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Big Ten will have a brand new look this season

Maryland and Iowa, seen battling last January, will likely go head-to-head this season for the Big 10 title. Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.
Maryland and Iowa, seen battling last January, will likely go head-to-head this season for the Big 10 title. Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

The departure of the class of 2018 will reverberate throughout the college ranks this season, but perhaps nowhere more so than the Big Ten Conference.

As longtime power Ohio State takes a step back, other teams are on the rise, which will make this a year of unpredictability. Our projections:

  1. Maryland (last year 26-8, 12-4)

An apparent down year by Maryland’s high standards, with an NCAA Tournament five-seed and a second-round loss, could have put head coach Brenda Frese in a bad mood. Yet she considered the season successful, as the team had to battle through injuries to a number of players.

“I thought last year, given how the team was built, was one of the most successful seasons for a team,” Frese said. “To get to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, to make it to the finals of the Big Ten tournament, to win as many games as they did.”

“A lot of people would be like, ‘that wasn’t the success of where Maryland has been, they’re normally winning it all.’ But I thought last year’s team, built for where they were at, was a very successful season.”

Tempered expectations helped make last season a success – something Maryland will not have the luxury of this year. Frese is adding ESPN’s No. 5 recruiting class in the nation, headlined by fourth overall prospect Shakira Austin. Two more five-star recruits in Taylor Mikesell and Olivia Owens give Maryland an injection of talent that would put any coach in a good mood.

But Frese has more than just freshman to smile about: the Terrapins only lose three players from last year, Kristen Confroy, Ieshia Small and Eleanna Christinaki. Confroy started every game for Maryland and averaged 9.5 points and 5.1 rebounds. Small was the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year, averaging 9.4 points and playing multiple positions off the bench.

Much was expected from Christinaki, who decided to forgo her senior year to play professionally in Europe, yet she struggled to make a consistent impact. The Terps return five players who averaged 10 or more points, including Kaila Charles, who scored 17.9 points per game as a sophomore on her way to becoming All-Big Ten First Team.

Kaila Charles puts up a shot. Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

Player to watch: Charles. She averaged more points per game than any Maryland sophomore in program history, yet cannot be defined by her scoring alone. Last year she led the team in rebounds and blocks, and was third in steals. Charles was one of two unanimous selections for the preseason All-Big Ten team, and should compete for Big Ten Player of the Year.

Half full: Maryland adds a top recruiting to an already-loaded team. Returning five players who averaged 10 or more points means there will be plenty of scoring to go around, which will prevent opponents from doubling Charles.

Half empty: Ieshia Small was a valuable player, as evidenced by her Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year. Losing her may be bigger than expected, and could hurt their scoring once the starters come out. For a team that wants to compete for a National Championship, their loss to UConn last year by 20 shows they may not be as close as they think.

Projection: This is Frese’s best team in years. Charles should be fantastic, and sophomore Channise Lewis, named to the watch list for this year’s Lieberman award, given to the nation’s top point guard, will be too much to handle. Add in junior Blair Watson, who was the Terrapin’s second-leading scorer before being sidelined with an injury in January, and the incredible recruiting class, and Maryland should compete for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament this year.

  1. Iowa (last year 24-8, 11-5)

At first glance, Iowa’s season seems to come down to one thing: preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Megan Gustafson. The senior forward is incredible, averaging 25.7 points and 12.8 rebounds per game last year. She led the nation in points per game, field goals made and field goal percentage, while recording 28 double-doubles. She was in the top five in almost every offensive category, and figures to only get better.

“She is one of the best players I’ve ever been around, and has absolutely no ego,” said coach Lisa Bluder.

Yet there is more to this Hawkeyes team, which returns nine players from last year, including junior Kathleen Doyle. She is named to the preseason All-Big Ten team, and is expected to improve over her 11.1 point and 6.6 assists average from last season.

Bluder said senior Tania Davis may be the X-factor for this team, as she returns from her second ACL team in three years.

“Nobody saw her play last year, and they only saw her play half the Big Ten sophomore year,” Bluder said. “I think she is someone people may have forgotten about and was on the (Big Ten) All-Freshman year.”

