Big Ten Breakdown: Maryland and Ohio State pose greatest challenge
Once again, Michigan will see red on its road to the top of the Big Ten — the top-two teams the Wolverines will be attempting to box out will be Maryland and Ohio State. But if the season plays out in their favor, they won’t experience deja vu and once again be passed over for an NCAA Tournament bid.
The Michigan women’s basketball team hasn’t been selected to compete in the NCAA Tournament since the 2012-13 season — coinciding with the first year coach Kim Barnes Arico headed the program.
In the past three years, the Wolverines have been outplayed, barely, in outlier games and have instead been sent to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament, where they have not been able to advance past the semifinals.
This year, though, could be different. A rising “superstar” freshman class, according to Barnes Arico, mixed with key players like junior forward Katelynn Flaherty and sophomore guard Hallie Thome, could possess the ingredients needed to break into the NCAA Tournament.
The Daily breaks down who Michigan’s top conference competition will be on the path to its first potential NCAA appearance in five years.
No. 6 Maryland
Ranked fifth in the Associated Press poll, the Terrapins are the strongest team in the conference and are entering their third season in the Big Ten. Though Michigan dominated Wayne State in its final preseason exhibition match, 93-41, Maryland upped the ante by demolishing Mary Baldwin, 153-27. The triple digits came from a strong freshman class, including Jenna Staiti, who contributed 25 points and eight rebounds. Returning player Shatori Walker-Kimbrough will be hard to defend, too, as senior guard set the Big Ten record in 3-point field-goal percentage and was the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player last year.
The Terrapins were picked to win the Big Ten title by both league coaches and the media panels for the second year in a row, which makes it an uphill battle for the Wolverines to pick off their new competition.
No. 7 Ohio State
The next biggest threat to the Wolverines is the Buckeyes, who have junior Kelsey Mitchell, the Big Ten’s Preseason Player of the Year. Ohio State was chosen to finish second in the conference, and the effort will no doubt be led by Mitchell. Other players to focus on will be senior Ameryst Alston, who has finished with first team All-Big Ten honors in each year of her collegiate career. The Buckeyes went 26-8 last year with a 16-1 home record — something to look out for considering it is the only time the Wolverines and Buckeyes will meet in Columbus this year.
The Spartans received the 22nd spot in the USA Today Coaches Poll, but slid out of the AP Poll rankings. Under the nine-year tutelage of Suzy Merchant, the Spartans have finished in the top three in the Big Ten in seven of the last eight seasons. Their only hiccup was their 2014-15 year, in which the Spartans had multiple players suffer injuries and finished 16-15.
The Hoosiers were picked to finish third in the Big Ten, but find themselves left out of all preseason rankings, despite finishing last season with a 14-0 home record. With the recent hire of a new assistant coach, Glenn Box, Indiana is looking to jumpstart its defense and perimeter play.
The Boilermakers have a senior duo who are each aiming for the 1,000-point club, Ashley Morrissette and Bridget Perry. The pair were the only two in their recruiting class and are both in position to achieve a feat that just 30 players have accomplished in 42 years of program history. Purdue is also returning five of its top-six scorers, including three starters.
Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder is entering her 17th year at the helm of the program. She has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year three times and has led her team to nine consecutive postseason appearances. The Hawkeyes will be looking to repeat the success of their 2014-15 season and head to the Sweet Sixteen. The charge will be led by senior Ally Disterhoft, who was named a Preseason All-Big Ten selection.
The Scarlet Knights graduated six players from last year and will have to fight to overcome a large gap on their roster. The most experienced player will be junior Shrita Parker, who averaged 5.1 points and 2.8 rebounds in 14 starts last year. Don’t count them out too soon, though, as coach C. Vivian Stringer is entering her 22nd season at Rutgers and holds a 971-366 record — ranking fourth on the all-time Division I women’s coaches victories list.