- Tracy Ko/Daily
By Minh Doan, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 12, 2014
At Big Ten Media Day in October, the question on everyone’s mind was, “Is this the strongest the conference has ever been?”
And with each passing press conference, it was pretty clear that the answer from the coaches was a resounding yes.
After sending five teams to the NCAA Tournament last year, the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers, two women’s basketball programs with impressive résumés themselves, to an already stacked league.
The Daily breaks down the toughest foes Michigan will face when Big Ten play begins.
A 2014 NCAA Final Four participant, the 10th-ranked Terrapins came to the Big Ten from the Athletic Coast Conference. Led by coach Brenda Frese, Maryland has reached the NCAA Tournament in 10 of the last 12 seasons and won the tournament in 2005.
And Big Ten media and coaches don’t believe the change of scenery should affect Coach Frese’s team too much as the Terrapins were picked to win the league in their preseason polls.
The Terrapins will rely heavily on 2014 All-ACC Freshman guard Lexie Brown, as well as the leadership of guard Laurin Mincy, the only senior on their roster, to lead them back to the Final Four.
Most notable in its nonconference schedule is a date with No. 3 Notre Dame in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at a neutral site in Fort Wayne, Indiana on Dec. 3.
One of last year’s regular-season co-champions, No. 14 Michigan State returns All-Big Ten First Team forward Aerial Powers, and coach Suzy Merchant’s squad will once again look to Powers to lead the Spartans to another conference title.
Powers led Michigan State in both points and rebounds per game last season, but she will need help if the Spartans want to return to the NCAA Tournament, where they were bounced in the second round last year. That help could come in the form of Michigan’s 2014 Miss Basketball, guard Lexi Gussert.
Merchant will gauge whether Powers is able to sustain her success from her freshman year very quickly as the Spartans will also take on Notre Dame in East Lansing on Nov. 19. A month later, Michigan State will travel to Florida for the Winter Sun Classic, where it will face No. 8 Baylor and No. 24 Syracuse.
After finishing third in the conference last year, No. 16 Nebraska took home the Big Ten tournament title and an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
But gone from the team is Second Team All-American Jordan Hooper and her 20.4 points per game. Coach Connie Yori will have to rely on Preseason All-Big Ten guard Rachel Theriot to replace her scoring.
Theriot will also have the help of the No. 9 recruiting class in the country, which includes Natalie Romeo, who was No. 55 in ESPN’s recruiting rankings.
The Cornhuskers’ tough non-conference games include a matchup with No. 7 Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and a trip out west to face No. 23 UCLA on Nov. 28.
Guard Samantha Logic is back for her senior season, and that’s going to mean good things for coach Lisa Bluder. The Hawkeyes’ all-time assist leader will run an offense that returns its top four scorers and was ranked first in the Big Ten last year.
But if No. 19 Iowa wants to make it to its eighth straight NCAA Tournament, it’s going to have to shore up on defense. Giving up 69.3 points per game — good for second-to-last in the Big Ten last season — might not cut it this year.
Before Big Ten play comes around, the Hawkeyes will have already challenged themselves with a tough matchup against Gonzaga at the South Point Thanksgiving Shootout in Las Vegas before a tough road trip to No. 11 Louisville, the team that knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament last year, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Not to be overshadowed by fellow newcomer Maryland, No. 24 Rutgers has an impressive history of its own. Coach C. Vivian Stringer has been with the Scarlet Knights since 1995 and has taken the team to 14 NCAA Tournaments.
Last season, the Scarlet Knights missed out on the NCAA Tournament, but flourished in the WNIT, winning the tournament and the same starting five that won the tournament is back and ready to tackle the Big Ten.
In a conference that prides itself on physicality, Rutgers lacks size inside and will try to counter with quick and athletic guards.
Rutgers will go through a tough 10-day stretch Dec. 4-14, which will start out at home against No. 13 North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. After two games on the road at Temple and Arkansas, the Scarlet Knights will find themselves back at home to face No. 4 Tennessee.
The other co-champion, Penn State, took a major hit with the loss of Second Team All-American guard Maggie Lucas — who now plays in the WNBA for the Indiana Fever — as well as three other starters that graduated.
After making it to the Sweet Sixteen last year, the Nittany Lions three-year conference champion streak could be at stake.
Forward Tori Waldner is the only returning starter, but she will have some help from Duke transfer Sierra Moore, a former McDonald’s High School All-American.
Notable non-conference games include the preseason WNIT before taking on No. 24 Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
After a surprising run to the NCAA Tournament last season, coach Sharon Versyp lost two key starters in KK Houser and Courtney Moses, who were responsible for more than a third of the Boilermakers’ scoring.
This year, Versyp will look to 2014 Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year forward Whitney Bays to fill the void. The Maryland transfer has only started one game in her career, but you can expect that number to rise this season.
The Boilermakers won’t play any ranked team before their Big Ten slate begins, but they will make a trip to the Bahamas to play in the Junkanoo Jam. They will also host their own four-team tournament in West Lafayette.
After missing the NCAA Tournament following a disappointing season, Minnesota let go of coach Pam Borton and hired Marlene Stollings from Virginia Commonwealth.
But that doesn’t mean Stollings isn’t inheriting any talent.
The Golden Gophers will have a core that includes Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Rachel Banham to lead the way as well as 2014 All-Big Ten Freshman center Amanda Zahui in the blocks.
Add in forward Shae Kelley, a fifth-year transfer from Old Dominion, and Stollings has a team that is ready to compete right away.
Minnesota will travel to Fort Myers, Florida during the Thanksgiving break to play in the Gulf Coast Showcase and plays North Carolina State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.