Big Ten Breakdown: Ohio State, Maryland figure to be favorites

Monday, November 6, 2017 - 6:34pm

The Michigan women's basketball team will be tasked with competing against two top-25 opponents in conference play.

The Michigan women's basketball team will be tasked with competing against two top-25 opponents in conference play. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

Heartbroken.

That’s how the Michigan women’s basketball team felt last March on selection day. Despite finishing third in a strong conference, the Wolverines failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year.

Michigan made the most out of the situation, though, winning the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) to claim their first-ever championship banner.

But a consolation bracket championship isn’t the end goal for a team that finished with a 28-9 overall record. The 24th-ranked Wolverines are pushing to prove themselves worthy of a tournament bid this season.

The dynamic duo of senior guard Katelynn Flaherty and junior center Hallie Thome, as well as senior forward Jillian Dunston, all return. Flaherty and Thome were both selected as part of the preseason All-Big Ten Team. Freshman guard Deja Church and freshman forward Hailey Brown could also be difference makers.

While the Wolverines have talent and depth on the roster, there are plenty of teams standing in their way. The Daily breaks down this year’s Big Ten conference:

No. 5 Ohio State

Coming off a 28-7 season — which included a Sweet Sixteen appearance and a share of the Big Ten title — the Buckeyes look to be Michigan’s toughest competition.

Ohio State returns four starters, including senior guard Kelsey Mitchell and fifth-year senior forward Stephanie Mavunga. The latter was a star at North Carolina for the first two years of her career before joining the Buckeyes. Despite missing time due to injuries, she averaged a double-double and was active on defense as a shot blocker.

Mitchell was nominated as the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year by both the coaches and media. It’s not a shock why. A skilled shooter and the conference’s highest-scoring player last season, Mitchell starred for Ohio State and has been a starter ever since joining the program.

Also returning are fifth-year senior guard Linnae Harper and redshirt junior guard Sierra Calhoun. Like Mavunga, neither started their careers in Columbus, transferring from Kentucky and Duke, respectively. Calhoun started in every game last year, and Harper accompanied Mitchell in playing on the USA Women’s U-23 National Team.

The Buckeyes defeated the Wolverines last year in their sole meeting, and they are talented enough to do the same this time around.

No. 15 Maryland

The Terrapins reached the Sweet Sixteen, ending the season with a 32-3 record. They won the Big Ten Tournament for the third consecutive year.

Maryland, though, returns just two starters in sophomore guard Kaila Charles and senior guard Kristen Confroy. Charles had an outstanding freshman season, making the All-Big Ten Freshman Team. Confroy is a reliable three-point shooter and is one of just two seniors on the team.

But Maryland will need others to shine if it wants to compete in March. The team has a strong sophomore class — the No. 1 recruiting class that year — that could provide the answer. Sophomore guards Sarah Myers and Blair Watson, as well as sophomore forward Stephanie Jones, are all back. The latter two battled injuries last season, and it is crucial for them to stay healthy for the Terrapins to make a run this year.

Aside from Charles, Maryland’s former top-ranked recruiting class doesn’t appear to have panned out yet. But if her classmates can stay healthy, there may not be as big of a drop-off as many expect.

Michigan State

The Spartans, meanwhile, return four starters. Last season, they made an NCAA Tournament appearance and finished 21-12. Fifth-year senior guard Branndais Agee, senior forward Taya Reimer and sophomore guard Taryn McCutcheon were all standout players and will contribute again this year.

Michigan State has already faced hardship, though. Freshman guard Claire Hendrickson tore her ACL during the team’s first practice and is expected to miss the season. The Spartans have plenty of experienced players they can rely on, but Hendrickson’s injury is a blow to their depth.

Michigan State beat the Wolverines in both meetings last year, and they could be a thorn in Michigan’s side this year, too.

Iowa

The Hawkeyes missed out on the NCAA Tournament last spring, but they still have a lot build on. They return four starters from last year’s team, which made the WNIT quarterfinals and finished with a 20-14 record.

Junior forward Megan Gustafson started every game her sophomore year and will likely play a bigger role. She’s a skilled rebounder who can help the team establish itself in the paint. Sophomore guard Kathleen Doyle, who was invited to the USA U-19 tryouts during the summer, will also help carry the team.

