After a stellar year, who will win the Big Ten Tournament?

Maryland claimed the Big Ten regular-season title last weekend. Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.
Maryland claimed the Big Ten regular-season title last weekend. Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

With the Big Ten regular season in the books, we figured we would look back on how we got here.

Megan Gustafson beat out Kaila Charles and Kenisha Bell for Big Ten Player of the Year, and should compete for National Player of the Year.

Brenda Frese was named Big Ten Coach of the Year, and a slew of other players stepped their game up to produce one of the most exciting years in conference history. Nine of the 14 teams finished .500 in the conference or better – the second time that’s happened in 18 years – which is proof that the conference is one of the most competitive in the nation.

  1. Maryland (26-3, 15-3)
Kaila Charles lead Maryland to the Big Ten regular-season title. Photo courtesy of Big Ten.
Kaila Charles lead Maryland to the Big Ten regular-season title. Photo courtesy of Big Ten.

The Terrapins entered the season expected to win the Big Ten, be a top 10 team, see Kaila Charles perform at a high level……and probably be a tier below the top teams. For better or for worse, that is exactly where Maryland ended up. They won the regular-season conference title, have been in the top 10 for almost the entire season, and Charles has been one of the best players in the nation. Freshman Shakira Austin, a top five recruit, has been excellent, averaging 8.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. She won Big Ten Freshman of the Week award five times and was named to the conference All-Defensive squad. Few teams in the country have a better record than the Terrapins, but their 2-2 record against ranked teams gives pause. A .500 record against top teams isn’t bad by any means, but those competing for top seeds in the NCAA Tournament, like Baylor, Oregon, UConn, Notre Dame, have at least four wins, and as many eight.

Biggest surprise: Taylor Mikesell. The freshman was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year by the coaches, after leading Maryland in minutes and shooting lights out from three-point range. She became the third freshman in the last ten years to lead Maryland in minutes.

Biggest question mark remaining: Can the Terrapins compete against top talent? The Big Ten is a very tough conference, but more because of the quality of the middle of the pack. Playing only four top 25 teams isn’t necessarily Maryland’s fault, but its lack of experience against top teams could be problematic in the Tournament.

NCAA Tournament: The Terrapins are in play for a 2 or 3 seed in the tournament, and a run to the Elite Eight is well within their possibilities, but anything more than that would be a surprise.

  1. Iowa (23-6, 14-4)
Megan Gustafson's scoring outbursts have paced the Iowa Hawkeyes this season. Photo courtesy of Big Ten.
Megan Gustafson’s scoring outbursts have paced the Iowa Hawkeyes this season. Photo courtesy of Big Ten.

Big Ten coaches and media picked the Hawkeyes to finish second in the conference at the beginning of the year, and Iowa proved their predictions accurate. They challenged Maryland for the top spot for a good portion of the year, but their losses to three unranked teams in the conference took them out of contention. Star forward Megan Gustafson has been as dominant as expected, averaging an insane 27.7 points and 13.3 rebounds each outing. She repeated as Big Ten Player of the Year by both the coaches and media, becoming the ninth player in conference history to win the award twice.

Biggest surprise: Support from Hawkeyes not named Gustafson. Three rank in the top ten in the conference in assists, while no other team has more than one. Part of that is definitely the ability to dump the ball into Gustafson down low, but Iowa has four players averaging more than 10 points, and leads the conference in points per game. Kathleen Doyle has been great throughout the season, and was named First Team All-Big Ten by the coaches after leading the conference in assists per game.

The Iowa Hawkeyes before their game against the Purdue Boilermakers in January at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Photo by Brian Ray/
The Iowa Hawkeyes before their game against the Purdue Boilermakers in January at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Photo by Brian Ray/

Biggest question mark remaining: Can the Hawkeyes give Gustafson enough support to go on a run? They have done a good job answering the question this season, but it still persists for a reason. Gustafson will probably be the best player on any court she steps on, but can Iowa win games when the opposing team’s entire starting five is better than their third, and maybe second, best player? If they play the top teams, that’s a very real scenario.

NCAA Tournament: The Hawkeyes are in line for a three or four seed, although if they win the Big Ten Tournament they could take potentially move up to a two seed. No team in the NCAA Tournament wants to draw Iowa, as their 5-2 record against top 25 teams show they can compete with anyone.

