorer Makira Cook has started the season in cold shooting form — one of many things that must improve for Illinois to replicate last season’s Big Ten performance.
13. Rutgers (6-8, 0-1 B1G)
This is not a particularly good basketball team. Although the Scarlet Knights acquitted themselves reasonably well in their first Big Ten clash against No. 16 Indiana, losing 66-56, their resume also includes a 24-point loss to Fairfield and a 19-point loss to Seton Hall. Former Penn State head coach Coquese Washington guided Rutgers to a 5-13 Big Ten record in her debut season last year, but has plenty of work to do if she hopes to return a winning culture to a program that experienced immense success in the early 2000s. Kaylene Smikle carried last season’s team as a freshman and continues to do so this year, averaging 17.1 points per game. A more dynamic supporting cast must emerge for Rutgers to get over its non-conference struggles.
14. Northwestern (5-7, 0-1 B1G)
As painful as it is to rank Northwestern last, there is no getting around the six-game losing streak the ‘Cats experienced, which included a 90-65 defeat to DePaul and a first loss to Loyola Chicago in program history. Add that to a 58-point thrashing at the hands of No. 16 Notre Dame, and there is really no case for Northwestern to be anywhere but the bottom of these rankings. That said, Joe McKeown’s team has shown signs of life in its last two games, including an impressive second-half comeback to beat Temple on the road. Junior Melannie Daley has been a shining light for the ‘Cats, leading the team with 13 points per game after an injury-ridden sophomore year. First-year Casey Harter’s recent emergence as a key player has also given fans reason to believe in a brighter future. This Saturday’s clash with Rutgers is huge. Win, and the ‘Cats might not be cellar-dwellers for much longer.