Last season, seven Big Ten teams made it to the NCAA tournament, but none made it past the Sweet Sixteen. This year, with four teams ranked in the Top 25 preseason polls and a lot of returning starters, the Big Ten is in a position to dominate as a conference. Here is North by Northwestern’s breakdown of all 12 teams, projecting who’s in the best position to win the conference and go to the tournament.
1. Penn State (26-7, 13-3. Lost to Connecticut in Sweet Sixteen of NCAA tournament)
Regular season Big Ten champion Penn State was the only team in the conference to make it to the Sweet Sixteen last year. Ranked eighth in AP’s preseason poll, the Nittany Lions are the favorites to finish first in the Big Ten. Four starters and nine letterwinners are returning, including two-time first team All-Big Ten senior guard Alex Bentley. Captains Mia Nickson and Marisa Wolfe are also coming off injury-riddled junior seasons and will be important leaders to an experienced team that could be a favorite to win the NCAA tournament.
2. Nebraska (24-9, 10-6. Lost to Kansas in first round of NCAA tournament)
The Cornhuskers are ranked 18th in preseason polls and are returning four starters. Having only one senior on the roster last season and starting two freshmen every game, Nebraska still played well, making it to the tournament. With senior guard Lindsey Moore leading a more experienced team, it’s likely that the Huskers will make it further in the tournament this year and could challenge Penn State in the conference.
3. Purdue (25-9, 11-5. Lost to South Carolina in second round of NCAA tournament)
Ranked 21st in the preseason, the Boilermakers are looking to build on a successful season that included a Big Ten tournament championship and an NCAA tournament berth. Sixth-year forward Drey Mingo will be returning after tearing her ACL in a scrimmage last season, adding experience to a team that lost four seniors. Also, redshirt junior guard KK Houser and senior forward Sam Ostarello should lead the defense. If they can fill the gaps left by graduating players, they could surprise some teams again.
4. Ohio State (25-7, 11-6. Lost to Florida in first round of NCAA tournament)
After losing 2012 Big Ten Player of the Year Samantha Prahalis, the 19th ranked Buckeyes have a big hole to fill. Of the four starters returning, senior guard Tayler Hill, who averaged 20.4 points per game and led the team in steals, could best take Prahalis’ place. With Hill leading an older and more experienced team, the team might make it past the first round, but everyone will have to account for the void made by Prahalis’ departure.
5. Iowa (19-12, 11-6. Lost to Cal in first round of NCAA tournament)
Despite being plagued by injuries, Iowa still scored an invite to its fifth consecutive tournament. This year, the Hawkeyes are going for their sixth, and they’re in a good position to do so. Iowa is returning four starters, including senior center Morgan Johnson, who was seventh in the NCAA in field goal percentage. Senior guard Jaime Printy, who tore her ACL in February, has almost fully recovered and is expected to play in Iowa’s season opener. If Iowa can stay healthy, they might make it past the first round of the tournament.
6. Michigan State (20-12, 12-5 Lost to Louisville in first round of NCAA tournament)
The Spartans graduated three starters from last season and also lost redshirt sophomore center Madison Williams and freshman guard Aerial Powers to injury. However, Michigan State welcomes back five players who started in games last season. Sophomore guard Kiana Johnson is coming off a stellar season, in which she was ranked among the top freshmen in the nation, but it will be difficult to account for the offensive talent that the graduating class possessed.
7. Minnesota (19-17, 6-10. Won Women’s Basketball Invitational)
Even after finishing above .500 last season, the Golden Gophers still have room for improvement. The team lost four seniors, including guard Kiara Buford. Replacing her, though, is last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year Rachel Banham, who was ranked sixth in the conference in scoring. Minnesota is a fairly young team, but if they can play the way they did last year and win some close games on the road, they might end up finishing in the top half of the conference.
8. Michigan (20-12, 8-8. Lost to Oklahoma in first round of NCAA tournament)
The Wolverines made strides last season, making the tournament for the first time in over a decade. Coaching changes were made in the offseason with Kim Barnes Arico replacing Kevin Borseth after he resigned in April. Michigan lost three seniors and will also be losing junior forward Val Driscoll and freshman forward Kelsey Mitchell to knee injuries. Senior guard Jenny Ryan, who led the Big Ten in steals, will continue to make plays on defense, but it’s hard to believe that they’ll improve this season under a new coaching system.
9. Northwestern (14-16, 4-13)
After a hot 9-1 start last year, the ‘Cats played poorly for the remainder of the season, especially in conference play. With the loss of Tailor Jones, Allison Mocchi and Brittany Orban and the addition of five freshmen, the young team will likely have a tough time competing. However, four starters are returning, including seniors Kendall Hackney and Dannielle Diamant. This could be the year that the Wildcats finally make the NCAA tournament.
10. Wisconsin (9-20, 5-11)
The Badgers faltered a little last season under new head coach Bobbie Kelsey, but Wisconsin is looking to regain its position among the top Big Ten teams. Three seniors graduated, but senior Taylor Wurtz and junior Morgan Paige, who contributed to one of Wisconsin’s best three-point shooting teams, will be back and help improve an offense that consistently ranked at the bottom of the conference. With seven new players, five freshmen and two transfers, joining the team, there will still be a lot of adjusting.
11. Illinois (11-19, 5-11)
The Illini released head coach Jolette Law and hired Matt Bollant from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay after a subpar season. Four starters will also be returning this season, including senior forward Karisma Penn, who ranked third in the Big Ten in blocks and field goal percentage. The team also picked up four-star prospect Sarah Hartwell from Georgia Tech. Experience can only help the team, but it seems like Illinois is in for another rough season.
12. Indiana (6-24, 1-16)
Finishing at the bottom of the Big Ten last year, Indiana made some big changes in the offseason, introducing a new coaching staff led by former Bowling Green head coach Curt Miller. The team encountered more hardship this off season when redshirt freshman Kaila Hulls went down with an ACL injury. Senior guard Jasmine McGhee, who was in the top 20 in scoring and rebounding in the Big Ten, will be one of the Hoosiers' only hopes to help.