By Ari Levin
Last year was undeniably a down year for Big Ten Women’s Basketball on a national stage. No team managed to make the Sweet Sixteen, and top programs Iowa and Ohio State’s were upset by double digit seeds.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the season wasn’t exciting. Five teams were close at the top of the standings all season, and while Ohio State pulled out both the regular season and conference tournament championship, a couple of bounces could have changed everything.
This year will see plenty of changes. Three of the best players in Big Ten history just graduated, including Kelsey Mitchell, the second-highest scorer in NCAA history. As a result, the top teams get weaker while the rest of the pack should improve, setting up a particularly intriguing year of Big Ten Women’s Basketball. That said, let’s jump into the rankings.
1. Maryland Terrapins
Last year: 26-8 (12-4 B1G, 2nd B1G), NCAA 2nd Round
Brenda Frese’s squad is the default Big Ten favorite every year. Last year’s loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship was the first time Maryland lost the Big Ten since joining the conference in 2014. The only big losses for the team are 3-point specialist Kristen Confroy, and Eleanna Christinaki, who forwent her senior season to play professionally.
In response, the Terps bring in the #4 recruit in the country with Shakira Austin, a 6-foot-5-inch forward who has the potential to be an immediate game-changer. She’s joined by two other top-40 recruits, point guard Taylor Mikesell, and post Olivia Owens. Moreover, Maryland returns their two top scorers from last year, Kaila Charles and Blair Watson. The only sophomore on the team, Channise Lewis, gains a year of experience after making 32 starts last year and shooting nearly 40 percent on threes. The bottom line: Maryland is the best team in the conference going in to 2018-19.
Player to watch: Kaila Charles, Junior, Guard
A first-Team All-Big Ten selection last year, Charles averaged just under 18 points per game and led the team in scoring, rebounds, and blocks. Charles will continue to play at an elite level this season on both offense and defense.
2. Iowa Hawkeyes
Last year: 24-8 (11-5 B1G, 3rd), NCAA 1st Round
Iowa took the Big Ten by surprise last year, fueled by the meteoric rise of Big Ten Player of the Year Megan Gustafson. Besides Gustafson, the team was helped by a surprising Second Team All-Big Ten performance from point guard Kathleen Doyle. Doyle filled in for Tania Davis, who missed most of the season for the second straight year after a torn ACL. Before the injury, Davis led the team with 41% 3-point shooting, and she averaged over five assists per game. If Davis returns fully healthy, she’ll be a force in this conference. It will be interesting to see how the minutes at point guard are managed.
The return of their point guard is just one reason Iowa is set up for success this season. The Hawkeyes only lose one consistent player from last season, forward Chase Coley. Coley was an effective complement in the post to Gustafson, but she never saw consistent looks. Makenzie Meyer and Alexis Sevillian served as effective scorers and kickout options for Gustafson, both shooting over 37 percent from deep. Iowa adds four new recruits after not having a recruiting class last season, and while none rank as top-100, the Hawkeyes will benefit from having a deep bench. If everything goes according to plan, and Davis is fully healthy, this team has a very real chance to win the conference and make a tournament run.
Player to watch: Megan Gustafson, Senior, Forward
Of course, everything for this Hawkeye team goes through Gustafson. After an impressive sophomore season, Gustafson took off last year, leading the Big Ten in scoring and hitting a ridiculous 67 percent of her shots en route to being named Big Ten Player of the Year by the media.
Not only has Gustafson risen every season, she seems to get better every game she plays. Even within last season, she seemed to improve from the beginning to Big Ten play, where she averaged nearly 28 points per game and capped off her season with a 48-point performance against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament.
If Gustafson somehow finds a way to get even better this season, she’s a shoe-in for another player of the year award, and her team will be special.
3. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Last year: 21-11 (11-5 B1G, 3rd), NCAA 1st Round
Nebraska was the surprise team in the Big Ten last year with a 14-win tun-around, leading to Amy Williams being named coach of the year. Perhaps most impressive, they did it without a single first-team conference player. Not only do all five starters return to this team, but they add the third-ranked recruiting class in the conference, ranked 20th nationally by ESPN.
Last year’s leading scorer, Hannah Whitish, averaged less than 13 points, but the Huskers thrived defensively with the best field goal defense in the conference. Nebraska will look to continue their defense-focused approach this season. While they may not be the highest-scoring team, they have a chance to win the conference this year.
Player to watch: Kate Cain, Sophomore, Center
Cain made the All-Freshman team and All-Defensive Team, and she was a force in the low post. She had a career performance in December against Florida Atlantic, with 22 points, 14 rebounds and 11 blocks, the first such triple-double in school history. Cain also became the first player in school history with 100 blocks in a single season. The downside is that she only shot 43 percent on free throws, which needs to change for her to take a step forward offensively. If she can, she has a chance to be this year’s breakout player.
4. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Last year: 24-9 (11-5 B1G, 3rd), NCAA 2nd Round
Minnesota finished last season with their best season since 2004-05, led by an intriguing mix of young and experienced talent. The biggest loss the team faces is guard Carlie Wagner, who was the last pick of the WNBA draft and is playing professionally in Spain. The team’s leading scorer and conference assists leader returns in First Team All-Big Ten guard Kenisha Bell, as well as conference Freshman of the Year Destiny Pitts. The Gophers also add one Top-100 recruit, point guard Mercedes Staples.
Lindsey Whalen joins this team as the new head coach after Marlene Stollings left for Texas Tech. Whalen, a Minnesota legend, ended her WNBA career as a four-time champion and five-time all-star. Whalen will look to take the program back to the heights it reached her senior season when they made the Final Four.
Player to watch: Kenisha Bell, Redshirt Junior, Guard
Bell was unanimously All-Big Ten First Team by media in her second season after transferring from Marquette. Whether you believe Bell or Wagner was the best player last season, Bell will be the leader for 2018-19 for a team that was second in points per game. It was a team effort last season, and that should stay similar this year, but Bell is another player to see as maybe the best in the conference.
5. Michigan Wolverines
Last year: 23-10 (10-6 B1G, 6th), NCAA 2nd Round
The Big Ten loses three of the best players in conference history this season in Kelsey Mitchell, Tyra Buss, and Katelynn Flaherty. Of the three, it’s Flaherty’s team that’s best suited for life without her. A lot of that can be credited to center Hallie Thome, one of the best post players in the conference. The team will also have to rely more heavily on Nicole Munger, who was effective as a shooting specialist last season but wasn’t much more than that.
Michigan’s recruiting class is an exciting one, ranked second in the Big Ten with four top-100 recruits, led by five-star point guard Amy Dilk. Dilk will have big shoes to fill, but the team has an exciting mix of youth and experience going forward.
Player to watch: Hallie Thome, Senior, Center
With Flaherty gone, Thome, who averaged over 17 points last season, may have to be the team’s primary scoring option. The team last year was known for going on spurts offensively as the only team in the Big Ten with above 40% of shots made from behind the arc. That may shift to focus more on Thome, who won’t have as reliable a kickout option from the post, but was never much of an inside-out center (her season-high was three assists last year.) She showed what she was capable of with games like her 24-point performance in the team’s tournament win.
6. Purdue Boilermakers
Last year: 20-14 (9-7 B1G, 7th), WNIT 3rd Round
Purdue finished perhaps just a few points short of an NCAA Tournament berth, losing to Rutgers in the first round of the conference tournament by two points in a game that may have put them on the dance floor. That loss, coupled with losses in four of their last six games, was just too much to overlook. They’ll look to change that this year, losing just one starter (Andreonna Keys) and gaining a year of experience.
Dominique Oden will need to take a step forward this season, as will Karissa McLaughlin, who led the team in three-point attempts but shot just 38 percent on them her rookie season. Another key for the Boilermakers will be five-star point guard Kayana Traylor, who will hope to continue the team’s defensive focus.
Player to watch: Dominique Oden, Junior, Guard
Oden finished the season strong with five-straight 20-point performances, shooting 54 percent from the floor in that stretch. More consistent shooting will be key for her, as she was as lethal as anyone when she got hot, as she did against Northwestern when she scored 26 points on 5-5 shooting from long range to spoil an upset attempt. Oden, and Purdue as a team, needs more offensive consistency to reach the next level.
7. Northwestern Wildcats
Last year: 12-20 (4-12, 12th), no postseason
The Wildcats have a great chance to be the most-improved team in the conference. The team did not suffer huge losses, as Lydia Rohde was injured in January and missed most of the season while Oceana Hamilton averaged less than ten minutes. The entire team gains a key year of experience, and all five starters should see improvement.
Jordan Hamilton and Lindsey Pulliam, the starting sophomore guards, will benefit immensely from starting most of last season. Pulliam can be an elite scorer in the future, especially if she can develop an outside shooting game. Abi Scheid is a great modern forward with shooting ability, and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah is one of the most physically gifted players in the nation.
The Wildcats will also benefit from the return of six-foot guard Amber Jamison. Jamison showed flashes two seasons ago but took off last year to focus on mental health. The junior will slide perfectly into the starting rotation as a third guard that the team desperately needed at times. That will allow Bryana Hopkins, who improved greatly for her sophomore season, to go back to the bench where she can contribute effectively in spurts defensively.
