By Ari Levin
This was a fantastic week for the Big Ten. Say what you will about opponent quality, but in the last week, Big Ten teams were a combined 23-1, with the only loss coming in double overtime. Plus, in the game of the week, the Big Ten came out looking pretty, as Maryland dominated No. 13 South Carolina by 24 points on ESPN.
Although there can’t be too much separation when nobody loses, there were some shake-ups in the second tier this week. There seems to be a clear top-half and bottom-half, but we will see how long that lasts. A few teams get good tests this week, and that should give us a clearer picture of how good everyone really is.
With Big Ten play set to start sooner than you think, here is one game to watch for each team before the conference slate hits.
1. No. 7 Maryland Terrapins • (4-0) • Last week: 1
The Terrapins cemented their spot at the top with the win of the week. South Carolina is a potential final four team (even without A’ja Wilson), but Maryland ran them off the floor, winning 85-61. The Terrapins fell behind by a dozen in the first quarter but responded with a 28-3 run and never looked back.
Before that, Maryland had another dominant defensive performance, this time against George Washington, limiting their opponent to 30 points and winning by 39 on the road. Maryland had nine blocks compared to George Washington’s 10 made baskets.
Shakira Austin is averaging a double-double off the bench. She and Taylor Mikesell are going to terrorize the rest of the conference for a long time.
Game to watch: November 24 vs Georgia (Puerto Rico Clasico)
Based on their schedule, Maryland should go undefeated in non-con play. Of their remaining games, a solid Georgia team in Puerto Rico on the second day of a back-to-back looks to be the toughest. Of course, all those factors apply to Georgia as well.
2. No. 12 Iowa Hawkeyes • (3-0) • Last week: 2
Megan Gustafson was a perfect 13-13 shooting for 29 points in the Hawkeyes’ 104-67 win over Western Kentucky. Iowa had a school-record 34 assists as a team in that game. Then they broke that record four days later in a 106-39 win over North Carolina Central. Through three games, Iowa has scored exactly 300 points. This is a scary team.
Game to watch: November 29 at No. 1 Notre Dame
Iowa probably doesn’t have a chance in this Big Ten/ACC Challenge game, especially on the road. But it will certainly be fun to watch. If Gustafson keeps scoring and her teammates hit shots, the Hawkeyes can do anything.
3. Michigan Wolverines • (3-0) • Last week: 5
Freshman Naz Hillmon was Michigan’s leading scorer with 20 points in the victory against Western Michigan. Then she added 22 more in a 95-62 win against Detroit Mercy. Oh by the way, she’s shooting 85 percent from the field this season. Meanwhile, Hallie Thome is averaging over 20 points per game. Michigan may have a new dynamic duo.
Game to watch: November 29 at No. 15 NC State
This tips off an hour after Notre Dame vs. Iowa, so you can catch the second half. Michigan has several tough matchups over the next two weeks, but this might be the toughest. Look for the key matchup of six-foot-five-inch Hallie Thome against the Wolfpack’s six-foot-five-inch Elissa Cunane.
4. No. 23 Minnesota Golden Gophers • (3-0) • Last week: 3
Minnesota gutted out an ugly victory against San Diego on Saturday behind Kenisha Bell’s 21 points. She also scored 18 in Minnesota’s 78-53 victory over Xavier earlier last week. Someone else needs to take pressure off Bell for the Gophers to keep winning.
Game to watch: November 29 vs No. 14 Syracuse
This section won’t just be the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, but November 29 looks to be a very exciting day. This game starts 30 minutes after Michigan’s. Syracuse led Oregon by six with two minutes left before losing. BTN gets this broadcast, and a win here puts Lindsey Whalen’s squad on the national stage.
5. Northwestern Wildcats • (4-0) • Last week: 6
The most impressive aspect of Northwestern’s season so far has been its resolve. In the season opener at Green Bay, the Wildcats trailed by eight in the final four minutes before finishing on a 10-0 run. On Sunday, they were down 11 in the final three minutes on the road against winless Florida, and then went on a 22-4 run through overtime to earn the 83-74 victory. Previous Northwestern teams would have faltered in these circumstances, but this Northwestern team makes no excuses, and they’re still perfect.
Lindsey Pulliam got hot from the floor in the Wildcats’ dominant win over UIC. With a pair of quality wins already under their belt, Northwestern could easily finish 2018 at 11-2 or better given their schedule.
Game to watch: December 9 vs No. 22 Marquette
Four days before this game is perhaps Northwestern’s toughest game of the season, besides Maryland, when they play at No. 16 DePaul. They get another ranked team right afterwards, but one that just lost to No. 24 Miami. This game will a good barometer of if Northwestern belongs in the Top 25.
6. Purdue Boilermakers • (4-0) • Last week: 7
Purdue’s defense is downright dominant this season. They pulled away late for an 81-60 win over Western Illinois on Monday night, led by Karissa McLaughlin’s 22 points. On Sunday, they held IPFW to 44 points while Ae’Rianna Harris stepped up on offense with 23 points on 10-10 shooting. With a balanced offense and stifling defense, Purdue continues to be dangerous.
Game to watch: December 16 vs No. 13 South Carolina
Purdue also has a good ACC matchup on the 29th against Miami, so keep an eye on that. This matchup against South Carolina gives Purdue a big chance to compete against a potential top team, though the Gamecocks might be faltering.
