By Ari Levin
The Big Ten is finally starting to see some separation between the top and bottom. Only three teams are undefeated, and we can start to see strength of schedule. There’s been enough games for a sense of where everyone ranks nationally, and for RPI to work as a good measure.
This upcoming week gives a light schedule for most teams. Let’s look at where each team has a chance of getting if everything goes right, players hit their full potential, (and stay healthy) and they get a few lucky bounces along the way.
No. 6 Maryland Terrapins • (10-0) • Last week: 1
Already through the tough part of their non-conference schedule, Maryland stays perfect with easy wins over James Madison and Loyola (MD). Maryland leads the country in rebounds, per Her Hoop Stats. The Terrapins won’t go undefeated in the Big Ten, but right now they’re the best team.
Best Case: Final Four
Maryland still has not been tested this year despite playing two ranked opponents. The dominant win against No. 25 South Carolina isn’t as impressive as it looked at the time. Kaila Charles is an All-American, and Maryland has plenty of depth as well. They probably can’t beat a top-five team, but they certainly could have the opportunity in March.
No. 13 Minnesota Golden Gophers • (9-0) • Last week: 2
The Golden Gophers are also perfect, but they had to fight for a win at Boston College after trailing through three quarters. Destiny Pitts scored a career-high 35 points to give Minnesota its best start in program history.
Best Case: Final Four Appearance
Lindsey Whalen’s team has had an incredible start. The concern is about their depth; only eight players saw time against Boston College, and if someone gets hurt there could be trouble. If not, the sky’s the limit.
No. 16 Iowa Hawkeyes • (7-2) • Last week: 3
KATHLEEN DOYLE IS BACK. After missing a month with a broken hand, Doyle came off the bench for 22 points against Iowa State. Tania Davis hit a game-winning, last-second three against a strong team. Three days later, the Hawkeyes picked up an easy, if not dominant win over IUPUI on 32 points from Megan Gustafson.
Best Case: Final Four
Iowa hasn’t been as dominant in the past two weeks as they were at the beginning of the year, but they’ve still been very strong. With a healthy Doyle, Iowa can play with anyone when they’re firing on all cylinders. Come tournament time, they’ll be looking to erase the memories of last year’s upset loss.
No. 23 Michigan State Spartans • (8-1) • Last week: 7
WOW. Talk about a statement. Michigan State came in with a matchup against No. 7 (then No. 3) Oregon and maybe the best player in the country in Sabrina Ionescu. And wouldn’t you know it, they won the darn thing. The Spartans made eight of their 14 threes, which isn’t too out of character for the Big Ten’s leading outside shooting team, who are now hitting 43 percent from downtown this season. Jenna Allen had three of those treys, including a huge shot in the final minute, to finish with 27 points in the upset. Ionescu scored 29 for the Ducks, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Michigan State’s shooting.
Taryn McCutcheon has been outstanding this season. She’s increased her three-point shooting rate to 44.4 percent, as well as nearly seven assists. If she keeps playing at that level, it represents a major step up and a very dangerous Sparty team.
Best Case: ?????
The Spartans just beat one of the best teams in the country, and the way they played, they could have beaten UConn. Their only loss came by four against still-undefeated No. 10 NC State. So, let’s not pretend to have any idea where this team’s ceiling is.
Michigan Wolverines • (7-3) • Last week: 4
Nicole Munger has been outstanding this year. Still mostly a three-point specialist, (81 percent of her shots have been from deep) she’s embraced that role. All she’s done this year is heavily increase the volume with even better efficiency. Munger is shooting over six three-pointers per game and hitting 45 percent, second-best in the conference. Michigan rebounded with a pair of easy wins this past week.
Best Case: Elite Eight
Michigan’s season might come down to how well Amy Dilk progresses. It’s a tough ask for a freshman to replace Katelynn Flaherty and be the starting point guard. She’s been fun to watch but a little inconsistent. There’s talent around her, and she doesn’t have to be a superstar, but if she improves, Michigan will be a scary team.
Purdue Boilermakers • (7-3) • Last week: 5
Purdue’s defense finally let them down in an 80-73 loss against undefeated Ohio. The Bobcats were able to get to the free-throw line at will, and foul trouble was too much for Purdue to overcome. They get No. 25 South Carolina on Sunday for a chance at a second ranked win.
Best Case: Big Ten Tournament Champions
Purdue has enough shooters to play with anyone, especially with their ability on defense. They could certainly get the double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament and pull an upset or two there, especially having seen every team at least once. As we saw against UConn, they’ll have trouble against a really good out-of-conference team, but they can beat anyone in the Big Ten.