“One of our best passers, one of our best three-point shooters, one of our best free throw shooters, and now she is back and hopefully having an injury-free senior year.”

Megan Gustafson posts up under the basket. Photo by Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com.

Player to watch: Gustafson. A consensus All-American and the co-Big Ten Player of the Year last year, the 6-3 forward is dominant on the boards and in the paint. Gustafson should be a Wooden Award finalist and in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft next year.

Half full: Any team with a top-five player in the nation has a high ceiling. But in addition to Gustafson, Doyle is an excellent distributor, able to find anyone on the court. They have Tournament experience to go with their player experience.

Half empty: It may not matter how good Gustafson is if the rest of the team doesn’t improve. Last year she was incredible, and it only led to a six seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round exit. Gustafson is the only player who averaged more than 12 points per game last year, leading to questions of who else will step up if teams find ways to slow down Iowa’s star player.

Projection: It’s true that the team may only go as far as Gustafson takes them, but that should still be awfully far. But she shouldn’t have to do it alone this year; four starters return, giving Bluder’s squad a strong chance to compete for the Big Ten Championship.

  1. Minnesota (last year 24-9, 11-5)

Without their new coach Lindsay Whalen, Minnesota would still be a top team in the Big Ten. But with their new coach, they are a top story in the nation, as the homegrown superstar has returned to lead the Golden Gophers, with eyes toward repeating the still-discussed 2004 Final Four run when she ran point for Minnesota. Last year’s team set multiple single-season program records with their offense, including points scored and points per game.

“As a player, you do what you can to be physically ready for practice, and then you practice and you’re done for the day,” she said. “With coaching, you’re studying video, thinking of different ways that the team can be successful, thinking of different drills.”

“You’re always kind of thinking about the next practice and the next game. It doesn’t just end when practice is over for that day. As a player, for the most part it just ends, so having that has been an adjustment.”

Minnesota must find a way to replace All-Big Ten First Team Carlie Wagner, who averaged 18.7 points and ended her career as the third leading scorer in program history. Fortunately, they have redshirt senior Kenisha Bell, a unanimous All-Big Ten First Team selection last year after averaging 20 points, 5.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists. Last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year Destiny Pitts, as well as a roster that returns nine of 12 players, joins the do-everything guard.

Kenisha Bell shoots a free throw in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Photo by Courtney Anderson.

Player to watch: Bell. One of the top players in the league has a chance to prove she is a top player in the nation, and take last year’s AP Honorable Mention All-American and become a First Team All-American this year. She helps her team through scoring, rebounding and finding her teammates, making her incredibly difficult to defend.

Half full: Minnesota was already improving, and simply continuing the trend would put them near the top of the Big Ten. But bringing in Whalen, an all-time great in both college and the WNBA, should excite a fan base that sold out arenas to watch that 2004 team. Whalen was known as a coach on the floor during her playing days, and brings an incredibly high basketball IQ. The Golden Gophers have top players in Bell and Pitts to go along with good depth.

Half empty: Wagner may prove to be irreplaceable, as teams can now focus more of their defensive energy on Bell. Whalen is a proven winner on the court, but nothing is known about her coaching. It often takes time to adjust to a new coach, and Minnesota and Whalen may prove no different.

Projection: Bell and Pitts are an incredibly strong duo, and returning almost an entire team puts Minnesota in an enviable position. The Golden Gophers will be a top team in the league, and with Whalen given a full season to recruit, will be poised to remain there for years to come.

  1. Michigan (last year 23-10, 10-6)

Michigan earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 2013, making a run into the second round thanks in part to senior leaders Katelynn Flaherty and Jillian Dunston. Flaherty led the Wolverines, averaging 22.9 points and 4.2 assists, giving them buckets whenever they needed. She is the all-time leading point scorer in Michigan history for men or women, and second all-time in Division 1 women’s basketball history in three-pointers made. Dunston pulled down nine rebounds a game – a team-high.

