By Ari Levin
After a pair of unsurprising weeks, things got spicy again this past week. We’re back to upsets! This week had some really good games and more unexpected results. The question, as we keep looking at the tournament, is whether the Big Ten is showing itself to be exceptionally deep and worthy of extra bids, or if the conference is cannibalizing itself and will get even fewer.
As we hit this point in the season, it’s a good time to look ahead to next year. Going through each team, most should be happy with where they’ll be next year compared to right now. So, let’s make a prediction of which direction each team will trend next year.
No. 10 Maryland Terrapins • 20-2 (9-2) • Last week: 1
Two easy wins this week for Maryland against the bottom of the conference. The terps had eight steals and six blocks against Wisconsin, then six more blocks against Illinois. Shakira Austin led the team against Illinois with 17 points and seven rebounds.
Maryland widens the gap in the power rankings with losses behind them and their easy wins. They also are now tied at the top of the Big Ten standings, and they have a chance to take sole possession on Sunday against Rutgers in what will certainly be a great game.
Next Year: Up (Again)
Kaila Charles is somehow still a junior, so she’ll be almost certainly be back next year. Brianna Fraser is the only senior, meaning Maryland returns all five starters, including possibly the two best freshmen in the conference. Oh, and they have the third-ranked recruiting class in the country with four five-star recruits, including Ashley Owusu, the fifth overall prospect. What Brenda Frese has built at Maryland is remarkable.
No. 16 Iowa Hawkeyes • 17-5 (8-3) • Last week: 2
Iowa’s winning streak ended at five as the defense collapsed against Michigan, giving up 90 points. It was a tough break for the Hawkeyes, as their road game was postponed a day, and it’s not the worst loss. But it’s still scary that Iowa’s defense can’t seem to hold when it matters.
The Hawkeyes had a much better result against Penn State, holding them to just 61 points and winning by 20 on the road. Megan Gustafson scored 30, and they won the rebounding battle 49-34. Iowa still ranks third in the Big Ten and looks poised to make a run at the conference title.
Next Year: Down
This is it for Iowa. Gustafson, who will graduate as a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, leaves this year, likely for the WNBA. Tania Davis also graduates, as does Hannah Stewart. Davis can be replaced the same way she was last year, but her loss still hurts. Replacing Gustafson will obviously be impossible, and the post depth could become a real issue with Stewart also leaving. Amanda Ollinger will likely be thrust into a starting role with no true forwards in a good-but-not-great recruiting class. Monika Cziano is the only other forward who has seen significant minutes, though she’s barely over 100 on the season. Kathleen Doyle and Makenzie Meyer will be seniors and will continue to do great things, but the team will certainly take a step back.
No. 20 Rutgers Scarlet Knights • 17-5 (9-2) • Last week: 3
Loss number two in the Big Ten came on Sunday for Rutgers at the hands of Minnesota. Rutgers scored just 46 points, shooting 3-19 from deep. I want to go back to watch this game in more detail, but from the stat sheet it looks like Minnesota gave Rutgers a taste of their own medicine with suffocating defense and superb rebounding.
That loss nearly came a few days earlier, as Rutgers trailed Indiana after three quarters before pulling away in the fourth. Ciani Cryor finished with 22 points despite five turnovers. They shot just 3-13 from behind the arc in this game but forced 20 turnovers.
Next Year: Slightly Down
Some key seniors graduate, including Stasha Carey, Victoria Harris, and Charise Wilson. But Cryor and Arella Guirantes will be back. We’ll also see young talented players like Zipporah Broughton and Noga Peleg Pelc polish their game a lot and likely develop into starters.
In terms of additions, Rutgers gets the much-talked-about Maori Davenport, who is also the No. 15 recruit in next year’s class. Alexis Morris transfers in from Baylor as another great talent. The big question is if everything that’s gone right for Rutgers this year continues to do so. But they’ll be about as talented a team as C. Vivian Stringer has had in a long time.
No. 23 Michigan State Spartans • 16-5 (6-4) • Last week: 4
After their game against Penn State was postponed, the Spartans came out well rested for a huge win over Purdue. Michigan State led most of the way but found themselves tied late in the fourth quarter. Good defense and free-throw shooting let them pull away at the end.
The Big Ten record remains underwhelming, and they have a huge challenge at Iowa this week, but after that the schedule lightens up and could end with them near the top of the standings.
