Big Ten Preview: Deep conference should excite

Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament - Semifinals Ali Patberg of Indiana (left) and Ashley Owusu of Maryland are the floor generals for two of the top teams in the Big Ten. | Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

Ali Patberg of the Indiana Hoosiers and Ashley Owusu of the Maryland Terrapins could be in for intense intra-conference battles, and the Michigan Wolverines, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Northwestern Wildcats and Ohio State Buckeyes will make things even more interesting.

The Big Ten was a very exciting conference a season ago as it neared the competitiveness of the SEC and Pac-12. In 2020-21, however, the previously-dominant Maryland Terrapins — in their seventh season in the Big Ten — find themselves vulnerable. They lost their best player, Kaila Charles, to graduation and Taylor Mikesell and Shakira Austin to transfer. Can the Terrapins find a way to win the conference in spite of those losses? Or, will a new champion rise from a strong field of contenders?

Maryland may be able to deal with the losses because they bring in Angel Reese, the No. 2 prospect in the nation according to ESPN. If she can immediately form a star tandem alongside sophomore Ashley Owusu, Maryland will be in good shape. They also have head coach Brenda Frese at the helm and she has a proven track record of getting the best out of her teams — the Terappins improved over the course of the 2019-20 season and surprised a lot of people with their No. 4 finish in the AP Poll.

Even with Reese and Owusu, however, Maryland should expect challenges from the Indiana Hoosiers and Michigan Wolverines. The Hoosiers have a lot of good vibes surrounding them after an exciting 2019-20 season and Michigan is loaded with talent. Add in as a threat the Northwestern Wildcats, who currently are the second-highest-ranked Big Ten team after Maryland in ESPN’s “Way Too Early” rankings. And it would be a mistake to discount the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, who will be powered by arguably the best player in the conference in Arella Guirantes, or the Ohio State Buckeyes, who now have Dorka Juhasz as an upperclassman.

Rewind: A look at where the Big Ten left off

In 2019-20, Maryland shared the regular-season title with Northwestern and defeated Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament championship game. Kathleen Doyle of the Iowa Hawkeyes was named Player of the Year before being drafted into the WNBA and Maryland’s Ashley Owusu was named Freshman of the Year. Northwestern’s Joe McKeown won Coach of the Year after leading the Wildcats to the best season in program history. And one of his players, Veronica Burton, won Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore. Leigha Brown, a sophomore of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, was named Sixth Player of the Year. She has since transferred to Michigan and is eligible to play in the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, but eight Big Ten teams made Swish Appeal’s hypothetical bracket, including Maryland as a 1-seed. The seven other teams were: Iowa (2-seed), Northwestern (3-seed), Indiana (4-seed), Ohio State (5-seed), Michigan (6-seed), Purdue (9-seed) and Rutgers (11-seed).

Team-by-team analysis

1) Indiana Hoosiers

Indiana v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images
Grace Berger made a name for herself as a sophomore.

The Hoosiers are playing with house money now that “super senior” and WNBA prospect Ali Patberg has been granted a sixth year of eligibility and third with Indiana after transferring from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Patberg is the team’s point guard and emotional leader who averaged 15.6 points and 5.3 assists per game last season. She is joined by junior guard Grace Berger, who was on the rise in the 2019-20 season, and senior guard Jaelynn Penn, a solid 3-point shooter who is the most athletic of the trio. Mackenzie Holmes and Aleksa Gulbe are solid frontcourt players who round out the team. Brenna Wise, a solid contributor and leader, was lost to graduation.

2) Maryland Terrapins

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - College Park Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images
Channise Lewis is the backup point guard to Ashley Owusu and a key player returning from injury.

Fifth in the nation in scoring margin last season, the Terrapins in 2020-21 will be without go-to scorer Kaila Charles (graduation/WNBA), elite 3-point shooter Taylor Mikesell (transfer) and dominant defender Shakira Austin (transfer). A lot of pressure will be on Owusu and Reese, but Harvard Crimson graduate transfer Katie Benzan and Mississippi State Bulldogs senior transfer Chloe Bibby will try to alleviate some of that with their leadership. If Diamond Miller, another highly-ranked recruit from Owusu’s class, improves into the star wing she is capable of becoming, Maryland may be able to win the conference.

3) Michigan Wolverines

Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament - Semifinals Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images
Naz Hillmon (with ball) is always a double-double threat.

The two big names on Michigan’s roster are juniors Naz Hillmon and Amy Dilk, whose chemistry really blossomed last season. Hillmon, a forward, could be in the running for Player of the Year if Dilk, a guard, keeps getting her the ball in the right spots. Meanwhile, the addition of Leigha Brown is huge. She made the strategic decision to come off the bench for Nebraska, so it will be interesting to see what kind of role she plays in Ann Arbor. Graduate guard Akienreh Johnson and senior forward Hailey Brown will also be in the mix for the Wolverines.

4) Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Senior guard Arella Guirantes is a gifted all-around scorer who led the conference with 20.6 points per game last season. She is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft. But watch out for her sidekick, senior guard/forward Tekia Mack, who had a breakout junior season in 2019-20, and freshman point guard Diamond Johnson, the No. 6 recruit in this year’s class.

5) Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern v Maryland Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
Lindsey Pulliam put Northwestern on the map last year.

WNBA prospect Lindsey Pulliam is an exciting player to watch on offense and she will be in the running with Guirantes, Hillmon and Patberg for Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Veronica Burton averaged 3.3 steals per game last season and should perform as an apt co-star. Senior guard Jordan Hamilton and junior guard Sydney Wood also will be key as the Wildcats look to build upon their phenomenal 2019-20 campaign.

