ROSEMONT, Ill. — As all 14 Big Ten women’s basketball coaches gathered for the annual Big Ten Media Day near Chicago, the storyline on everyone’s mind was the arrival of the conference’s two newest members: Maryland and Rutgers.
As Maryland comes off a Final Four berth and Rutgers having won the WNIT Championship, both squads step into an already-competitive conference as instant contenders. More than any other season in recent memory, the Big Ten championship picture is wide open.
But Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico knows all about fighting to stay afloat in a tightly contested conference. In her 10 seasons as head coach at St. John’s, Barnes Arico racked up a school record 176 wins in the now-defunct Big East, which featured perennial national title contenders such as Connecticut and Notre Dame.
This year, she expects the Big Ten to be just as much of a battle as her days on the East Coast.
“By the time I left (St. John’s), there were eight teams going to the NCAA tournament,” Barnes Arico said. “(We had) teams winning the championship year in and year out and teams going far in the tournament. That’s how I see the Big Ten right now.”
In Barnes Arico’s opinion, adding the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights to the mix is the first step in the Big Ten’s ascent to one of the best women’s basketball conferences in the country. And both teams enter the Big Ten under some of the strongest leadership a team could ask for.
Maryland coach Brenda Frese has a national championship under her belt. She’s won Coach of the Year awards in every conference she has coached in.
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer is an even bigger legend, with her 929 career wins trailing only Tennessee’s Pat Summit on the all-time list. Each coach also has previous Big Ten experience — Frese coached Minnesota for one season in 2001-2002, while Stringer spent 1983-1995 at Iowa.
“They’re both Hall of Fame coaches in my opinion,” Barnes Arico said. “And top programs in the country (with) returning (players). Rutgers is returning everybody and they have a couple of All-Americans on their team. So I think those two teams will definitely add strength to our conference. No doubt about it.”
But Barnes Arico is quick to point out that the Big Ten’s more tenured members can’t be taken lightly either. Nebraska, Michigan State, Iowa, and Minnesota all finished above the Wolverines in the Big Ten last season and are returning most of their key starters, who might be able to surprise the newcomers.
“I think Rutgers and Maryland, by the end of the season, will say ‘oh my goodness,’” Barnes Arico said. “Because I know I did after my first season here. This league is incredible.”
In the face of the tough competition, Barnes Arico is optimistic that Michigan will come out motivated rather than overwhelmed.
“When you play in such a tough league, your preparation is going to be tough every day,” Barnes Arico said. “But I think part of the reason that kids come to the University of Michigan is to have an opportunity to play against the best.”