Preseason polls are out, and four Big Ten teams made the Associated Press Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll - just not the same four teams. Both lists have a Big Ten squad at number six, but not the same Big Ten team. Before position six, they agreed on the top five overall: Connecticut, South Carolina, Notre Dame, Tennessee, and Baylor, in that order.
In the past, neither the Associated Press nor the coaches have a particularly good track record with preseason polls, mostly because it's so difficult to predict how freshman will perform. Last year, for example, not even the most optimistic Ohio State fans would have predicted that Kelsey Mitchell would lead all college players, male and female, in scoring. This year, Maryland and Nebraska are both bringing in freshman regarded as some of the best high school players in the country. Whether they become superstars or become busts is unknowable; everybody's guessing.
Here's how the Big Ten came out:
Maryland's undefeated romp through the Big Ten last year and subsequent trip to the Final Four seems to be fresh in the minds of the coaches. Brenda Frese is one of the best coaches in the game, and this is a vote of confidence in her, her staff, and her system.
The media (myself included) have been hung up on the offseason losses of Laurin Mincy and Lexie Brown, two of the Terrapins three best players, which might be why you see such a deep, talented team near the bottom of the AP Top 10. Regardless, Maryland is too good to slide too far down the list.
As Bill Simmons famously said, basketball is not a sport where four quarters equals a dollar. A group of solid starters is not as good as Lebron James or Steph Curry, and Kelsey Mitchell might be Steph Curry. She poses a real, credible threat to the Connecticut Huskies dynasty.
She hasn't won anything, of course, although all of Ohio State's losses in big games last year were close: To Maryland by three points in the final of the Big Ten Tournament, and to the North Carolina Tarheels by two points in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Mitchell hit several key shots in the last minute to tie the score, but her defensive lapse on the final possession of the game allowed the game-winning basket.
As I said in my Ohio State preview, the Buckeyes don't have to be much better than last year for the results to be much improved.
Northwestern is returning four starters from last season, and will be giving most of their minutes to upperclassmen. They're the kind of team that doesn't excel at anything, but is above average at everything. Last year they were fourth in the conference in FG%, fourth in 3-point shooting, third in assists, third in blocks and second in steals.
The Wildcats don't have the athleticism to overcome the truly elite teams, but they won't go quietly and will never beat themselves.
I'm on record as loving Lisa Bluder, but the Hawkeyes just graduated possibly the best trio of starters in the conference, including WNBA first round draft pick Samantha Logic.
The Big Ten Conference is stacked this year. Even if Iowa only takes a small step back, that might be enough to push them towards the middle of the pack. For that reason, I'm a little lower on the Hawkeyes than the Coaches poll.
Aeriel Powers' sophomore year was absolutely ridiculous, and it would've gotten more media attention if Kelsey Mitchell hadn't had a season for the ages. She's a do-it-all wing who averaged 22 points and 12 rebounds.
But the Spartans lost more than half their Big Ten games last year, going a disappointing 7 - 11 in conference play. The Associated Press expects improvement; the coaches, not so much.
More importantly: is Aeriel Powers the best name in Big Ten?
These are the two Big Ten teams most likely to make these lists look silly by the end of the season. Rutgers ought to have five seniors playing heavy minutes, and C. Vivien Stringer is an all-time great coach. Rutgers has the advantage of experience.
Nebraska has All-American guard Rachel Theriot, along with possibly the best high school recruit in the country, Jessica Shepard. If Shepard can reach her potential and become a low-post monster, then the Cornhuskers could boast a one-two punch good enough to hang with the Buckeyes and Terps.
That doesn't begin to include Penn State and Purdue, both of which have good coaches and promising freshman classes. Several mediocre teams seem poised to make a leap, and the Big Ten looks to be light on punching bags and heavy on punchers. This season is going to be fun.