However, there is a lot to be optimistic about in Ann Arbor, as Michigan brings back its three other starters. Senior Hallie Thome averaged 17.4 points last year and is a preseason All-Big Ten selection. Joining her is the No. 12 recruiting class in the nation, that brings four top 100 players, including playmaking No. 40 point guard Amy Dilk. The Big Ten coaches believe the Wolverines will continue where they left off last year, as they picked the Maize and Blue to finish third in the conference.

Head coach Kim Barnes Arico said the team is excited about the prospect of figuring out new ways to score now that Flaherty is gone.

“For the first time, it will be more of a balanced attack,” Arico said. “We will have to get our scoring output from multiple people, and probably different people on any given night.”

Hallie Thorne drives by the defense to score. Photo courtesy of Michigan Athletics.

Player to watch: Thome. Last year wasn’t the center’s first notable season, as she was All-Big Ten First Team her sophomore year as well. She was great down low last year, grabbing seven boards a game to go along with her scoring. Uber-efficient, Thome shot 61.6 percent from the floor, ninth in the nation.

Half full: Three returning starters and a top recruiting class has the talent to lead the Wolverines to a Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history. Thome should step into Flaherty’s role as the team’s leader and top scorer seamlessly, and help the underclassmen set up what could be a top team for years to come.

Half empty: Losing the best player in program history may be too much to replace, no matter who seems to be next in line. Flaherty did so much for the program it is hard to imagine her absence not being felt during the season. Losing Dunston isn’t easy either, as she led the team in rebounding. With the departure of those two players alone, the Wolverines lose 35 percent of their scoring and 30 percent of their rebounding, and may find themselves just trying to keep their footing in the hyper-competitive Big Ten.

Projection: Replacing Flaherty and Dunston will take a lot, but the Wolverines have plenty of talent to do it. The second round of the NCAA Tournament seems well within reach, with a deeper run on the table.

  1. Nebraska (last year 21-11, 11-5)

An incredible turnaround in coach Amy Williams second season last year found Nebraska in the NCAA Tournament after a three-year absence. After going 7-22 her first year as head coach, Williams won Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2017-2018 by leaning on a young team on the way to a 14-game turnaround. She now returns her top five scorers – four of whom were freshman or sophomores last year.

Hannah Whitish is expected to lead the way after being named to the All-Big Ten preseason team. The junior guard led the Huskers in points and assists last year, averaging 12.6 points and 4.7 assists per game. Sophomore Kate Cain came close to averaging a double-double last year, putting up 9.9 points and seven rebounds on her way to being named to the Big Ten All-Freshman, and her 3.1 blocks helped put her on the Big Ten All-Defensive team. Nebraska also stands to improve from the 20th-ranked recruiting class in the nation.

After their huge turnaround, the only question is how much higher Nebraska can go.

“We talk a lot about telescope goals and microscope goals, and there are some telescope goals and that’s a lot of what people want to talk about, but what we are just trying to do with this team is to keep it on the microscope,” Williams said.

Player to watch: Whitish. The junior is the leader of the team and the one they will to turn to to make a play. She will get help from Cain and transfer Kristian Hudson, but this team’s go-to player is undoubtedly Whitish.

Half full: It’s not hard to feel excited about Nebraska’s chances, as they return all five starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament team and have an impressive young inside-outside combination in Whitish and Cain. The addition of the highly-regarded recruiting class adds players that may give the Huskers their most talented team in years.

Half empty: Nebraska took a huge step forward last year, so regression only seems natural. Last season they were able to play without any pressure, and it is fair to question how they will handle added expectations this year. In their first round matchup against Arizona State in the NCAA Tournament last March, the Huskers had only six assists and were outrebounded, 49-27.

Projection: Last year’s team was marked by their youth, but this year’s team has experience as well after the run to the Tournament. Nebraska is not going to surprise anyone this season, but they won’t need to. Returning their starters would be enough to have them repeat their success, but bringing in a highly-ranked recruiting class should help them get deeper into March.

