By Ari Levin
Before I get into these rankings, I want to say that I hope you enjoyed Notre Dame and UConn on Sunday. It was a fantastic game that showcased the best that women’s basketball has to offer. Also, how much fun would it be to have DePaul and/or Creighton in the Big Ten, too? Both are strong teams that feel out of place in a weakening Big East, and rivalries would form instantly. Add the Horizon League’s Green Bay to this conversation as well.
Getting back to the subject at hand, it seems like the Big Ten might be improved from last year, taking six of the 14 games in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge this week after winning four contests in 2017. The ACC got the overall win in the conference challenge, but it took several close games to get there, and the Big Ten was not far from its first-ever win. Against the conference with the defending champion, that’s not bad.
Charlie Creme posted his first bracketology of the year and had five Big Ten teams in the tournament: Maryland, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan and Indiana, with Purdue slotting in as one of the “Next four out.” In the meantime, Northwestern has probably done enough to get in the conversation, while Indiana has not faced a strong opponent yet and will likely fall back once conference play starts.
This week’s article features one ‘X-Factor’ for each team. While each aspect or player might not be the most important factor in their team’s success, these X-Factors figure to have an outsized impact on where their teams finish in the standings.
1. No. 7 Maryland Terrapins • (8-0) • Last week: 1
The Terrapins remain perfect on the season after a pair of wins beginning with a bit of a late scare against Georgia Tech. Leading by 20 at halftime, the Yellowjackets brought it back to within three before Kaila Charles took over, scoring 13 of her 23 points in the fourth quarter to give Maryland a double-digit margin of victory. Then the Terrapins cruised to victory over UMBC 92-61. This dominant team might not face another challenge until January 12 against Michigan.
X-Factor: Taylor Mikesell
The freshman guard has been solid for Maryland, averaging 14 points and three assists per game. She’s had to adjust from playing point guard in high school to a different role with Maryland, but she has a good three-point stroke and can score when needed. When she gets hot, Maryland can play with anyone in the country.
2. No. 14 Minnesota Golden Gophers • (7-0) • Last week: 3
Minnesota had the Big Ten’s win of the week, a 72-68 thriller over No. 15 Syracuse. Kenisha Bell had 24 points in that game, then dropped 27 against Air Force. Taiye Bello had 18 rebounds in both games. The wins move them neck-and-neck with Iowa and, for now, to the second spot in the rankings.
X-Factor: Mercedes Staples
The freshman didn’t play against Syracuse, as Minnesota used just seven players, including one for just two minutes. Four of the five starters played at least 38 minutes, meaning that an injury to any of them could be devastating. A four-star recruit, Staples could provide a steadying presence on the bench as well as some injury insurance, although she has yet to provide a huge impact.
3. No. 16 Iowa Hawkeyes • (5-2) • Last week: 2
Coming off their first loss of the season, the Hawkeyes had to take on No. 2 Notre Dame. They were able to keep the deficit to just 11 at halftime, but Arike Ogunbowale took over in the second half, finishing with 30 points in Notre Dame’s 105-71 win. Shooting was an issue for the Hawkeyes, who hit just five of their 25 three-point attempts. They were able to rebound successfully in a 92-62 win against Robert Morris, led by Megan Gustafson’s season-high 32 points.
X-Factor: Kathleen Doyle’s Return
Iowa’s junior guard broke her hand before the season but should be able to return at the beginning of or early into conference play. Tania Davis, also recovering from injury, has played well in her stead, and it’s unclear who will start once Doyle is healthy or if they can play together successfully. Either way, Doyle will add an extra piece to this team as her connection with Gustafson last year was fantastic.
4. Michigan Wolverines • (5-3) • Last week: 4
Michigan has run into some tough scheduling in the last few weeks. The Wolverines gave a scare to No. 10 North Carolina State, holding the lead late in the third quarter before falling in the end. Against No. 18 Marquette, Michigan was thoroughly outplayed, although they made a late run to make the final score respectable. The Wolverines ran into foul trouble often and were outrebounded 39-28 in that contest, which marks three losses to top-20 teams in their last four games following the win over No. 23 Missouri.
X-Factor: Nicole Munger
The three-point specialist was the leading scorer against both NC State and Marquette. But in the second game, she fouled out in the third quarter. Without Katelynn Flaherty, Munger may have to take more shots to help Michigan’s outside game.
5. Purdue Boilermakers • (6-2) • Last week: 6
Purdue got a great win in their ACC-Big Ten game against No. 25 Miami. The Boilermakers have so many scoring and shooting options, and this time it was Dominique Oden who scored 27 and led Purdue to victory. Purdue’s two losses at the Paradise Jam may be their only of conference play, though a duel against No. 22 South Carolina looms in the future.
X-Factor: Who is the leading scorer?
Purdue has several options who can have a great night at any time, but they don’t have a single consistent scorer. Ideally, someone will step up and put up a great performance each night, but if everyone goes cold for a game, they’re in trouble.
6. Northwestern Wildcats • (5-1) • Last week: 5
Northwestern had their nightmare scenario with one of their worst performances in years in a 52-49 loss to Pitt, missing their first 12 threes and shooting just 26 percent from the field for the game. Lindsey Pulliam’s streaky shooting has become a problem as she’s at just 34 percent from the floor and has just 96 total points on 99 shots. Northwestern falls behind Purdue because of both this bad performance and a growing list of injured contributors. The Wildcats have a pair of huge tests this week, going on the road against up-tempo No. 20 DePaul before coming home to face No. 18 Marquette.