  1. Rutgers (21-8, 13-5)

C. Vivian Stringer, why do we doubt you? The Rutgers coach and coaching legend notched her 1000th win this season, and has led the Scarlet Knights higher than anticipated this year, with an NCAA Tournament appearance seeming like a lock. Last year ended with crashing and burning for the team, as they lost nine of their final 12 games and missed the NCAA Tournament after beginning the year 16-2. Eight games into this season, it seemed nothing had changed, as Rutgers was just 5-3, with losses to then-unranked Drake, Gonzaga and Virginia Tech. The Scarlet Knights then went on a run, winning 10 in a row. Their calling card is their defense, which leads the conference in points allowed (57.2 points per game) and steals per game (10.3). They are led by Stasha Carey’s 11.9 points per game, but they receive contributions up and down the roster, as 12 of 13 players on the team average at least five minutes a game.

Biggest surprise: How successful the team has been without a star player. Rutgers is one of four teams in the Big Ten to not have a top 20 scorer in the conference. None of the other three teams – Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska – will make the NCAA Tournament.

Biggest question mark remaining: Can their defense do enough to offset their low-scoring offense? Rutgers’ stingy defense is what has made them so successful, but it also puts a lot of pressure on them. They are second to last in the conference in points, and are only 8-6 when opponents score 60 points.

Also, will the recent dismissal of two players and Stringer’s ensuing brief sabbatical effect the team?

NCAA Tournament: The Scarlet Knights are a lock for the tournament, looking at an 8 or 9 seed unless they go on a run in the Big Ten Tournament.

  1. Michigan (20-10, 11-7)

Expectations were high for the Wolverines entering the season, as Big Ten coaches predicted they would finish third in the conference. They had to replace Katelynn Flaherty, the all-time leading point scorer in Michigan history for men or women, who averaged almost 23 points last season. Hallie Thome was seen as the heir apparent to lead the Maize and Blue, coming off the 17.4 points and 7 rebounds she averaged last season. Slowed down in part to injuries, she has had a down year for her standards, averaging 12.3 points and 6 rebounds. Fortunately for Michigan, freshman Naz Hillmon has become their star, and was named the media’s Freshman of the Year and the coaches’ Sixth Player of the Year. The Wolverines are one of the best teams in the conference in rebounding, and has few glaring weaknesses. They are average to above average in almost every major statistic.

Biggest surprise: Naz Hillmon. ESPN’s number 57 recruit has been excellent, leading the team in both points and rebounds. She has seven double-doubles this season and is second in the conference in field goal percentage, and has helped Michigan stay in the top four of the Big Ten and secure a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament.

Biggest question mark remaining: Can they win away from home? The Wolverines had one of the most extreme home/away splits in the Big Ten, winning 13 of 14 at the Crisler Center, but going 5-8 away. Defending home court is always a priority, and they accomplished that. Yet their struggles away are a cause for concern.

NCAA Tournament: Michigan appears to be comfortably in the NCAA Tournament. Unless they knock off Maryland or Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament or win the championship, they will likely be an 8 or 9 seed.

  1. Ohio State (14-13, 10-8)

It’s been four years since the Buckeyes finished outside the top three in the Big Ten, tied for the longest active streak in the conference. And while that streak will end this year, it’s tough to say the season was a disappointment, as Ohio State lost 93.3 percent of their scoring from last year. They navigated an 0-3 start in the conference by responding with consecutive victories over top 25 teams, ending the season with a winning record in the Big Ten – no small task. Unfortunately, their out-of-conference performance will likely keep them out of the Tournament, as they went 4-5 in a time when most teams are padding their win total. They are one of the three squads in the conference with a negative scoring margin, and the only one with a winning record. The Buckeyes’ eight wins by fewer than 10 points, the second most in the conference, have masked some of their issues.

Biggest surprise: Their 3-5 record against AP top 25 teams. For a team that is last in the Big Ten in scoring and turnovers, in the middle of the pack in defense and has no clear star, it’s difficult to point to how Ohio State was able to be effective against top competition. Yet they defeated No. 25 Indiana, No. 17 Michigan State and won at No. 23 Rutgers. Their three wins against the top 25 are tied for third in the conference.

Biggest question mark remaining: Which are the real Buckeyes: the first or second half season team? They ended the year going 7-3, which brought them to the fifth seed in the conference. If they had played like that throughout the year, they would be in the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Tournament: Two wins over top 25 teams in the Big Ten Tournament would give them an outside chance to advance to the Dance, as a team with five wins over top competition and a winning record in a major conference would be difficult to keep out.