  1. Ohio State (last year 13-2, 8-4)

The Buckeyes had a good regular season last year, carried by their talented senior class and do-everything senior guard Kelsey Mitchell. They finished atop the Big Ten and secured a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, while Mitchell was named the Big Ten Player of the Year for the third time (sharing it with Iowa’s Gustafson), and finished her Buckeye career as the second-leading scorer in NCAA history. Their season, however, ended significantly before they anticipated, as they were bounced by 11-seed Central Michigan in the second round.

Ohio State now welcomes the No. 26 recruiting class, led by No. 62 recruit Janai Crooms, in what will be a rebuilding year. The Buckeyes lose 93.3 percent of their offensive firepower, with Mitchell, Stephanie Mavunga, Linnae Harper, Asia Doss and Alexa Hart all graduating, and their fourth-highest scorer, Sierra Calhoun, transferring to Rutgers. The highest-scoring returner  is Makayla Waterman, who averaged 3.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last year.

Head coach Kevin McGuff said with so many new parts, the variance for this team is greater than in the past.

“Last year, not that we didn’t get better throughout last year… but we were really, really good on day one,” he said. “And we got a little better through the year, but I think the ceiling to get better this year, with so many new people learning new stuff, is so much higher.”

Player to watch: Crooms. A strong, agile combo-guard, she is an excellent passer with an advanced scoring game. She will be expected to immediately step in and perform at a high level.

Half full: Ohio State is a top program for a reason, and can perform even in down years. Coach Kevin McGuff will figure out how to bring the most out of his big recruiting class.

Half empty: The depth of the rebuild that is needed is a tall order for even the best of coaches. The Buckeyes have a long way to climb.

Projection: Ohio State simply has too much to replace and will struggle this year, finishing outside the top three in the Big Ten for the first time since McGuff took over five years ago. Yet, there is still plenty of talent, and they may be able to find their way into the NCAA Tournament.

  1. Purdue (last year 20-14, 9-7)

The Boilermakers went 4-1 against top 25 opponents last year – the best mark in the Big Ten. Three of those wins were on the road, including at No. 10 Maryland in mid-February. Yet, Purdue’s season didn’t feel as successful as it should have, as they missed the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in coach Sharon Versyip’s 11 years. The team seemed to consistently play to their competition, for better or for worse. They lost four of their final six regular-season games, booting them from the Tournament and pushing them into the WNIT. They lose only one senior from last year’s squad and bring in a recruiting class headlined by five-star recruit Kayana Traylor, ESPN’s number 41 overall prospect. Juniors Dominique Oden, who averaged a team-high 14.1 points, and Ae’Rianna Harris, who averaged 11.7 points and 8.9 rebounds, are the first Boilermaker duo since 2000 to be named to the preseason All-Big Ten team.

Player to watch: Harris. The forward has a decent chance to average a double-double this season and will benefit from playing with both Traylor and Oden. Harris was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season, averaging 3.1 blocks a game to go along with her rebounding.

Half full: Their record against top 25 opponents has to be respected. Any team capable of that could challenge for the Big Ten championship, and bringing back everyone except one player from last year gives PUrdue the experience and confidence to do it.

Half empty: Despite their record against top squads, they were quite average against average teams. While they didn’t have any bad losses, they consistently lost to teams right around them. Losing four of their final six regular season games doesn’t point to a fast start this year.

Projection: Oden and Harris will lead Purdue back to the NCAA Tournament, and Kayana Traylor should compete for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

  1. Michigan State (last year 19-14, 7-9)

A rare down year for Michigan State found them outside the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in head coach Suzy Merchant’s 11 years at the helm. The Spartans had both a six-game winning streak and a six-game losing streak, coinciding with an 11-3 start to the season and an 8-11 end to the season. They lose five seniors, including Branndais Agee, who earned Big Ten Honorable Mention last year after averaging 10 points and 6.2 rebounds.

The returning starters should provide plenty of firepower for the program, led by junior Shay Colley, whose team-high 12.4 points per game last year landed her on the coaches preseason All-Big Ten team. She’ll receive help from fellow junior guard Taryn McCutcheon, whose vision helped her finish third in the Big Ten with 5.4 assists per game.