X-Factor: Jess Sancataldo
The first-year guard played only garbage time in the first few games, but injuries to Veronica Burton and Abi Scheid forced the Australian into the rotation. And, boy, did she impress against UT Martin, scoring 20 points. The lefty is hitting 68 percent of her shots this year, which would rank only behind Gustafson in the conference if she qualified.
7. Michigan State Spartans • (6-1) • Last week: 7
Michigan State continues to win easily, this week over Virginia and Texas Southern. The Spartans lead the conference in three-point shooting, and Taryn McCutcheon has been the team leader. The junior point guard is hitting 42 percent of her threes and averaging nearly seven assists per game in what could be a breakout season.
X-Factor: Health and Rotation Depth
Michigan State has been able to play more players in their blowouts, but they appear to only have seven or eight consistent rotation players. Already, Sidney Cooks and Shay Colley both missed the last two games. This team must stay almost completely healthy all season to keep playing at this level.
8. Indiana Hoosiers • (7-0) • Last week: 11
Still yet to face a top-tier opponent, the Hoosiers remain perfect after wins over Wake Forest and UCLA. In the latter, Jaelyn Penn hit a three with 29 seconds left to give Indiana the lead for good. Indiana gets a challenge against undefeated Butler on Wednesday, and at some point, the wins become impressive even if the opponents have been lacking.
X-Factor: Senior leadership
Penn is one of just two seniors on the team and the only one who plays consistently. After losing two all-time program greats last year, adjusting will be tough in the locker room, and once the team hits a losing streak, things could snowball.
9. Nebraska Cornhuskers • (2-5) • Last week: 8
Things go from bad to worse for the Cornhuskers as they lost to a 1-4 Creighton team. Give credit to Nebraska for challenging themselves in nonconference play, as none of their losses are truly bad except maybe Washington State (Creighton is better than their record shows.) But they have not played up to that challenge. They tried to hang close against No. 5 Louisville in their other matchup this week, but the Cardinals were simply too talented.
X-Factor: What’s up with Hannah Whitish?
The Second-Team All-Big Ten guard was so good last year but has had a stunning drop off this season. Her three-point percentage has dipped from 38 to 32.4, and she’s averaging nearly a full assist less per game. Whitish was just 1-10 from the field against Creighton. The junior needs to find her stroke, and fast, or else this season will continue to spiral out of control.
10. Ohio State Buckeyes • (3-2) • Last week: 12
After a long rest, the Buckeyes got back on track with a pair of wins against struggling North Carolina and Cincinnati. Dorka Juhasz was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week after scoring 18 and 17 points in the two games and recording a double-double in each.
X-Factor: Assists and Teamwork
With almost an entirely different team from last year, it will take time for Ohio State to mesh as a team. That’s shown up early this season in averaging 17.8 turnovers per game, second-most in the conference, compared to just 12.2 assists, the second-fewest. Last year, the Buckeyes offense was largely feeding Kelsey Mitchell, but the Buckeyes need to find the way to spread the ball differently this year.
11. Rutgers Scarlet Knights • (5-3) • Last week: 9
Virginia Tech is having a strong start to their season, and that continued with a 67-51 win over Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have had an up-and-down start to their season but are still looking for a good win, which may not come until conference play.
X-Factor: Three-Point Shooting
Last year, despite great defense, Rutgers couldn’t buy a three. Head coach C. Vivian Stringer tried to address that, but the struggles continue with a 32-percentage, including a 1-9 performance against Virginia Tech. Zipporah Broughton and Sierra Calhoun have both returned from injury but haven’t made an impact yet, shooting just 23 and 17 percent from deep, respectively.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions • (5-3) • Last week: 10
Penn State had a tough matchup in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and got dominated by Florida State, 87-58. They rebounded against Jacksonville with a 19-point win on 27 points from Teniya Page. Nonetheless things are falling off fast for Penn State after a promising start to the season.
X-Factor: Anyone other than Teniya Page
Page has been stellar this year. She’s averaging over 20 points per game and has been one of the truly elite scorers in the conference. But she can’t do it all by herself. Too much of Page will doom Penn State against tough Big Ten foes, so someone else needs to step up. Sophomore Kamaria McDaniel scored 24 points in her first career start against FSU and could be a bigger option going forward.
13. Wisconsin Badgers • (6-2) • Last week: 13
Wisconsin’s only game last week was a 60-53 loss to Duke. After a 6-0 start, Wisconsin has lost two in a row, but their season is not spiraling yet. A matchup at Green Bay on Saturday is an opportunity to pick up a quality win.
X-Factor: Team Rebounding
Wisconsin’s interesting feature is that their center, six-foot-tall Marsha Howard, is the second-shortest player in their starting lineup. As a result, several players on the team look to box out after every shot, which has led to a surprising effectiveness on the glass so far.
14. Illinois Fighting Illini • (5-2) • Last week: 14
Two overtime games and a split decision made up Illinois’ weekend. They lost to Clemson after losing the overtime period 6-4 but got a win against Eastern Michigan with 13 overtime points. Ali Andrews is beginning to grow into an effective complement of Alex Wittinger, Illinois still looks like they won’t be able to compete once conference play hits.
X-Factor: Brandi Beasley’s shooting
Beasley leads the Big Ten in assists, but the junior needs to find another way to contribute to the offense. She’s just 1-9 from behind the arc this year, although her total field goal rate is up to nearly 40 percent.