In the Big Ten, arguably college basketball’s toughest conference, every game is a big game.
As conference play continues to ramp up, the No. 14 Michigan women’s basketball team remains a contender for one of the Big Ten’s top spots. But as it looks down the barrel of three tough games over the next week, the Wolverines face their most challenging stretch of the season yet — games against No. 6 Indiana, No. 11 Maryland and Minnesota over just seven days.
Michigan currently occupies the fifth spot in Big Ten rankings, with just two conference losses at the hands of No. 10 Iowa and No. 2 Ohio State. In order for the Wolverines to elevate themselves higher in those standings, though, this upcoming week of games must end favorably.
In spite of that pressure, their approach remains unchanged.
“I think it’s big to just take it one game at a time,” senior guard Maddie Nolan said on Jan 21. “I think we’ve seen a lot this year, and I think the Big Ten is the best it’s ever been. You can’t really look ahead, and can’t look past anyone.”
As Nolan acknowledged, the conference’s all-around strength this season is greater than it has been in recent years. That strength is most evident at the top: undefeated Ohio State holds the number one spot in the conference, followed by the Hoosiers.
Indiana, favored by many in the preseason to win the conference, remain well in the mix at this point in the season. The Hoosiers are known for their relentless defense, which Michigan will have to overcome in order to stand a chance come Monday.
“Obviously (Indiana) is our focus right now,” Nolan said. “They’re a tough team, they play good defense but also have a lot of offensive weapons.”
An upset win Monday would be the Wolverines’ biggest victory of the season, and it would propel them back into contention for a top spot in regular season conference play. Despite the stakes, the game’s outcome won’t affect Michigan’s morale — nor its perception of itself within the Big Ten — according to the players themselves.
“We talk about signature wins,” Nolan said. “You (always) have these teams you want to beat … (but) we know we’re a top team, so I don’t think we need to beat one of the top teams to know what we’re capable of. Obviously, we want to win and be at the top of the Big Ten standings, but I don’t think it’s like ‘Oh, we have to beat you to be considered one of the top teams.’”
Regardless of that outcome, the Wolverines will have to refocus quickly. On Thursday, they travel to College Park to take on Maryland, another tough Big Ten foe. The Terrapins, led by guard Diamond Miller, currently sit at fourth in the conference — just one spot above the Wolverines.
Similar to the Hoosiers, Maryland presents both a challenge and opportunity for Michigan: A win puts the Wolverines firmly in the race for a top spot in the Big Ten, while a loss further complicates their goal of winning the conference.
And while its final opponent of the stretch — unranked Minnesota — looks like much less of a challenge than the two prior, the task of playing another road game on such a short turnaround could prove challenging for Michigan. The Gophers are only 2-7 in conference play, but the matchup won’t be taken lightly by the Wolverines.
“I don’t even like to look at rankings,” sophomore guard Ari Wiggins said. “Like whoever’s in front of us, we’re just attacking. Whether it’s the top team in the nation or the bottom team in the nation, we just go in. Everyone wants to beat Michigan. Every game is a big game for us.”
While that attitude of consistency has served Michigan well to this point, its next three games might be its biggest challenge thus far — and each game has the potential to elevate or complicate the Wolverines’ trajectory in the Big Ten.