The Big Ten’s acquisition of its 13th and 14th teams had the same effect on women’s basketball as a magical beanstalk, connecting the conference to towering giants named Rutgers and Maryland. Among alumni of the other universities, there has been a fair bit of grousing about competitive balance. Those fears turned out to be (somewhat) unfounded. Both Rutgers and Maryland have been good, but the best player in the country last year was freshman Kelsey Mitchell of Ohio State, and this year Nebraska will be bringing in a super prospect of their own. The race to best record in the Big Ten isn’t wide open just yet, but it’s swinging in that general direction.
High school recruits are volatile commodities, and predicting the effect they’ll have on the conference is not for the faint of heart. As I myself am faint of heart, I’ll rely on the high school rankings by Dan Olson, of ESPN’s HoopGurlz. For statistics and records, I’ll be turning to the irreplaceable resources of WBBState.com. In addition to listing each team's high profile freshman, and their record from last season, I'll also be noting the Dearly Departed, those seniors and transfers who contributed big minutes last year and won't be coming back.
Without further ado, presented from 14th to 1st, here are the most powerful teams in the Big Ten.
14. Indiana Hoosiers
2014-15 Record: 15-16 (Big Ten: 4-14)
Dearly Departed: None.
Top 100 Recruits: None.
Grab some Old English and pour one out, not for anyone who left the Hoosiers this year, but for last year’s departed coach, Curt Miller, who took a bottom-dwelling Hoosiers squad and turned them into a 21-win team. Before the start of the 2014-15 campaign, Miller abruptly resigned for health and family reasons, and he’s now an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Sparks.
Several Indiana players transferred at the news, and those who stayed, like team workhorse Larryn Brooks, saw a decline in their stats across the board under new coach Teri Moren. With no high-profile recruits to look forward to, and no reason to think the coach is maximizing the talent, what’s a Hoosiers fan to do? Well, there’s always Old English...
13. Wisconsin Badgers
2014-15 Record: 9-20 (Big Ten: 5-13)
Dearly Departed: F Jacki Gulczynski, F/C Cassie Rochel,
Top 100 Recruits: None.
Check out the incredible first sentence of Wisconsin coach Bobbie Kelsey’s official UW biography: "In her four seasons at Wisconsin, Bobbie Kelsey has been building a program the right way." I’d hate to see the wrong way.
Bobbie Kelsey’s Conference Record At Wisconsin: Last Four Years:
- 2012: 5 wins, 11 losses.
- 2013: 3 wins, 13 losses.
- 2014: 3 wins, 13 losses.
- 2015: 5 wins, 13 losses.
Don’t worry, though. As the biography goes on to rationalize, "Kelsey’s Badgers have played some of the toughest schedules in the nation," and finds cause for celebration in the 2012-13 season, when the Badgers set a school record for, of all things, free-throw percentage.
Wisconsin’s Athletic Director Barry Alvarez is notoriously patient with coaches, but at this point, Bobbie Kelsey’s seat isn’t just hot, it’s positively nuclear.
12. Illinois Fighting Illini
2014-15 Record: 15-16 (Big Ten: 6-12)
Dearly Departed: G Ivory Crawford, G Brittany Carter
Top 100 Recruits: 4-Star PG Cierra Rice
Both departed guards Carter and Crawford averaged 2.6 steals per game, good for third in the Big Ten, and Ivory Crawford also led the team in points and assists. The Fighting Illini got a taste of life without Crawford last year, when she missed six games in January with a knee injury. And what was the Illini record in those games? A whopping 0-6. Most of her minutes in those contests went to freshman Amarah Coleman, who has been a willing passer, especially to the other team. Coleman averaged 2.5 turnovers per game, and only 1.9 assists.
The bench is a problem, and the incoming freshman class is underwhelming. Unless 4-Star recruit Cierra Rice turns into an All Big Ten performer, it’s hard to see the Illini improving on their six conference wins.
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers
2014-15 Record: 23-11 (Big Ten: 11-8)
Dearly Departed: C Amanda Zahui B., F Shae Kelley
Top 100 Recruits: 4-Star Wing Danielle Garven
Is Marlene Stollings a good coach? Her first year with the Golden Gophers has to be considered a success. She inherited a roster that went .500 in conference play and improved to 11-8, and they might have done even better if Rachel Banham hadn’t gotten hurt. Guard Carlie Wagner put together a solid freshman campaign, and should be a contributor for years. And of course, center Amanda Zahui B. morphed from a very good player into Galactus: Destroyer Of Worlds. This is actually where I start to question Stollings. Well, one question, really: shouldn’t a team with one of the best defensive centers in Division-I basketball have, you know, a good defense?
Opposing offenses scored .93 points per possession against Minnesota last year. Only Wisconsin, Penn State, and Iowa were worse in the Big Ten. So what’s the defense going to look like this year, without Zahui B.’s 4.1 blocks per game? Brace yourself, this could get ugly.
10. Purdue Boilermakers
2014-15 Record: 11-21 (Big Ten: 3-16)
Dearly Departed: F Liza Clemons, F Whitney Bays
Top 100 Recruits: 5-Star F Dominique McBryde, 5-Star PG Tiara Murphy
9. Penn State Nittany Lions
2014-15 Record: 6-24 (Big Ten: 3-15)
Dearly Departed: None.