  1. Minnesota (20-9, 9-9)

When Lindsey Whalen took over the Gophers program this season, expectations were high. The team set multiple single-season program records the previous season, including points scored and points per game. Then they brought in one of the greatest players ever in Whalen – a homegrown superstar that led Minnesota to the Final Four when she was in school. Yet the team took a step back this year, squandering an 12-0 start by dropping seven of their first nine conference games. Kenisha Bell, named First Team All-Big Ten, Destiny Pitts and Taiye Bello have all been phenomenal, with Bell finishing third in the conference in points, Pitts finishing sixth and Bello finishing second in rebounds. Yet the Gophers lacked help off the bench, as their starting five accounted for 87.6 percent of their points, the most in the conference. While their starters were strong, there simply wasn’t enough depth to be successful in a conference as strong as the Big Ten. In a year that began with so much hope, there is no doubt this season has been disappointing. Ending the season winning seven of their last nine helps, but more was expected than the season produced.

Biggest surprise: Minnesota’s struggles at home. Four home losses in the Big Ten isn’t terrible, but the Williams Arena is known as one of the best atmospheres in women’s basketball. A program record 14,625 fans came out to the first game of the Gophers’ season, yet the team hasn’t been great at home. A loss to Iowa at Williams is completely reasonable, but dropping home games to Illinois and Purdue is more difficult to understand.

Biggest question mark remaining: What will Whalen do to increase bench production? At this point in the season a team knows what it has, so it’s not reasonable to expect a player on the bench to play like a star. But for Minnesota to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament, Whalen needs to figure out a way to win with more than her starters.

NCAA Tournament: With only a 2-2 record against Top 25 opponents, the Gophers lack the top tier wins other bubble teams in the Big Ten have. To make the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota, needs to win the Big Ten Tournament.

  1. Northwestern (16-13, 9-9)

The Wildcats finished 12th in the conference last season, and there weren’t many reasons to expect a big jump coming into this year. The scouting report on Northwestern said that Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah was a great rebounder and Lindsey Pulliam was a decent scorer, but the supporting cast was a question mark. The report on Kunaiyi-Akpanah was correct, but it’s been clear throughout the year that Pulliam was underrated, as she finished fourth in the conference with 16.7 points, and was named First Team All-Big Ten. Kunaiyi-Akpanah was excellent on the boards again, finishing third in the conference in rebounds. The supporting cast proved it can play, and Abi Scheid became a solid third option, averaging 10.9 points, third on the team, and 4.8 rebounds, second on the team.

Biggest surprise: Jordan Hamilton. The sophomore guard averaged less than 8 points a game last season, and her average this season, 9.5, doesn’t look that different. Yet Hamilton has gone off for 16 or more six times, helping to relieve pressure from Pulliam. If she can string together those performances more consistently, the Wildcats may have another star on their hands.

Biggest question mark remaining: Can Northwestern win if Pulliam has an off night? The Wildcats went 5-9 in games where she scored fewer than her season average of 16 points.

NCAA Tournament: Entering conference play at 7-4, including two losses to teams who finished under .500, hurt their postseason chances greatly. Similar to Ohio State, the Wildcats need at least two wins over top 25 teams in the Big Ten Tournament to have an outside chance to make the NCAA Tournament, as a team with five wins over top competition and a strong record in a major conference would be difficult to keep out.

  1. Nebraska (14-15, 9-9)

Last year’s Nebraska team was the surprise of the Big Ten. They improved from an eight-win season to go 21-11 and make the NCAA Tournament, and head coach Amy Williams won Big Ten Coach of the Year. Improvement was expected this year, as they returned their top five scorers and brought in a top-20 recruiting class. Yet the Cornhuskers stumbled out of the gate with a 2-5 record, and have since struggled to right the ship. They’ve stuttered on defense, allowing the third most points in the conference. Yet maybe their biggest issue is their inability to defend their home court; they’ve gone 8-6 in Lincoln, which is the third0-worst home record in the league. Last year Nebraska were road warriors, going 9-2. Their inability to recreate that success, coupled with struggles at home, have led to the disappointing season. Yet, there have been bright spots on the year. Freshman Sam Haiby is second on the team in scoring with 10 points, and is one of the best bench players in the conference. The Huskers are incredibly deep, with seven players on the team averaging between seven points ,and Hannah Whitish’s team-high 10.1 points.