Northwestern Wildcats • (5-3) • Last week: 6
This past week proved, if nothing more, that the Pitt game was a blip for Northwestern, not a cause for bigger concern. The Wildcats certainly wanted more, however, staying within striking distance of both No. 20 DePaul and No. 19 Marquette before losing both by double digits. Neither of those two teams have an unranked loss, so the results are not bad. Abi Scheid was back in the first game, and Veronica Burton returned for the latter after missing five games, giving Northwestern a mostly healthy team for the first time in a month (though Jordan Hamilton went down at the end of the second game.) Northwestern gets finals week off, then one more tune-up game against winless Chicago State.
Best Case: Sweet Sixteen
When Northwestern is fully healthy, they can have performances like they did against Duke. The trouble is getting there. Still, if the Wildcats keep playing at the level they are this season (outside of the Pitt game), they’ll be strong enough in Big Ten play to make the tournament. Depending on their seed, they should be able to advance a couple rounds.
Nebraska Cornhuskers • (4-5) • Last week: 9
Nebraska’s won consecutive games for the first time this year, holding their opponents to 52 and 63 points after a rough defensive start to the season. A matchup against 7-2 Denver is a good chance to get back on track, but is not an easy win.
Best Case: Big Ten Champions (Regular Season)
Nebraska has too much talent to be counted out. If they can right the ship, they should easily get back to where they were last year as one of the best teams in the conference.
Indiana Hoosiers • (9-0) • Last week: 8
I still don’t buy the hype around Indiana. They still don’t have a win better than 4-5 UCLA on a last-minute three-pointer. This week they allowed 74 regulation points to 1-6 Missouri State, a season high for the Lady Bears. Indiana doesn’t play this next week, so the buzz will continue to grow for another week.
Best Case: NCAA Tournament Appearance
If they keep winning, which will be much tougher once Big Ten play starts, it will be tough to keep them out of the tournament conversation. That’s especially true with last year’s WNIT championship on the table. From there, of course, anything can happen.
Ohio State Buckeyes • (3-3) • Last week: 10
Ohio State failed to score 60 points against Washington on Wednesday. That never happened last year but has already been true in four games this season. There’s a great recruiting class for next year, if you’re looking for good news.
Best Case: Big Ten Tournament Run
There’s still a possibility that this team is all new to each other and just needs time to learn to play together. If they can cut the turnovers and add to the assists, they can get back into their season.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights • (6-3) • Last week: 11
Rutgers got a 60-49 win over Harvard on 19 points by Arella Guirantes in her first start with the team. The Scarlet Knights are still waiting for their three-point shooters to get going, if there are any. But they’ve been effective on defense this season.
Best Case: WNIT
Unless something changes, Rutgers doesn’t look like a team that can make the tournament. Perhaps they can get close, though, with some well-timed conference wins.
Penn State Nittany Lions • (6-4) • Last week: 12
Teniya Page scored 23 in a win over St. Bonaventure and is averaging over 20 points this season. Nobody else has more than 12. When Page missed two-thirds of her shots against Duquesne, nobody else was able to step up, leading to a home loss.
Best Case: WNIT
Kamaria McDaniel might be the best chance for anyone besides Page to be a difference-maker. The sophomore guard has been playing more and more, including a role in the starting lineup the last four games. Even if McDaniel does not continue her upward trend, Page could will this team to the WNIT by herself.
Wisconsin Badgers • (7-3) • Last week: 13
Wisconsin beat Marshall despite a 3-20 shooting performance by Marsha Howard. Then they were stymied by Green Bay in a 55-46 loss. They get Chicago State this week and can finish a weak non-conference slate at 9-3.
Best Case: Howard Makes Second-Team All-Big Ten
The senior can struggle at times, but she has often been an effective post scorer, averaging over 13 points per game. She’s the best this team has. Wisconsin still hasn’t suffered a truly bad loss, but they haven’t done enough in their wins to inspire any confidence.
Illinois Fighting Illini • (6-2) • Last week: 14
Illinois won their only game this week against Indiana State. They play inconsistently against bad teams, but things could be worse for the Illini.
Best Case: Five Big Ten Wins
A pair of games against both Wisconsin and Penn State are winnable, and it wouldn’t be out of the question for Illinois to upset someone else in conference play. Of course, any positive number of conference wins is an improvement over last year.