Player to watch: Colley. After transferring from South Carolina, she showed why she was highly-sought after, exhibiting the makings of a star. She brought her best during the biggest games, scoring 27 points in a win over No. 22 South Florida and grabbing eight rebounds to go along with 17 points in a win over No. 11 Maryland.

Half full: Returning four starters will go a long way to putting the Spartans back into the NCAA Tournament. Five-star recruit Nia Clouden leads Prospect Nation’s No. 36 recruiting class, which should help a team with plenty of depth.

Half empty: Agee, the long graduating starter, was second on the team in scoring and the top rebounder, and replacing her may be more difficult to replace than anticipated. Their depth is notable, but there are downsides to not having a player to turn to when the team needs a bucket. If Colley doesn’t take the step that’s expected from her, Michigan State may struggle in crunch time.

Projection: The Spartans are an improved team, but may still be one year away from making the NCAA Tournament. Colley continues her ascent, but the team lacks the firepower needed to support her.

  1. Penn State (last year 16-16, 6-10)

After three straight Big Ten Championships from 2012-2014, Penn State has fallen on hard times. They have not made an NCAA Tournament appearance since that last title, and they lost in the first round of the WNIT last year.

However, preseason All-Big Ten guard Teniya Page has the skills to help change that. The senior averaged 18.4 points last year, including 38 against Illinois, and ended up on the coaches All-Big Ten First Team. She should be a finalist for Big Ten Player of the Year, and is aided by Amari Carter, a defensive specialist who led the Big Ten in steals per game. The Nittany Lions return their entire team and add Prospect Nation’s No. 29 recruiting class.

Teniya Page pushes the ball up court in last year’s Big 10 Tournament. Photo by Jessica Hoffman

Player to watch: Page. The guard can go off at any time, as her seven-career 30-point games show. Defenses key on her, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. She plays almost every minute of the game, and scored in double-digits 24 times, including 17 straight to end the season.

Half full: The entire team comes back, which should help the Nittany Lions take the next step toward reaching the NCAA Tournament. Page is a top-level scorer and has an outside chance of leading the conference in scoring. A spot in March Madness would set the stage for Penn State’s ascension back to the top of the Big Ten over the next couple years.

Half empty: They won only three games against teams ahead of them in the Big Ten – none of which made the NCAA Tournament. In fact, they did not beat a single team that made the Tournament. The entire team coming back doesn’t matter if they can’t beat good teams.

Projection: Penn State improves enough to be on “Bubble Watch” for the majority of the year, but a tough Big Ten is too much to overcome, and they find themselves on the outside of the tournament one more time.

  1. Rutgers (last year 20-12, 7-9)

A 14-game turnaround would be a success for most teams, but the way the season ended left Rutgers with a bad taste in their mouths. The Scarlet Knights started the season 16-2, but ended by losing 10 over their final 14. They lost Tyler Scaife, who was All-Big Ten First Team after averaging 19.4 points per outing. Rutgers’ second all-time scorer, Scaife was a consistent bright point during some low years for coach C. Vivian Stringer’s program, as they have made the NCAA Tournament only once since 2013.

Redshirt senior Stasha Carey (7.5 points and 6.8 rebounds last year) leads the team, which may struggle to match up with top Big Ten programs, as the Scarlet Knights has had only one win over a top 25 opponent in three years. They will lean heavily on five-star recruit Zipporah Broughton, the ESPN’s No. five point guard and 23 overall player in the class, as no one on the current roster averaged more than eight points last season.

Player to watch: Broughton. Alabama’s Gatorade Player of the Year, Broughton is an electric guard known for her scorer’s mentality. She has deep range and an explosive dribble, and will be expected to contribute the minute she steps on the court.

Half full: Broughton has the talent to help them find the level they played at the first half of the season.

Half empty: The second half season collapse isn’t forgotten simply because it is in the past. They lose Scaife, their top player who accounted for 30 percent of the team’s points, and are counting on a freshman to replace her. They don’t have the talent other Big Ten teams do, and their record against top opponents doesn’t instill confidence that they can solve it.