Next Year: Up
Jenna Allen is the only senior on the team. Replacing her will be very tough for a team that already likes to play four guards. But juniors Taryn McCutcheon, Shay Colley and Victoria Gaines should all improve further next year. Michigan State also brings in the seventh-ranked recruiting class, with five potentially great players, who will certainly make the team even deeper.
Purdue Boilermakers • 15-9 (6-5) • Last week: 5
A very tough week for Purdue, losers of now three straight games after a great start to the season. The first, a 20-point home loss to Nebraska, was much worse than the second. It’s the kind of game that’s worrisome for Purdue; when all their key players struggle to get going, it can lead to some very bad losses.
They played a much better game at Michigan State but couldn’t come away with the win, despite 20 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks from Ae’Rianna Harris. Poor three-point shooting really hurt Purdue in this game.
Purdue needs a quick turnaround after slipping this past week. They have five straight winnable games, but they likely can’t afford another fall in that span to avoid missing another tournament.
Next Year: Further Up
It’s hard to believe, but their seniors have combined for just nine minutes all year. That leaves more room for growth; Karissa McLaughlin is still just a sophomore. Purdue will add one five-star recruit, forward Rickie Woltman.
Michigan Wolverines • 14-9 (5-6) • Last week: 7
A huge week for the Wolverines puts them back near the tournament bubble. Michigan came out firing for a huge win against Iowa. Deja Church had a great shooting day and scored 19 points. They won the rebounding battle 44-23 despite nobody having more than eight. This was the Michigan win that looked possible with all the talent on the roster.
Next Year: Down
Amy Dilk and Hillmon are two of the most exciting freshmen in the league, and both should improve next year. But Hallie Thome and Nicole Munger both graduate, leaving significant holes that will be hard to replace, and they don’t have a fantastic recruiting class either.
Northwestern Wildcats • 14-8 (7-4) • Last week: 6
Northwestern ran into a tough matchup with Minnesota as the Gophers were heating up and suffered their biggest loss of conference play. Northwestern couldn’t figure out the press, leading to 18 turnovers, nine of which came in the first quarter. For the second straight game, Veronica Burton hit a crazy half-court buzzer-beater in the third quarter. The problem was that was the only three Northwestern made all game. They defended well but just couldn’t put the ball in the basket with all the turnovers and missed shots.
But they came back fantastically against Ohio State, taking a 30-point lead in the fourth quarter. The game marked Abi Scheid‘s return from injury, and while she didn’t stuff the stat sheet, it was great to have her back on the court. Lindsey Pulliam got hot and scored 23 points, and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah recorded her seventh-straight double-double.
Quietly, the Wildcats are now in sole possession of fourth place in the Big Ten after Purdue’s losses. Things get difficult this week with a road trip to Maryland and Minnesota. They need to win at least one of those games to keep an at-large bid alive, but that’s going to be difficult. The tournament math is harder after the Minnesota loss, but definitely not impossible.
Next Year: Up, but…
The good news for Northwestern looking ahead is that they’re a very young team, still starting a first year and two sophomores, and there’s only one senior on the team. The problem is that senior is Kunaiyi-Akpanah. The recruiting class is only a pair of guards, and while there’ll be significant talent and bench in the backcourt, it’s hard to see who replaces PKA. Abbie Wolf will likely see heavily increased minutes and will need to step up her production. Six-foot Amber Jamison may even see significant time at forward next year, or Courtney Shaw, who’s only played 16 minutes this year, will play a lot off the bench. Next year could go either way for Northwestern, and it’ll hinge on the post play.
Minnesota Golden Gophers • 15-7 (4-7) • Last week: 11
It looks like Minnesota is back. Two huge wins this week may have turned around the Gophers’ season. The first, over Northwestern, came on a great game by Destiny Pitts, who scored 19 points on just seven shots. The team shot 6-14 on three-pointers in the game, a great step up.
Then things got even better as the Gophers beat Rutgers, holding them to just 46 points. Taiye Bello pulled in 21 rebounds, 10 on offense, and scored 11 points. This was a weird game, but Minnesota found a way to get things done and possibly turn around their season.
Losing seven of eight before this week may have sunk Minnesota’s at-large chances, but they have the talent to make a great run, and if they somehow win out (with road games against Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue on the schedule) they have a case. If they don’t cool off, they also have a very strong chance of just winning the Big Ten tournament.