Top 100 Recruits: 5-Star PG Teniya Page, 5-Star PG Amari Carter
Both Penn State and Purdue are entering year two of a rebuild, having graduated more than half their starters in 2014. Before their spectacular collapses last year, both universities were coming off strong four-year stretches of winning seasons.
The Boilermakers, with coach Sharon Versyp, were the very model of consistency, earning exactly one victory in the NCAA tournament all four years. Under coach Coquese Washington the Lady Lions were even better, twice making the Sweet Sixteen and three times ending the year as regular season Big Ten conference champions.
There’s only one real downside to having great players getting big minutes, and that’s all the potentially great players losing development time on the bench. Inexperienced starters are why Purdue and Penn State were 11th and dead last, respectively, in turnover rate last year. Good news: that particular hurdle to player development has been cleared; neither of these teams will have to worry about having too many good players this year.
The two squads were 13th and 14th in the Big Ten last season in points scored per possession, although their outlooks differ: For Purdue, Ashley Morissette is the only double digit scorer returning from last year, while Penn State is bringing back three: Lindsey Spann, Sierra Moore, and Candice Agee. For that reason, Penn State has the edge.
8. Michigan Wolverines
2014-15 Record: 21-15 (Big Ten: 9-10)
Dearly Departed: G Shannon Smith, G Nicole Elmblad, F Cyesha Goree
Top 100 Recruits: 4-Star F/C Hallie Thome, 4-Star G Nicole Munger, 4-Star G Naomi Davenport, 4-Star G Lauren Brozoski
Wow, 21 wins! That’s good, right? Michigan sure showed elite basketball programs like South Dakota State, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, and University of Detroit-Mercy who’s boss!
Everyone pads their schedule, and I promise I’m not picking on Michigan (I see you Maryland, pushing around the Towson Tigers.) I only want to make the point that Michigan’s 9-10 conference record says a lot more about their true talent than a 40-point victory over something called Canisius College.
Last year, Michigan was a prime example of what Bill Simmons calls a "good bad team." With the exception of a loss to Wisconsin and a win over Ohio State (Kelsey Mitchell set a career low for points, with 13) Michigan toppled the lousy teams and withered against the good ones.
The Wolverines are bringing in an intriguing freshman class, but they graduated three starters. I’m calling it a wash. Prediction: another .500 season with over 20 wins.
7. Michigan State Spartans
2014-15 Record: 16-15 (Big Ten: 7-11)
Dearly Departed: G Anna Morrisey, F Becca Mills
Top 100 Recruits: 5-Star F Victoria Gaines, 4-Star F/C Jenna Allen
In sophomores Aerial Powers and Tori Jankoska, the Spartans had the second and fifth leading scorers in the Big Ten, and Michigan State still only had the 10th best offense in the conference. How is that possible? Well, Michigan State was 13th out of 14 teams in assists, and 11th in field goal percentage. You know that pick-up game player who never passes the ball, and always calls "Kobe!" right before clanking another three? That was Michigan State last year.
Still, there’s real talent in Powers and Jankoska, and this was the first time that coach Suzy Merchant has ever been below .500 in conference play in her 20 year career. In a sport where players come and players go, the skill of the coach tends to define the program.
6. Iowa Hawkeyes
2014-15 Record: 26-8 (Big Ten: 14-4)
Dearly Departed: G Melissa Dixon, G Samantha Logic, C Bethany Doolittle
Top 100 Recruits: 5-Star PG Tania Davis, 4-Star F/C Megan Gustafson, 4-Star F Hannah Stewart
This ranking might be way too high. Even now, I’m trying to talk myself out of it. Let’s go through the reasons.
Iowa will be terrible because...
The three graduated starters represent a huge loss of talent.
But then again, Iowa will be fine because...
Leading scorer Ally Disterhoff will be back.
Disterhoff had Samantha Logic, who was the best point guard in the Big Ten and a first round pick in the WNBA draft, creating easy looks.
5-Star recruit Tania Davis has superior court vision, according to HoopGurlz guru Dan Olson, and is ready to fill that role.
Iowa had the worst defense in the Big Ten on a per possession basis, and freshmen - even highly touted freshman - tend to struggle on that end of the floor. The defense could be catastrophic.
Coach Lisa Bluder has 600 Division-I wins, and a long track record of maximizing talent.
Iowa has won at least 12 home games every season for the last eight years.
Lisa Bluder has only had three losing seasons in a career that began in 1984!
Wait, is this ranking too low? Oh God, it’s too low, isn’t it? Quick, let’s move on before I change my mind.
5. Northwestern Wildcats
2014-15 Record: 23-9 (Big Ten: 12-6)
Dearly Departed: C Alex Cohen
Top 100 Recruits: None.
The roster that went 12-6 in 2014-15 was nearly identical to the squad that went 5-11 the previous year; and with the exception of 6’-5" Alex Cohen, everyone is returning. Could the Wildcats be even better? One of those teams that makes college basketball such a joy to follow, a veteran group who overcomes the superior athleticism of their opponents with guile and chemistry? Yes, but we have to talk about size, famously the one thing a coach can’t teach.