Recruiting-wise, Northwestern brings in a solid class that could contribute immediately, led by top-100 guard Sydney Wood. Australian guard Jess Sancataldo is another intriguing prospect.
The biggest problem for the Wildcats last year was the complete lack of a deep game, shooting under 34 percent from three-point range and averaging less than a dozen attempts per game, which hurt their ability to make up deficits. There’s a host of candidates to step up in that capacity, including Scheid, Pulliam, or someone from the bench like Byrdy Galernik. That also could be Lauryn Satterwhite, who will make her debut this season as a redshirt first-year. But with so many young players on this team, the Wildcats may still be another year away from reaching the next tier of the conference.
Player to watch: Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, Senior, Forward
Kunaiyi-Akpanah is a potential dark horse candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year. The Nigeria native is constantly improving on the fundamentals, and her athleticism has ridiculous upside. She averaged a double-double last season, but at times showed that she could be a real threat offensively in the post, in addition to being one of the best defensive players in the conference. And you have to watch her on the chance she’ll throw down a dunk.
8. Ohio State Buckeyes
Last year: 28-7 (13-3 B1G, 1st), NCAA 2nd Round
Kelsey Mitchell finished her career as the second-highest scorer in NCAA history but never made it past the Sweet Sixteen after last year’s second-round upset to 11-seed Central Michigan. Last year showed perfectly what Ohio State has been, ranking first in the Big Ten in scoring offense but 12th in scoring defense, forcing to rely on shooting and Mitchell’s offense to win high-scoring games, and that failed against teams that could shoot with them. Also gone is the Buckeyes’ first-team forward Stephanie Mavunga, who provided exceptional athleticism in the post, averaging nearly five offensive rebounds per game.
In fact, the Buckeyes lose all five starters as well as their first bench option from last season. In their stead is an odd combination of just three freshman additions but FIVE graduate transfers. The most interesting of those may be guard Ashanti Abshaw from Cleveland State. A two time First-Team All-Horizon League, Abshaw averaged 18.5 points last year but will have a tougher task against Big Ten competition.
Because of all the roster turnover, it’s tough to predict where Ohio State will end up. But, because of the loss of Mitchell, and the inability to ever have a special season with such a special player, they’ll take a big step back, the only question is how far. The graduate transfer talent could lead the Buckeyes to a respectable finish, but if they fail not only will Ohio State falter this year, but they’ll be set up for even worse in the future.
Player to watch: Makayla Waterman, Graduate, Forward
Waterman is the only player returning for the Buckeyes with more than 300 minutes played last year, meaning that she’ll be tasked with being a key contributor this season. The forward fought through some injuries last season but showed flashes of an outside shooting game that the Buckeyes will need. 2If she’s fully healthy this season, she could step up.
9. Indiana Hoosiers
Last year: 23-14 (9-7 B1G, 7th), WNIT Champions
For the second straight year, a Big Ten team was snubbed from the tournament and rolled through the WNIT with relative ease. The committee wasn’t impressed enough with the Hoosiers’ eight-game win streak at the end of the season after losing six of their first seven conference games.
This year’s Indiana team will have an entirely different look without Tyra Buss, the school’s all-time leading scorer. Second-Team forward Amanda Cahill also graduated, leaving the team with multiple holes to fill. The Hoosiers’ leading returning scorer is Jaelynn Penn, but just ten of her 141 shots came from inside the arc. Indiana adds a five-star guard recruit in Grace Berger and gains Pitt transfer forward Brenna Wise plus Notre Dame transfer guard Ali Patberg. Patberg hasn’t had consistent playing time in her college career yet, but she may need to make a big impact to prevent this program from sliding far back. Those two transfers will be key to determining where Indiana ranks.
Player to watch: Kym Royster, Senior, Forward
Someone on Indiana will have to step up to replace the production of Buss and Cahill. Royster is the most likely candidate to do that. The forward averaged double-digit points as a secondary scorer but may need to become a primary option both offensively and defensively this season.
10. Michigan State Spartans
Last year: 19-14 (7-9 B1G, 9th), WNIT Third Round
The Spartans missed the NCAA Tournament last year for just the second time in the last ten years after falling into the lower tier of the conference. Michigan State has a chance to get back this season, but they’ll need someone to step up after not having a single player on the first two All-Big Ten teams.
Sparty only loses one starter, guard Branndais Agee. Five-star point guard Nia Clouden will hope to make an immediate impact.
Player to watch: Taryn McCutcheon, Junior, Guard
McCutcheon looked good at times last season, ranking third in the conference in assists and leading the team in three-pointers. She’s a good ball handler, but the two-time All-Big Ten Honorable Mention will have to take her play to the next level if Michigan State wants to get back to the top tier of the conference.
