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Big Ten season preview: more parity

Ali Patberg. Photo courtesy of the Big Ten Conference.
Ali Patberg. Photo courtesy of the Big Ten Conference.

Coming into the 2020-21 season, many things are different for the Big Ten. Besides the possibility that the coronavirus pandemic may cause the shutdown of all collegiate athletics at any point, for the first time since it joined the conference in 2014, the University of Maryland is not the expected leader of the league. Instead, both the coaches and media preseason polls predicted that Indiana University would clinch the conference title. 

The league has fallen short of expectations for many years, with most Big Ten teams making NCAA Tournament exits by the second round. But though the conference won’t likely produce an NCAA champion this season, the league has become much more equitable, and the conference title is open for the taking. 

“We feel like we are deeper and stronger as a conference than we have ever been before,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said.

Since entering the Big Ten, Maryland reset the bar for the league, going to the Final Four that season. But beginning last year in particular, the competition appears to be gaining ground.

The 2019-20 season saw Northwestern University and the Terrapins share the Big Ten crown, and both teams, plus the Hoosiers, were poised to have great NCAA Tournament showings.

With just four days to go before the scheduled Nov. 25 season tip, the conference has yet to release their abridged conference schedule. But as teams prepare to tackle preconference play, the preseason rankings look different in 2020.

Indiana University

The favorite Hoosiers, who finished fourth last season, have four double-digit returners, led by all-conference honorees Ali Patberg and Grace Berger. Last season they advanced to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals for the first time in 14 years, and were set to host Tournament rounds 1 and 2 before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the event down.

Despite not adding a top 100 recruit this year, coach Teri Moren expects much of the team’s success will stem from Patberg.

“The deeper dive begins with Ali Patberg,” she said. “I’ve been asked about Ali’s leadership, not only off the floor but on the floor, and what is going to be important for us this season is for Ali Patberg to be selfish and for Ali Patberg to be incredibly aggressive offensively.”

“[Patberg has] never taken the backseat, but she’s always taken the side of trying to include everybody and facilitate. For us to have the success we want, Ali has to be an alpha. 

Ashley Owusu. Photo courtesy of the Big Ten Conference.

University of Maryland

With an impressive 28-4 record last year, the Terps are entering this season unlike any other: ranked second in the Big Ten. Despite losing three of their six best scorers and 58.2 percent of their scoring in Kaila Charles, Blair Watson, and Stephanie Jones, there is opportunity for the team this year. Rising stars Ashley Owusu, the Jim and Kitty Delany Most Outstanding Player of the 2020 Big Ten Tournament, and Mississippi State transfer Chloe Bibby are poised to lead. Freshman Angel Reese looks primed to fill a hole on the court coming into the season, and her coaches have been impressed with her instant leadership and adaptability.

Coach Brenda Frese claimed that Reese is an all-around player ready to take on the task of conference play.

“[Reese has] got the confidence. She will call out exactly what I’m thinking before I say it so I don’t have to say it,” Frese said. “I’ve never had that take place for a freshman coming in, just an incredible blessing to have a player so confident. She wants to win and she’s not afraid to show her competitiveness.”

Naz Hillmon. Photo courtesy of the Big Ten Conference.

University of Michigan

One of the largest improvements within the Big Ten is expected to be seen in Michigan, which is returning four starters and nine letter-winners, including Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Naz Hillmon. Last season she sat in the top five in the conference for scoring at 17.6 PPG, field goal percentage (.567), and rebounding at 8.7 (RPG). In addition, she played in 28 games where she scored in the double figures. 

“One of the most important things with any program is experience, and having Naz back is tremendous,” Barnes Arico said. “We’ve got a solid core group and some young players as well. It’s been a good mix so far.”

After a second consecutive bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines will replace Kayla Robbins with first-year Cameron Williams, and maintain the trio of Hillmon, Amy Dilk, and Hailey Brown for consistent shooting and depth across the board. 

Veronica Burton. Photo courtesy of the Big Ten Conference.

Northwestern University

Last season the Wildcats were unstoppable, and claimed a share of the conference title for the first time in 30 years. While they return Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Lindsey Pulliam, who scored a career-high 18.8 PPG last season, Northwestern lost front court anchors Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf. Utilizing Wolf’s dominance at the point and Scheid’s accuracy from beyond the arc, the ‘Cats were able to play an inside-out offense unparalleled in the league. 

Coach Joe McKeown said losing that duo will allow other players to step into leadership roles on and off the court.

“What happens when you have seniors that have the kind of years that they have, you don’t really replace them, you move on. But it creates opportunities too. I think with Courtney Shaw…I think we’ll see a lot more of her,” he said. 

Shaw looks primed for the starting center role and has proven to be a strong force from both ends. Most likely Jordan Hamilton will be prominent in the lineup to fill Scheid’s shooting role. While this team may not be as competitive as the previous season’s, Northwestern will remain a real contender coming into this season. 

The Ohio State University

Ohio State enters the season with most of its scorers returning. Last year the Buckeyes surged late, and rode the wave to the Big Ten title game, where they fell to the Terps. Lead by Dorka Juhasz, they are perhaps coming in as the most consistent team in the league. Juhasz is not only a dominant force in the paint but also beyond the arc, making her a player to watch this season. 

“[Juhasz] came here as someone effective around the basket with some perimeter skills,” coach Kevin McGuff said. “She’s worked significantly harder on her perimeter skills the last couple of years and she’s more of a complete player now and because of that, she’s got a lot of confidence in her game which is helping her become the leader we need her to be.”

Monika Czinano. Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com.