Projection: Rutgers started last season as a very good team, getting up to No. 19 in the polls, before bottoming out in the second half. They won’t face the same extremes this year, but will be consistently average throughout the season.

  1. Indiana (last year 17-14, 9-7)

The Hoosiers struggled in the beginning of last season, starting 8-12, and against top talent, going 0-7 against top 25 opponents. But they turned it on at the end, winning 15 of their final 17, including the WNIT Championship. They graduate Tyra Buss (20.6 ppg) and Amanda Cahill (15.2 ppg, 8 rpg), the catalysts of their second half run. The duo set a program record with 82 victories in their career, and accounted for 51.1 percent of Indiana’s points and 56.5 percent of their assists last year.

This season, Indiana will rely on their youth, as four of their top seven scorers last year were freshman. Among them is Jaelynn Penn, the 2017 Gatorade Kentucky Player of the Year and the top recruit two years ago. Penn averaged 10.8 points and 4.9 rebounds, and is the top returning scorer on the team. She upped her game at the end of the season, boosting her numbers to 13.7 points and 5.1 rebounds in the postseason. The Hoosiers will also need senior Kym Royster to step into the Cahill’s looming shadow and grab rebound after rebound. One of four teams without any player receiving preseason accolades (Ohio State, Rutgers and Wisconsin are the others), Indiana will rely on their depth for a balanced attack.

Player to watch: Royster. The senior forward was second on the team in rebounding, grabbing six a game to go along with 10.2 points. She put up double-figures in 21 games, and will have plenty more opportunities for both scoring and rebounding now that Buss and Cahill are gone. One of last year’s most improved players, Royster will shine in their absence.

Half full: Few teams ending the season on a postseason win, and the experience gained from the WNIT could prove to be invaluable. Four of their returning sophomores were among the team-leaders in points, and should take strides with a full season under their belts.

Half empty: Buss and Cahill were more than just senior leaders: they seemed to be the entire team at points. Buss set the Indiana women’s records for points, free throws, assists and steals, while Cahill finished fourth in points and second in rebounds. The duo rarely came off the court, ending the season ranked first and second in the nation in minutes played. Losing both players is a lot to to replace.

Projection: Indiana’s losses leaves them as a team that doesn’t have a clear star to lead them. Royster and Penn are good, but didn’t receive any preseason honors. The team will take a step back from last year’s success.

12. Illinois (last year 9-22, 0-16)

It’s not hard for a team that lost its final 18 games to improve, but there are real reasons to believe Illinois will be better this year. They have a proven winner in coach Nancy Fahey, who enters her second season in Champagne. The first Division III coach to be admitted to the women’s basketball Hall of Fame, Fahey claimed five NCAA Division III championships and 23 conference championships during her 31 seasons at Washington University in Missouri.

She has a star in senior Alex Wittinger, who was All-Big Ten Second team last season and a preseason All-Big Ten this year after averaging 15 points and nine rebounds. The Fighiting Illini retain most of their team from last year, giving Fahey another year to work with the group. She will get help from grad transfer Sarah Shewan, who averaged more than 13 points and six rebounds last year for a Quinnipiac team that made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Illinois’ top recruit is Mackenzie Blazek, ESPN’s number 81 overall recruit.

Player to watch: Wittinger. The lone bright spot for Illinois last year, Wittinger is expected to be a top player in the conference. She led the team in points, rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage last year, and should only get better. She is in good shape to average a double-double while leading her team in points, something only co-Big Ten Player of the Year Megan Gustafson did last year.

Half full: Fahey was an incredible coach for Washington, and it seems to be just a matter of time before she helps Illinois put it all together. Wittinger can do everything, and should get help from Shewan and the recruiting class.

Half empty: The team had no Big Ten wins last year, and only won once on the road. Losing the final 18 games of the season can weigh on a group, and prove hard to shake off. They don’t have the talent other teams do outside of Wittinger, and could have trouble scoring again, after finishing in the bottom two in the Big Ten in scoring last year.