11. Penn State Nittany Lions
Last year: 16-16 (6-10 B1G, 11th), WNIT 1st Round
Penn State had a rocky season last year, struggling to compete with any of the top teams in the offense despite having some pieces. They struggled defensively, ranking 11th in scoring defense and 13th in field goal defense, while also not scoring more than 80 points in any conference game.
Four starters return for Penn State, however, including first team Teniya Page and second team Amari Carter. The only starter lost is De’Janae Boykin, who transferred to Connecticut. With no seniors on the team last year’s team, they could see improvement but could also be passed by others.
Player to watch: Teniya Page, Senior, Guard
Page was named First Team All-Big Ten by coaches, but Second Team by media members. Page led the team with 18.4 points per game, but took fewer shots than Carter, showing more efficiency and an ability to get to the line, despite missing time at the beginning of the season with an injury suffered in USA U23 Camp. This year, for Penn State to succeed, the offense needs to flow through Page.
12. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Last year: 20-12 (7-9 B1G, 9th), Turned down WNIT bid
Rutgers was the surprise team at the beginning of the season, starting the year 16-2 with an impressive non-conference performance. But they ultimately couldn’t respond to a tough Big Ten schedule, dropping nine of the last 12 after winning their first four. Rutgers got a big win in the Big Ten tournament over Purdue, but it ultimately was not enough to get a tournament bid.
Last year’s success was in large part due to Tyler Scaife, one of the best defenders in the Big Ten, who led Rutgers to the best scoring defense in the conference. Scaife is gone this year, and Rutgers will have to respond to her absence. Despite their top defense, Rutgers struggled to score consistently and played a lot of ugly, low-scoring games, with nobody on the team hitting more than 32 percent of three-point attempts.
The Scarlet Knights add five-star point guard Zipporah Broughton, who figures to contribute right away and will hope to fix those offensive problems.
Player to watch: Sierra Calhoun, Graduate, Guard
Intriguingly, Calhoun joins Rutgers as a transfer from Ohio State after starting her career at Duke. Calhoun knows how to win, of course, but she will also add important three-point shooting to this team. Last season, Calhoun made more than half the number of threes that Rutgers did as a team, and she should provide a bit more of a scoring punch to Coach C. Vivian Stringer’s unit.
13. Wisconsin Badgers
Last year: 9-21 (2-14 B1G, 13th), no postseason
Wisconsin’s only conference wins last year came against Northwestern and Illinois, as they haven’t had a winning season since 2010-11. The season wasn’t without some bright spots, however, as both Cayla McMorris and Marsha Howard played well at times. Additionally, the team was not too shabby defensively, ranking towards the middle of the conference in scoring and field goal defense. But Wisconsin was abysmal offensively, averaging barely 60 points per game, worst in the Big Ten.
The Badgers need to be more aggressive, but that will be tough without their top scorer in McMorris. Howard will have more scoring chances in the post, and they may give more looks to Suzanne Gilreath, who was a good three-point specialist off the bench but didn’t do much more. Point Guard Niya Beverly averaged less than four assists as a freshman but will run the offense this season. Guard Kelly Karlis will also play a role after sitting out last season after transferring from Ohio.
Player to watch: Marsha Howard, Senior, Forward
Howard plays taller than her six-foot size, but her lack of any shooting game limits her to a pure post player, and taller teams have taken advantage of that. An Honorable Mention All-Big Ten, Howard was an effective scorer, but averaged less than seven rebounds, a number that needs to increase for Wisconsin to have any success.
14. Illinois Fighting Illini
Last year: 9-22 (0-16 B1G, 14th), no postseason
Illinois didn’t win a single game in conference play, and they weren’t particularly close. They never scored more than 75 points or held anyone under 60. The closest game was a seven-point loss to Northwestern where they never led.
Illinois’ struggles came largely from having just a single productive player in forward Alex Wittinger. Illinois will need to find a complement for Wittinger’s senior season to avoid the same fate, which could come from top-100 recruit Mckenzie Blazek, another six-foot two-inch forward. Brandi Beasley will need to show improvement after averaging less than four assists and shooting 26 percent from deep. All five starters return, so there’s a chance for Illinois to show improvement, but there simply wasn’t enough talent for this team to compete last season. An improvement could put them above Wisconsin, but it’s hard to see them climbing any higher.
Player to watch: Alex Wittinger, Senior, Forward
For most of last season, Wittinger looked like a great Big Ten player stuck without good enough teammates. She shot 49 percent from the floor and averaged nine rebounds, which was a quarter of the entire team’s. If Illinois wins a conference game this season, Wittinger will be the reason why.