7. Nebraska Cornhuskers • (1-2) • Last week: 4
A double-overtime game against a Power 5 opponent over 1,000 miles away is always tough, but at the same time Nebraska needs to win against teams like Washington State if they want to be in the upper tier of the Big Ten. Hannah Whitish is shooting 30 percent from the floor this season, and her offense has had an alarming drop-off from last year.
Game to watch: November 23 at No. 24 Miami (FL)
Already down two losses, Nebraska needs to right this ship fast. Luckily, they get a chance against a borderline Top-25 team this week. Unluckily, that matchup is on the road. Their only other big opportunity in non-conference play comes at No. 5 Louisville next week, and that’s probably too much to ask.
8. Michigan State Spartans • (3-0) • Last week: 8
An 84-68 win over Wright State should not be laughed at, as they did make last year’s WNIT. Taryn McCutcheon’s eight turnovers in that game made for a bad look, but she did a good enough job distributing the ball. The Spartans still have a-ways to go to bridge the divide between the top-half and bottom-half of the conference.
Game to watch: November 28 vs Virginia
Michigan State has chances for a ranked win, but No. 15 NC State is probably too much for them and No. 3 Oregon certainly is. Virginia was a 10-seed in last year’s tournament and upset Cal before bowing out against South Carolina, which makes for a very respectable foe. But they’ve taken a couple losses early this season and could be vulnerable if the Spartans want to make a statement.
9. Penn State Nittany Lions • (3-1) • Last week: 11
The Nittany Lions defeated Fordham 72-55 behind 25 points from Teniya Page. Then they got a big win in overtime against a Princeton team that made last year’s tournament, with Page adding another 23 points. Letting her take over will work against a lot of teams, but Penn State still needs someone else to step up this season.
Game to watch: December 16 vs American
Penn State gets a chance here against a tournament team from last year, albeit a 14-seed. The Nittany Lions look to be playing well and could’ve made a leap with a win against No. 18 Cal last week, but they fell short in the fourth quarter. This game is one that Penn State needs to win to prove they’re not the team from last year.
10. Rutgers Scarlet Knights • (4-0) • Last week: 12
Rutgers defeated Central Connecticut 73-44 with Caitlin Jenkins scoring 14 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. After a game against Charlotte was postponed due to snow, Rutgers dominated Albany 65-39 to remain perfect. The opponents are increasing in quality and Rutgers keeps responding.
Game to watch: November 22 vs Drake (Vancouver Showcase)
This is the same Drake team that beat Nebraska earlier this season, so a win for Rutgers obviously looks good. This should be a fun matchup with both teams coming in 4-0 and having to travel far for the game. The winning team also gets a chance at other top teams in the showcase.
11. Indiana Hoosiers • (3-0) • Last week: 9
After squeaking by Milwaukee in the season opener, Indiana hasn’t faced much of a challenge, with easy wins over Oakland last week and North Florida on Sunday. Out-rebounding UNF 50-23 is encouraging, but shooting 2-15 from three-point range is not.
Game to watch: December 21 vs South Dakota (Puerto Rico Classic)
This Puerto Rico Classic is a month after the one Maryland plays in, and I can’t tell if they’re related. Last year, South Dakota swept the Summit League before falling in the conference tournament and then in the WNIT quarterfinal. This year, they lost to Drake but won at Creighton, and scored 112 against NAIA school Saint Mary without any one player scoring more than 15. If Indiana is truly slipping from last year, they could struggle against this kind of team.
12. Ohio State Buckeyes • (1-2) • Last week: 10
Both games on Ohio State’s Northern California road trip were canceled due to wildfires. We hope that everyone in the area is safe.
Game to watch: December 16 vs Florida
Ohio State has already proven that they can’t compete against any Top-25 team. Can they compete against another struggling Power 5 team? The Gators are 0-4 to start the season, with the first of those losses coming to Gardner-Webb.
13. Wisconsin Badgers • (3-0) • Last week: 13
Wisconsin pulled off a double-digit win at Milwaukee 68-57 by forcing Milwaukee into bad shots (the Panthers managed a meager 33 percent from the field.) They also beat North Dakota State by 11. Then, against IUPUI, Wisconsin barely averted disaster. The Jaguars took the Badgers to overtime, and Wisconsin got a steal late and won on Marsha Howard’s layup with three seconds left. All this was despite shooting 50 percent from three.
Game to watch: November 25 vs Arkansas (Challenge in the Music City)
Wisconsin gets a weird number (five) of games against bottom-50 RPI teams from last year. Those should all be easy wins, but the game against Arkansas won’t be. The Razorbacks held tough against Arizona State, and both teams will be playing their third game in three days.
14. Illinois Fighting Illini • (3-0) • Last week: 14
Brandi Beasley found her stroke to the tune 18 points in the Illini’s 73-54 win against Valparaiso. She needs more games like that for Illinois to have a successful season. Beasley was just 4-10 for eight points against Colgate, but junior Cierra Rice suddenly found her shot and dropped 23 to help make up the difference. Illinois has yet to face any real opponent and may not for a while.
Game to watch: December 1 vs Eastern Michigan
Illinois’ next three games are their only non-conference contests away from home. They have a weird schedule filled with bottom-half teams in Division I before finishing with No. 21 Missouri. A game against a 2-0 MAC team is about as serious a challenge as they face in that period. Will they continue to beat all these bad teams, or will they begin to falter?