Big Ten preview: Maryland and everyone else
Jack Kingsley, Brendan Roose and Kent Schwartz contributed to this story.
Michigan finished last season fourth in the Big Ten and with a good chunk of teams competing for real estate at the top of the conference standings, life won’t be getting any easier. Here’s everything you need to know about the Big Ten’s top teams this year.
No. 4 Maryland
After winning the Big Ten regular season title last year, the Big Ten is Maryland’s to lose. The Terrapins are ranked in the top five in both the AP and Coaches preseason polls, in large part due to the return of all five starters, including Kaila Charles. Charles averaged 17 points per game last season and was named both a preseason All-American and the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year.
Maryland also brings in the third-ranked freshman class in the nation, led by seventh-ranked recruit Ashley Owusu, which gives the Terrapins much more depth than in prior seasons. The biggest challenge for them will be whether or not their uber-talented freshmen can adjust to secondary roles, but coach Brenda Frese is confident that their difficult non-conference schedule will help them figure out how to balance everyone’s minutes.
The Big Ten has many teams with NCAA Tournament aspirations this season, but Maryland is a step above the rest and a legitimate threat to win the national title.
No. 17 Michigan State
After their 2018-19 campaign ended with a blowout loss to Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans enter this season ranked 17th in the preseason AP Poll. 13th-year coach Suzy Merchant may have her most talented roster in years, with four returning starters, including guards Shay Colley, Taryn McCutcheon and Nia Clouden, all of whom earned All-Big Ten honors last season.
Michigan State will be tested early in non-conference play, when they travel to South Bend to take on No. 16 Notre Dame. To take a step up as a program this year and compete in these tough games, the Spartans will need to rely on some of their younger players for depth — their 2019 recruiting class includes five players from the Collegiate Girls Basketball Report Top 100.
They probably won’t compete with Maryland for the regular season conference championship, but don’t be surprised if the Spartans make some noise in the Big Ten Tournament or even pull off an upset in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
No. 23 Minnesota
The Golden Gophers did not make the NCAA Tournament last season after finishing 21-11, but the return of three of their top four scorers led to a No. 23 rank in the preseason AP poll. The return of an all-Big Ten player in Destiny Pitts gives Minnesota optimism that it can take the next step in coach Lindsay Whalen’s second year despite the loss of leading scorer Kenisha Bell.
However, their season got off to a rough start after losing at home to unranked Missouri State on Tuesday. The result showed that the loss of Bell will take some time to adjust to, and may be too much for Minnesota to overcome to live up to the preseason hype.
No. 24 Indiana
The Hoosiers limped to a disappointing 8-10 conference record last year, but they still earned an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, where they were bounced in the second round by No. 2 seed Oregon. This year, Indiana returns all but one of its regular players from last season, making the Hoosiers poised to compete for one of the top spots in the Big Ten.
Redshirt junior guard Ali Patberg led the team in scoring last year, with 15.8 points per game. Her offensive prowess earned her a spot on the All-Big Ten second team and on the preseason Naismith Award watch list, so expect her to put up even bigger numbers as she continues to develop this year.
Out of every team on this list not named Maryland, Indiana might have the highest ceiling since it returns so much talent, but the Hoosiers are still largely unproven on the big stage. It’s hard to see this team taking a step back, though, so expect the Hoosiers to make it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, at least.
The Scarlet Knights enter the 2019-20 season missing four out of five starters from last year’s team that finished third in the Big Ten. They can hope to fill some of that gap with five-star center Maori Davenport, and redshirt junior guard Arella Guirantes also seems poised for a big season — scoring 27 points in Rutgers’ season opener against South Alabama on Tuesday.
Still, replacing four out of five starters is no easy task for any team, so expect the Scarlet Knights to take somewhat of a step back this season. They’re almost certainly too inexperienced to compete for the Big Ten regular season title, but coach C. Vivian Stringer — entering her 25th season — could very well salvage some upset wins near the end of the season. With a strong enough showing in the Big Ten Tournament, Rutgers can still definitely find itself an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.
Coming off a run to the Elite Eight, a second place finish in the Big Ten and a Big Ten Tournament Championship, the expectations for Iowa this year are significantly lower than last. No team in the Big Ten has a bigger hole to fill than the hole left by Megan Gustafson, the nation’s leading scorer and Big Ten player of the year a season ago. Iowa also loses double-digit scorers Hannah Stewart and Tania Davis from last season’s team.
But the Hawkeyes still have reason for optimism this year in large part to the return of all-Big Ten guard Kathleen Doyle and an experienced, successful coach in 2019 Naismith National Coach of the Year Lisa Bluder. This season will be a true test for a program that has had so much success throughout Bluder’s tenure, but Iowa has the potential for another top-three Big Ten finish.
Looking for a team that could surprise in the Big Ten? Look no further than the Boilermakers. Purdue has two players named to the preseason all-Big Ten team in Ae’Rianna Harris and Karissa McLaughlin and returns all five starters. The Boilermakers finished near the bottom of the Big Ten last year, but this year’s team is much more experienced. While they haven’t gotten much national attention, their No. 5 ranking in the preseason Big Ten coaches poll shows that Big Ten coaches think they can be a threat.
The Buckeyes put up a flat 10-8 conference record last season, earning them fifth place in the Big Ten. This season, they will have to make the most out of a young roster that features only three upperclassmen. Fortunately, they scooped up the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the country, so the talent is there.
Among returners, sophomore guard Janai Crooms is poised to take a step up offensively this season, while the addition of junior transfer wing Braxtin Miller adds depth to an already talented position group. Still, Ohio State is just too young to compete at the top level of this year’s Big Ten, so expect the Buckeyes to remain in the middle of the pack.
Nebraska comes into the season with its seven top scorers returning in coach Amy Williams’ fourth season. With four seniors, the team has an abundance of experience after their 14-16 overall record last season, including a 9-9 finish in the Big Ten, where they managed to hold games close. The Cornhuskers will be able to attack opponents in many different ways and without worrying about having to play tired players — in their first game of the season, 11 players played ten or more minutes.
While the Wildcats are likely a tier below the top Big Ten teams, they do return all-Big Ten first-teamer Lindsey Pulliam, a player who can give any team trouble on any given night. Injuries derailed a fast start to the season, but a 21-15 finish and an impressive run to the WNIT championship game give Northwestern confidence that it can compete with the best of the Big Ten this season. A relatively weak non-conference schedule could make it difficult for the Wildcats to get an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament unless they finish at the top of the Big Ten, but they could steal a couple of wins from the Big Ten’s best.
Penn State, Wisconsin and Illinois finished as the three worst teams in the Big Ten last year, finishing 5-13, 4-14 and 2-16 in the conference, respectively. Penn State brought in the No. 18 recruiting class in the country in 2019, but it’s still hard to imagine the Nittany Lions competing beyond the middle of the pack this year. Don’t expect much change at the bottom of the standings.
Michigan has the talent to compete with the top tier of the Big Ten this year, but it’s hard to see them finishing higher than second, barring a collapse from the Terrapins. The Wolverines’ ceiling is a top three finish in the conference, but a slip or a few untimely injuries could see them sliding back into the middle tier of the Big Ten.