Iowa was a high-scoring team last year — averaging 76.1 points per game — and will likely be this year as well. The Hawkeyes’ powerful offense will be challenging for defenses across the conference.

Minnesota

The Golden Gophers found trouble last season, finishing 10th in the Big Ten with a 15-16 overall record. They might have better luck this year, though, as they return seven upperclassmen.

Senior guard CarIie Wagner and redshirt junior guard Kenisha Bell were among the team’s top scorers last season and both will return. Sophomore guard Gadiva Hubbard will as well. She missed eight games due to injuries and illness, but made a clear impact when she played. Hubbard scored 28 points in Minnesota’s final game against then-ranked No. 4 Maryland. If she stays healthy this season, the Golden Gophers could take a step forward.

Indiana

The Hoosiers have trended upward the past few years. Their overall record has consistently improved, and last year they had a program record number of wins, finishing 23-11 and advancing to the WNIT quarterfinals.

This year will feature a different, younger squad with five new freshmen on the roster. Indiana has just four players returning from last year. Senior guard Tyra Buss and senior forward Amanda Cahill were top scorers last season and could be impact players again. To find the same success, the Hoosiers need Buss and Cahill to help the others find their roles.

Purdue

After a solid 2016-2017 season — in which they played in the Big Ten championship game, advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and finished with a 23-13 record — the Boilermakers are back and younger than ever.

Senior guard Andreona Keys is the sole senior on a team consisting of 10 underclassmen, so her leadership skills will be tested. It is unlikely that Purdue will be as good as last year, but if the youngsters learn their roles quickly, the team could be strong for years to come after brief growing pains.

Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights are the Big Ten’s mystery team. They return two starters, but also have a handful of new faces this season, including six transfers. It’s hard to predict how the team will do compared to last year, as it is very dependent on how well the transfers fit the system.

Returning is fifth-year senior guard Tyler Scaife, who missed last season due to injuries. Through her first three years, she was one of the best players on the team, averaging 17.2 points per game her junior season. A completely different style could be helpful to Rutgers, though, as it struggled mightily last year, finishing with a 6-24 record.

Wisconsin

Coming off a substandard 9-22 season, the Badgers are looking to perform better this time around. Youth caused some issues, but this year, they return four starters and have a chance to improve in conference play.

Senior guard Cayla McMorris is the player to watch. She started in every game last season and is talented in all areas of the game. With many players returning, Wisconsin should make progress this season — though how much is uncertain.

Penn State

The Nittany Lions found success last season, finishing with a 21-11 record and advancing to the third round of the WNIT. A couple of their main contributors are gone, but junior guard Teniya Page and redshirt sophomore guard Amari Carter are two high-caliber players who return. Page led the team in points while Carter started at point guard the entire season.

Penn State has a senior-less roster, so it is building the foundation for future years.

Illinois

The Fighting Illini are the same team as last year in most aspects — other than coaching. After finishing with a lackluster 9-22 record, coach Matt Bollant was fired.

While he is gone, all five starters return, including sophomore guard Brandi Beasley. She had quite the impressive freshman year and is tracking to be one of the best players in program history.

Hall of Fame coach Nancy Fahey will be at the helm this year after a long tenure with Washington University in St. Louis. This marks her return to the Big Ten, as she played for Wisconsin in college. Experience — on both the roster and the sideline — should help the Fighting Illini step forward.

Northwestern

The Wildcats failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament last spring, finishing with a 20-11 record. But this year is much different.

The team lost a talented senior class, and will now have to rely on youth. Northwestern has four freshmen joining the team — and they have big shoes to fill. If they can adjust to the speed of the game by the time conference play begins, the freshmen could help the Wildcats meet the standard set by last year’s senior class.

Nebraska

The Cornhuskers are expected to be better this year. But that isn’t saying much, especially considering that they finished with a 7-22 record last season.

Three of their starters are returning, but they will have to perform much better to bounce back. Redshirt sophomore forward Rachel Blackburn is one player to look out for. She was a starter on a much more talented Nebraska squad at the start of her freshman year, but midway through the season, she faced multiple injuries and had to sit out her second year. If Blackburn can get and stay healthy, she could help the Cornhuskers find their groove.

Outlook:

Overall, the Big Ten will once again be a strong conference. The Wolverines need to establish themselves in this competitive field to turn their NCAA Tournament dreams into reality.

But that is easier said than done.