Biggest surprise: Whitish. The Huskers’ best player and lone member of the preseason All-Big Ten team, Whitish took a step back this year, dropping from 12.6 points and 4.7 assists per game to 10.3 points and 4.3 assists. A lot was expected from the junior, and while she still had a decent season, it wasn’t the breakout she appeared set for.

Biggest question mark remaining: Should Sam Haiby be starting? While there is no doubt she provides a spark off the bench, there are questions whether the team’s second-best player should be out of the starting lineup. She averages the fifth-most minutes on the team, which seems low for a player second on the team in points and assists.

NCAA Tournament: Nebraska needs to win the Big Ten Tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament.

  1. Michigan State (19-10, 9-9)

Michigan State delivered one of the first shocks of the season, knocking off No. 3 Oregon at home in just their ninth game. There were expectations to get back to the NCAA Tournament after a rare down year, but few saw the Spartans becoming giant-killers, knocking off three other top 25 teams, including No. 9 Maryland in January by 16. They are 29th in the nation in scoring, with four starters averaging more than 10 points. Redshirt junior Shay Colley leads the group with 14.7 points, tenth in the Big Ten. Michigan State has been excellent at home, going 15-1, which helped them rise all the way to 15 in the rankings in early January. Losses to sub .500 teams like Nebraska and Wisconsin put a damper on a great season, but there is no doubting the Spartans are one of the conferences most unexpected successes.

Biggest surprise: How good the Spartans have been against top competition. Michigan State hasn’t beaten four top 25 teams since the 2011-2012 season. The victory against Oregon is particularly impressive, as the Ducks only have three losses on the season, and are one of the top teams in the nation.

Biggest question mark remaining: Can the Spartans win away from home? The flip side to recording 15 of their 19 wins at home is that they have been dreadful on the road, going just 3-7. (They have one win on a neutral court.) Michigan State needs to perform away from home to make any noise in March.

NCAA Tournament: The four wins against top competition, specifically the two Top 10 wins, put the Spartans comfortably in the Tournament. They are looking at a 7-10 seed, depending on their performance in the Big Ten Tournament.

  1. Indiana (19-11, 8-10)

This team ended last season in style, winning 15 of their final 17, including the WNIT Championship. They lost their two stars, Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill, and seemed to lack the players to step up in their absence. Yet the team knew differently, as juniors Ali Patberg and Brenna Wise – two transfers who had to sit out last year – became their go-to players. Patberg is averaging 15.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game, while Wise is averaging 12.1 points and 7.0 rebounds. The Hoosiers picked up right where they left off last season, starting off 15-2. Yet the team struggled since then, losing nine of their final 13 games. The offense in particular has fallen flat, with the Hoosiers scoring below their season average in all but one of those losses. The first half of the season was a pleasant surprise, making the second half that much more disappointing.

Biggest surprise: How well Patberg and Wise have stepped in for Buss and Cahill. Forced to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, no one really knew how they would perform this year. They’ve been excellent, and put Indiana in great shape for next year as well.

Biggest question mark remaining: Can Patberg regain her form? She’s a top player in the conference when she’s on, but the Patberg has struggled during the second half of the season, with her scoring dropping from 18 points a game after the win at Michigan State to 12.4 since then. She missed three games to injury, but the Hoosiers need to see her back to form.

NCAA Tournament: While a sub-.500 conference record is certainly damning, Indiana’s start to the season gave them enough leeway to withstand it. Their victory over then-No. 10 Iowa at the end of February should help them sneak off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament. If they can get to the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, they should be looking at a 9 or 10 seed. If not, they will sweat out Selection Sunday.

  1. Purdue (17-14, 8-10)

The Boilermakers returned all but one player from last year’s squad, which went 4-1 against top 25 opponents but still missed the NCAA Tournament. This year brought high expectations, which Purdue hasn’t been able to meet. They leaned heavily on their starting five, with their starters recording the highest percentage of a team’s rebounds (77.3 percent) and assists (84.8 percent) in the Big Ten, and the second-highest percent of points (86.5 percent). Karissa McLaughlin, Dominique Oden and Ae’Rianna Harris led the conference in minutes played, with McLaughlin and Oden finishing first and fourth in the nation. Kayana Traylor has been excellent in her freshman year, and Tamara Farquhar helps grab boards down low. But the simple truth is that outside the starting five, the Boilermakers struggle a lot, which has led, in part, to their season not reaching projections.