The teams above Northwestern on these power rankings ought to have elite post play, and the Wildcats won’t catch those teams unless they can protect the paint. The departed Cohen wasn’t a great center, but she had decent athleticism, limbs that worked, and feet made of a substance other than concrete. That’s all Coach Joe McKeown is going to ask for from the 5 spot, but there’s no guarantee he’ll get it.
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers
2014-15 Record: 22-11 (Big Ten: 11-8)
Dearly Departed: G Tear’a Laudermill, G Brandi Jeffery, F Hailie Sample, F Emily Cady
Top 100 Recruits: 5-Star F Jessica Shepherd
Nebraska just graduated four starters who averaged over 30 minutes per game. Of the Cornhuskers core players who went to the Sweet Sixteen in 2013 and won the Big Ten Conference Tournament in 2014, only tournament MVP Rachel Theriot,remains.
Theriot is as tall as Chris Paul and Diana Tourasi, and she uses her size, court-vision, and precision passing to rip defenses apart. She’s a likely first round pick in next year’s draft, and the biggest question facing the Cornhuskers is, will she have any help?
Jessica Shepherd is a fine start. According to ESPN’s HoopGurlz, she’s the #3 overall high school prospect in the country, a 6’4" interior bruiser with the potential to notch double-doubles.
Natalie Romeo and Allie Havers are probably getting promotions, but there are no other obvious candidates to start, and the bench could be an issue. Even if bench units get killed, though, Nebraska has too much talent to lose too many games.
3. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
2014-15 Record: 23-10 (Big Ten: 12-6)
Dearly Departed: Wing Betnijah Laney, G Syessence Davis
Top 100 Recruits: 4-Star PG Khadaizha Sanders, 4-Star F/C Victoria Harris
It says something about the strength of the Big Ten right now that a 12-6 conference record was only good for 5th place last year. Led by Hall-of-Famer C. Vivian Stringer, the 3rd-winningest coach in women’s basketball history, the Scarlet Knights’s great 2014-15 season was the result of a deep, balanced roster that boasted a healthy mix of under- and upperclassmen. This year, leading scorer Kahleah Copper returns to play point-forward with her retro style, making nifty moves at the basket and possibly ending her 4-year collegiate career without ever making a 3-point shot.
This year Rutgers will have five or more seniors playing heavy minutes, which makes 2015-16 feel like the end of an era. Rutgers won’t miss the NCAA tournament again.
2. Maryland Terrapins
2014-15 Record: 34-3 (Big Ten: 18-0)
Dearly Departed: G Laurin Mincy, G Lexie Brown
Top 100 Recruits: 5-Star F Brianna Fraser, 5-Star F Kiah Gillespie
Pop quiz: how many coaches not named Geno Auriemma have won a national title since the year 2000?
The answer is five. Brenda Frese is one of only five coaches to throw a wrench in the Connecticut Machine, and while Connecticut is going to be great again this season, the Maryland Terrapins have a chance to be even better.
It’s true that they graduated their leading scorer, Laurin Mincy (13.5 points per game) and lost their best passer Lexie Brown to Duke, but the Maryland offense is a many-headed hydra. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (13.3 ppg last season) is the glue gal who stuffs the stat sheet: the Terps second-leading everything last year: second scorer, second rebounder, second assister and second stealer; and 6'-3" center Brionna Jones (12.4 ppg) provides the rim protection that turns the Kelsey Mitchell’s of the league into one-dimensional shooters.
Maryland already had the deepest bench in the Big Ten, and they added a pair of 5-Star recruits in 6’-1" Kiah Gillespie and 6’-3" Brianna Fraser. Maryland could have an astounding eight players above six-foot, and should easily be the biggest team in the Big Ten, if not in the NCAA.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
2014-15 Record: 24-11 (Big Ten: 14-5)
Dearly Departed: None.
Top 100 Recruits: 4-Star G Kaylan Pugh
Last year, her freshman year, guard Kelsey Mitchell set the NCAAW record for three-pointers made in a season, on the way to breaking 29 Ohio State, Big Ten, and Division-I records, and becoming the first freshman to lead the NCAA in scoring. Shooting 38% from three is a fine figure, if not exactly elite, but her shot selection is made up of step-back threes and long bombs off high picks early in the shot clock. She’s creating her own shots, and bending pick and roll defenses to the breaking point. If she's nothing else, she’s one of the most exciting shooters since Maya Moore.
That superstar gravity sucks in defenders, and creates space for fellow phenom Alexa Hart and All-Big Ten guard Ameryst Alston to work. As a freshman last year, Hart led the conference in field goal percentage and averaged 12.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, which, wow. Ameryst "The Machine" Alston played 38 minutes per game while averaging nearly 20 points. One of the best young post players, and the best backcourt in the Big Ten? The conference is Ohio State's to lose.
That’s all for now. We’ll have weekly power rankings for you once the season begins, and team-by-team previews starting in the next week.
Correction: This article has been edited to reflect the fact that Lexie Brown transferred to Duke in June.