Next Year: Can it get worse?
This year’s been really weird for Minnesota, and next year will test Lindsey Whalen. Do-everything guard Kenisha Bell is gone, as are two other starters. Mercedes Staples will need to take a big step forward. Nobody in the five-member recruiting class stands out as likely having an immediate impact either. But this season has been about as bad as anyone could have imagined.
Indiana Hoosiers • 17-6 (6-5) • Last week: 8
Indiana likely kept their season alive over the weekend by doing just enough. They hung tight with Rutgers but fell off late, with 20 turnovers really hurting. The Hoosiers then played a tight game at Nebraska and hung on for the win. Ali Patberg scored 22 points with six assists.
Next Year: Even, but building
Indiana has the No. 19 recruiting class next year, with a pair of five-star players, but the question will be if they can contribute right away. Kym Royster will be a loss. The transfers into the program this year will have another year to mesh together, but they also haven’t blown anyone away.
Nebraska Cornhuskers • 10-12 (5-6) • Last week: 10
Another up-and-down week for Nebraska, and that’s kind of been the story of their season. They started with a great win over Purdue on the road then lost at home to Indiana. Hannah Whitish finally had her great game in the first one, scoring 28 points, shooting 6-10 from deep, dishing 12 assists and adding three steals. The Huskers made 11 three-pointers in that game. That shooting fell apart against Indiana, though, with the team going just 4-22, and 1-16 from everyone besides Whitish.
Next Year: Even
The best Nebraska can hope for is a leap forward from some of their underperforming players this year with an extra year of experience. The recruiting class has just one three-star player, who replaces the only senior leaving, Maddie Simon. It’s hard to see Nebraska getting worse, but it’s also tough to see them being much better.
Ohio State Buckeyes • 9-11 (5-6) • Last week: 9
Ohio State showed that they’re not quite ready to take the next step this year, getting blown out by Northwestern on the road. They did beat Illinois earlier in the week with 18 points from Makayla Waterman and 12 made three-pointers as a team, but nobody got going against the Wildcats. Carmen Grande shot just 1-3 and committed six turnovers – Ohio State had 20 as a team.
Next Year: Rebuilding but vastly improved
Gone will be all the graduate transfers from this year, but none were that exciting anyway. The two most promising players are both freshmen this year in Dorka Juhasz and Janai Crooms. Those graduates are replaced with the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the nation. That contains four five-star players, including No. 6 recruit Kierstan Bell. This was a tough year for the Buckeyes, but things will get better soon.
Penn State Nittany Lions • 10-11 (3-7) • Last week: 12
Not much to say this week about Penn State. Their first game was postponed due to crazy wind chills in Michigan. They went back home and lost by 20 to Iowa and were out-rebounded 50-33. Teinya Page scored 17 but the team was just 3-18 from beyond the arc.
Next Year: Up, Maybe
Page, the team’s best player by a mile, leaves next year. But that may be a good thing for Penn State. It’ll force someone else to step up and be the team leader. They also have the No. 18 recruiting class; Makenna Marisa chose them over Baylor and will be exciting right away.
Wisconsin Badgers • 11-12 (2-9) • Last week: 13
Wisconsin’s struggles continued with two more losses to Maryland and Michigan. Marsha Howard scored 30 points in that second game and made the second three-pointer of her career. She turned the ball over eight times in the first game, though. The foul shooting wasn’t terrible this weekend, at least. Wisconsin hasn’t had a player get 10 rebounds in six games.
Next Year: Down
Howard and Kelly Karlis both leave next year. Nobody on the team has made a big impact this year, so it may be another tough season unless someone surprises. No great recruits join the team either.
Illinois Fighting Illini • 9-13 (1-10) • Last week: 14
Another week and two losses for Illinois, neither particularly interesting, though both were close at some point in the second half. They led into the fourth quarter against Ohio State, with 23 points from Brandi Beasley in the game, and quickly gave up a 10-0 run. Through three quarters they were within seven of Maryland after trailing by 23, but never got in striking distance.
Next Year: Nowhere to go but up?
Alex Wittinger graduates as the most talented player on the team, so a lot will fall on Beasley’s senior season. Only one recruit joins the team, per ESPN. It’s hard to see how the team improves next year. But they can’t really get much worse, so that’s good?