Projection: Illinois is on the rise, and Fahey and Wittinger will lead Illinois not just to double-digit wins for the first time since 2014-2015, but to the postseason for the first time since 2013. While it will only be the WNIT this year, they are trending up.

  1. Northwestern (last year, 12-20, 4-12)

With only one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998, Northwestern can seem like a downtrodden program. But there are definite bright spots with this team, starting with senior Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah and sophomore Lindsay Pulliam. Kunaiyi-Akpanah is a dominant post player, and one of the best rebounders in Big Ten history. She pulled down the fourth-most rebounds in conference history last year, including 17 in her final game. Pulliam led the team in scoring with 15 points, the most among Big Ten rookies. She should continue to improve and will form a strong duo with Kunaiyi-Akpanah.

Unlike other teams in the bottom tier of the Big Ten, the Wildcats are the only ones not to change coaches recently. Coach Joe McKeown starts season 11 with the team, which has included six winning seasons and one NCAA Tournament appearance. He is one game over .500 in his career in Evanston, but 34 games under .500 in the league, with a 42-76 record. Last year was his first losing season in five years, and he’s counting on Kunaiyi-Akpanah and a team that retains most of its major contributors to bring them back to their winning ways.

Player to watch: Kunaiyi-Akpanah. The forward averaged 11.3 points and 11.9 rebounds, joining Gustafson as the only players in the conference to average double-doubles. She dominates the defensive glass, with eight of her 11.9 boards coming from defensive rebounds. If she can improve her rebounding on the offensive glass, she could become the top rebounder in the conference.

Half full: Northwestern may have one of the best inside-outside games in the conference with Kunaiyi-Akpanah and Puliliam. They bring in a good recruiting class, headline by ESPN Top 100 recruit Sydney Wood, who should help Pulliam at guard. McKeown showed he can be successful at his previous job at George Washington, making the NCAA Tournament 15 of his 19 years.

Half empty: While recent history doesn’t include many losing seasons, it certainly doesn’t contain postseason success either. Kunaiyi-Akpanah is the only player on the team with any postseason experience, from her freshman year when the team lost in the first round of the WNIT. The team didn’t seem to have enough talent last year and didn’t bring in that much this year.

Projection: The Wildcats have a top player down low, but lack the talent and depth to compete in the Big Ten. They may get some more wins in the Big Ten, but will still be a bottom seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

  1. Wisconsin (last year 9-21, 2-14)

The Badgers best win last season was over 17-14 Southern, which doubled as their only victory against a team that finished with a winning record. They didn’t lose to anyone worse than them, although that is easier when a team wins nine games. They return the majority of their roster, losing only Cayla McMorris. But unfortunately for Wisconsin, McMorris was their best player, leading the team with 13.7 points per game and ending third on the team in rebounds. She was one of two Badgers players to receive postseason accolades.

Senior Marsha Howard was the other player, averaging 12.4 points and 6.9 rebounds. She will be counted on to lead a Wisconsin program that has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2010. Help will come from the No. 34 recruiting class in the nation. And while there are no obvious stars in the class, it brings five three-star recruits, which should immediately add depth to the roster.

Player to watch: Howard. The forward scored in double-digits for 20 games, including six games with 20-or-more points. She led the team in rebounding, and could do the same with points this season.

Half full: Head coach Jonathan Tsipis, entering his third year, has a track record few can match. He spent 10 years as an assistant at Notre Dame, learning under one the best coaches and programs in the nation. He then spent four years at George Washington, going to two NCAA Tournaments and compiling a record of 92-38. Perhaps most importantly to Badger fans, it was in year three his team put it together, going 29-4 while he won the A-10 Coach of the Year. Tsipis’ coaching plus a roster that only lost one player should give Badgers fans optimism.

Half empty: While Wisconsin only lost one player, it was their best player. Harris did a lot for the team, which are going to need players to step up this season in ways that they haven’t shown before. Their average defeat in conference play in 2017-2018 was by 15.07 points, meaning that they weren’t close.

Projection: Tsipis is a good coach, and will help the Badgers improve. Unfortunately, they still have a long way to go, and will end up in the bottom tier of the Big Ten one more time.

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