In a rugged and competitive Big Ten conference last season, there was a major difference between regular season co-champions, Ohio State and Maryland, and conference bottom feeders, Illinois, Wisconsin, Rutgers and Nebraska.
But despite the major differences between first and last, the Big Ten was one of the deepest conferences in the country. Last year for instance, Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Maryland all earned bids to the big dance. Maryland and Ohio State advanced the farthest and were bounced in the Sweet 16 as the Buckeyes fell to top-ranked Notre Dame 99-76, whereas the Terrapins were knocked out by the 10-seed Oregon Ducks, 77-63. And even despite their relatively early March exits, the Terrapins finished No.4 in the country and the Buckeyes No.11 in the final AP top-25 poll.
Now, locked and reloaded, the two teams that finished atop the Big Ten a year ago are once again now the projected favorites to win the conference this year. The 14 Big Ten coaches along with a selected media panel on Monday, Oct. 23 selected Ohio State as the presumptive favorite to win the conference. This should come as no surprise as the Buckeyes return a plethora of experience, including four starters and nine overall members, to a team that finished 28-7 a year ago.
Headlining the Buckeye lineup is Kelsey Mitchell, a 5’ 8” senior guard out of Cincinnati, Ohio. A three-time All-Big Ten first team selection, the scoring guard finished ninth in the nation last year in points per game at 22.6. Currently, Mitchell stands as the Big Ten’s conference record holder for made three-point-field goals (368) and is fifth in conference history in total points at (2553). It was a short offseason for the talented guard as she recently returned from a stint with the U-23 Team USA basketball team that finished 3-0 at the Four Nations tournament held in Tokyo, Japan.
While their road may be tougher, don’t forget about the Terrapins. After the departure of a pair of All-America honorable mention selections in Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and the transfer of Destiny Slocum, the 2016-’17 National Freshman of the Year recipient, along with two other transfers out of College Park, head coach Brenda Frese’s task of replicating a successful 32-3 season is much more difficult. With just 10 rostered players now, the Terrapins will look to experience and leadership from the likes of 5’9” senior guard Kristen Confroy, as well as sophomore guard Kaila Charles, a preseason All-Big Ten selection and the team's leading returning scorer (9.7ppg) to carry the offense.
Frese noted that the team will rely on chemistry, which was fostered earlier this fall as the Terrapins represented the United States in the 2017 World University Games held in Taiwan.
Teams on the rise? Look no further than the Michigan Wolverines. After narrowly missing the NCAA tournament at 28-9, Michigan made the most of its March, winning the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), its first postseason title in program history. With six consecutive 20-plus win seasons, the Wolverines are looking to raise expectations this season as they look for their first NCAA tournament bid since the 2012-’13 season. The Wolverines will have a mixture of experience and youth but ultimately will look toward 5’7” junior guard Katelynn Flaherty, who is just 58 points shy of breaking the school’s scoring record to lead the way. Returning three starters, along with eight letterwinners who are in the mix for playing time, the Wolverines may raise some eyebrows this winter.