Biggest surprise: The amount of losses to sub .500 teams. Purdue lost to Wisconsin, Penn State and twice to Nebraska – teams they should have beaten.

Biggest question mark remaining: Will the amount of minutes the starters have played catch up to them? It’s not uncommon to see players break down at the end of the season, as exhaustion sets in.

NCAA Tournament: Purdue’s three wins over top 25 opponents show they can play with anyone, yet those sub-.500 losses severely hamper their ability to reach the NCAA Tournament. If they can beat two more ranked opponents in the Big Ten Tournament, they would have a chance to make the Big Dance.

  1. Penn State (12-17, 5-13)

After three straight Big Ten Championships from 2012-2014, it appeared Penn State was on the verge of solidifying themselves as the premier program in the Big Ten. Yet since then, they have yet to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Expectations were raised this season, as the Nittany Lions returned every player from last year’s squad, including Teniya Page. She has been fantastic, finishing second in the Big Ten in scoring with 19.4 points per game. Yet Penn State has struggled this season, and a quick look at the statistics helps reveal why: they are last in the conference in scoring margin and rebounding margin, along with field goal percentage, and tied for last in points in allowed. They dropped all five of their games against ranked opponents, and finished .500 at home. The NCAA Tournament was the goal for this year, and the Nittany Lions are going to fall well short.

Biggest surprise: The lack of improvement from last year. Returning a full team is rare, and high expectations follow. Yet Penn State has been worse this year, despite having one of the best players in the conference.

Biggest question mark remaining: Can Page carry the team through the Big Ten Tournament? Improving their rebounding and shooting percentage might be a more effective way to win, but the numbers are low for a reason, and won’t be fixed now. Page could catch fire and drop 30 throughout the tournament, and grab the Nittany Lions some wins.

NCAA Tournament: Penn State needs to win the Big Ten Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament.

  1. Wisconsin (13-17, 4-14)

The Badgers struggled throughout the year but are still positive, as they improved by four games, including winning two more conference games. Both their offense and defense improved, as they scored more and allowed fewer points than last year. Despite the improvements, their offense still struggled greatly, finishing last in free throw and three-point percentage, and second to last in field goal percentage. There was concern over their ability to replace Cayla McMorris, the team leader in points who graduated last year. Yet sophomore Marsha Howard became a star, finishing 11th in the conference in points and sixth in rebounds. Wisconsin did a good job protecting home court, with 10 of their 13 wins coming at home. They have improved every year under head coach Jonathan Tsipis, who has brought in strong recruiting classes in his three years at the helm.

Biggest surprise: Howard. While she was expected to step up in McMorris’ absence, she quickly showed herself to be one of the best players in the conference, averaging 14.5 points and 8.8 rebounds. She was named Second Team All-Big Ten by the media, and should start on the shortlist for next year’s conference player of the year.

Biggest question mark remaining: How will team respond to this season? Wisconsin improved, and ended with 13 wins. Another four-game improvement, with two more wins in the Big Ten, could put them close to the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Tournament: The Badgers need to win the NCAA Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament.

  1. Illinois (10-19, 2-16)

While Illinois’ season had a lot of losses, it stands as an improvement, as they won the most games since the 2014-2015 season. A year after losing every conference game, they won two games in the Big Ten, including upsetting then-No. 12 Minnesota in Minneapolis. They began the season well, starting 8-2, before the bottom dropped out. Their defense was an issue all year, as they tied for last in the conference in points allowed. The Illini lost 17 of their final 19 games, holding opponents to fewer than 70 points just six times. Senior Alex Wittinger was excellent throughout the season, named Second Team All-Big Ten for the second straight year after finishing in the top ten in the conference in points, rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage. She will go down as one of the greatest players in Illini history, and proof that great players can thrive even when teams have down years. Junior guard Brandi Beasley took a step forward this year, finishing second on the team in points and first in assists, and will be expected to lead the team in Wittinger’s absence next year.

Biggest surprise: The win over Minnesota. Based on the numbers, Illinois had no chance in that game, yet they fought throughout the game, battling back from a 17-point third quarter deficit to win. Second year head coach Nancy Fahey won five NCAA Division III championships before coming to Illinois, and can use that win as proof that her team is improving.

Biggest question mark remaining: Do the Illini have the talent to consistently compete in the Big Ten? Wittinger is a top player in the conference, but many of her teammates will need to step up next year for Illinois to improve.

NCAA Tournament: Illinois needs to win the Big Ten Championship to make the NCAA Tournament.