University of Iowa

The Hawkeyes performed far beyond expectations last year, and were in the running for the conference title until the final week of the season, then ended in third place. They lost half of their scoring power to graduation, but Monika Czinano returns. Iowa brings in top-notch recruits, including Miss Iowa Basketball Caitlin Clark, who ESPN ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the country. 

Coach Lisa Bluder is unsure whether the team will have the early-season footing of last year’s squad, but she is confident the Hawkeyes would be able to remain competitive.

“We’re very talented young, but we don’t have the experience that we need yet. We’ll get there, but we might have some growing pains,” she said.

Arella Guirantes. Photo courtesy of the Big Ten Conference.

Rutgers University

The Scarlet Knights return both leading scorers Tekia Mack and Arella Guirantes, who was awarded preseason player of the year accolades in the coaches’ balloting. Guirantes was ninth in the nation in PPG last season, at 20.6. She made the decision to come back as a fifth-year senior. 

“She does feel like she has some unfinished business, and she’s coming back with that mindset,” coach C. Vivian Stringer said. 

Rutgers has an incredible recruiting class with three top 100 players. No. 6 recruit Diamond Johnson is expected to perform well, but all of the recruits must develop quickly for the team to be competitive within the conference. 

 Michigan State University

The Spartans return three starters, but lack the depth to truly be league-competitive this season. Junior guard Nia Clouden, who was named to both the coaches and media preseason All-Big Ten team, leads the way. She picked up additional leadership responsibilities last year after a few of her teammates were injured, and her scoring increased from 12 to 14.5 PPG. She also doubled her steals statistics.

“[Clouden’s] just a tremendous point guard. Somebody that really creates for other people at the same time, has sort of learned to be a different kind of scorer for us too and a little bit more of a presence on the court every possession,” coach Suzy Merchant said.

“So, she is certainly someone we are going to look at this season to build our team around and has done a really great job in the offseason committing to her game to get better.” 

University of Nebraska

Last season the Huskers struggled in conference play and finished tenth, with a 7-11 record. Though they had a consistent offense, they failed to compete with more elite teams across the league. Big Ten All-Defensive team member Kate Cain will be integral for Nebraska, as she was first in the conference for blocks last season, smashing the school season record with 101. 

 “[Cain’s] been working to add a few things and elements to her game but I don’t know if she needs to be a true point center…she knows that the real next step for her is being able to expand and be comfortable on the perimeter,” coach Amy Williams said. 

Purdue University

After losing both an elite defender and a dynamic scorer in Dominique Oden and Ae’Rianna Harris, they will look to newcomers to fill those shoes. Jayla Smith has already proven herself to be talented scorer both in the paint and beyond the arc, which is exactly what the Boilermakers need this season. 

“We have more athleticism, more length than we’ve ever had here. So we’re just looking forward to having the chance to play against somebody else and hope to have a season.” coach Sharon Versyp said. 

University of Minnesota

After top scorer Destiny Pitts was suspended last season for “unspecified conduct unbecoming of a member of the team,” she transferred to Texas A&M. Without her, Minnesota has a major hole to fill in its scoring that backcourt returners Sara Scalia, Gadiya Hubbard, and Jasmine Powell will have to handle. All three were impressive last season and will be efficient offensively; however, frontcourt dominance remains in question. The Gophers brought in new recruits and transfers for this goal, gearing up for a rebuild. But it is yet to be seen if they can truly compete this year. 

Despite her uncertainty that the season will be able to be played in full, coach Lindsay Whalen remains optimistic.

“March is going to happen one way or another,” she said. “I hope we’re playing and that everything goes smoothly.”

University of Illinois

The Illini failed to make much traction last season and could only clinch two wins in conference play. This year they added a strong recruiting class and have maintained their core of Kennedi Myles and Jada Peebles. But even with a top 60 recruit, an impressive transfer and only two key player losses, it’s doubtful that Illinois will perform any better this year.

Coach Nancy Fahey, however, thinks that Arizona State transfer Eva Rubin might be the change the team needs.

“When you add 6-5 to your program, someone who came from an extremely winning program, it just changes the dynamic of what you can scheme with—what you can do,” she said. 

University of Wisconsin

The Badgers have continued to struggle, as they have for the last several seasons, and things may not change much this year. Their lackluster 3-15 record from 2019-2020 tied them for 12th in conference and was their best finish during coach Jonathan Tsipis’ term at the helm. Wisconsin has failed to make the NCAA tournament for more a decade, and even with its top 100 recruit, there is no sign that 2020-2021 will be different. 

Tsipis acknowledged that he needed to make some shifts due to the loss of seven players last season, but he has hope for his five recruits.

“Obviously we’re going to look a lot different,” he said. “When you graduate five seniors and have two others that decide to go in a different direction, you go back and see how your group is going to be best.”  

Pennsylvania State University

Penn State’s offense was completely dependent on breakout star Kamaria McDaniel last season, who transferred to Baylor University after the conclusion of the season. But even with McDaniel’s nearly 20 points-per-game average, the Lady Lions lacked depth and only managed to win a lone game in Big Ten play. 

Second-year coach Carolyn Kieger rebuilt the program at Marquette, and she aims to to the same at Penn State.

“Going through it once before is giving myself and my staff confidence, but doing it in a worldwide pandemic with 13 new players, absolutely a new feat we’re going through,” she said. “A lot of my credit goes to my players and the amount of time they spent building out chemistry right now.”

To fill McDaniel’s void, Kieger must utilize a group of guards rather than a single player. The players most likely to take on that role is returner Makenna Marisa and transfers Niya Beverly from Wisconsin and Kelly Jekot from Villanova. However, whether that will be enough to match such a high-efficiency performance by McDaniel is doubtful.