6) Ohio State Buckeyes

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 22 Women’s Ohio State at Rutgers Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Dorka Juhasz is now an upperclassman for the Buckeyes after leading them in scoring as a freshman and sophomore.

The Buckeyes lost highly-ranked recruit Kierstan Bell but return junior forward Dorka Juhasz who was on the All-Big Ten First Team last season. If Ohio State is to go far, Juhasz and senior guard Braxtin Miller need to come up big. The Buckeyes’ talent base also includes junior forward Aaliyah Patty and sophomore guards Jacy Sheldon and Madison Greene.

7) Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota v George Washington Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
Gadiva Hubbard averaged a career-best 13.6 points per game in 2017-18.

The Golden Gophers lost their best player, Destiny Pitts, midway through last season. Pitts entered the transfer portal after being suspended for what head coach Lindsay Whalen perceived to be bad body language and is now a member of the Texas A&M Aggies. Nevertheless, Minnesota’s core of Gadiva Hubbard, Jasmine Powell and Sara Scalia could help the Gophers finish ahead of an Iowa team that dominated in the Megan Gustafson era. The X factor for the Gophers will be how well Cornell graduate transfer Laura Bagwell-Katalinich adjusts to the Big Ten.

8) Iowa Hawkeyes

Minnesota Gophers lose a close one at home to Iowa Photo by Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via Getty Images
Monika Czinano (jersey #25) averaged 16 points per game in 2019-20.

Junior center Monika Czinano needs to step up and become the best player on the Hawkeyes after spending a year backing up Gustafson and a year complementing Kathleen Doyle. Iowa lost a lot from beyond the arc with Doyle and Makenzie Meyer graduating, but added No. 4 national recruit Caitlin Clark, who could be the conference’s next great 3-point shooter. The Hawkeyes also return three of their top five scorers in Czinano, McKenna Warnock and Alexis Sevillian.

9) Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images
Karissa McLaughlin (with ball) has made 234 triples in her college career.

Purdue has sharpshooting guard Karissa McLaughlin returning for her senior season. She is joined by fellow upperclassmen senior guard/forward Tamara Farquhar and junior guard Kayana Traylor. While that core has a lot of experience and talent, the Boilermakers lost their first and third best scorers — Ae’rianna Harris and Dominique Oden, respectively — to graduation.

10) Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State v Maryland Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
Nia Clouden led the Spartans in scoring as a sophomore with 14.5 points per game.

The Spartans lost Taryn McCutcheon and Shay Colley to graduation after going 16-14 a season ago. They will look to improve upon that record in 2020-21 with the star power of junior guard Nia Clouden, who made it to the All-Big Ten Second Team as a sophomore last season. To improve Clouden’s supporting cast, the Spartans are hoping Buckeyes transfer Janai Crooms is granted immediate eligibility.

11) Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images
Kate Cain (jersey #31) averaged 3.4 blocks per game last season.

Kate Cain, a 6-foot-5 center with WNBA potential, returns to the Cornhuskers for her senior year. Nebraska also returns its second-leading scorer in Sam Haiby. But with its top scorer, Leigha Brown, transferring to Michigan, Nebraska has a lot of work to do to remain relevant in the conference.

12) Penn State Nittany Lions

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 06 Women’s Penn State at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Makenna Marisa (with ball), the top returning scorer for the Nittany Lions, averaged 9.2 points per game in the 2019-20 season.

The Lady Lions lost Kamaria McDaniel, the second-best scorer in the conference, via transfer to the Baylor Lady Bears. And McDaniel was the lone bright spot for a team that went 1-17 in conference play last season. But Villanova Wildcats transfer Kelly Jekot and Southern Methodist Mustangs transfer Johnasia Cash could provide a spark and help out sophomore guard Makenna Marisa.

13) Wisconsin Badgers

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 22 Women’s Northwestern at Wisconsin Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Imani Lewis (with ball) was an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2019-20.

Imani Lewis, who averaged 14.5 points and 8.6 rebounds last season, is a great individual star for the Badgers. She may not have the supporting cast necessary to go far, but the team does have Sydney Hilliard, the Badgers’ third-leading scorer, returning after averaging 9.2 points per game in 2019-20.

14) Illinois Fighting Illini

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 19 Women’s Illinois at Ohio State Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Kennedi Myles (jersey #44) is the best returning player for the Fighting Illini.

Illinois lost its top scorer, Petra Holesinska, who is now a graduate student playing for the North Carolina Tar Heels. The Fighting Illini, therefore, will be searching for impact players to step up behind sophomore forward Kennedi Myles, who averaged 8.9 points and 8.7 rebounds in the 2019-20 season.

Preseason nods

Player of the Year: Arella Guirantes (Rutgers)

Big Ten First Team: Arella Guirantes (Rutgers), Naz Hillmon (Michigan), Ali Patberg (Indiana), Lindsey Pulliam (Northwestern), Veronica Burton (Northwestern), Dorka Juhasz (Ohio State), Imani Lewis (Wisconsin), Nia Clouden (Michigan State), Ashley Owusu (Maryland), Angel Reese (Maryland)

Big Ten Second Team: Grace Berger (Indiana), Tekia Mack (Rutgers), Amy Dilk (Michigan), Karissa McLaughlin (Purdue), Gadiva Hubbard (Minnesota), Caitlin Clark (Iowa), Kate Cain (Nebraska), Jaelynn Penn (Indiana), Monika Czinano (Iowa), Akienreh Johnson (Michigan)