Maryland has been the poster child of the Big Ten since the Terps joined the conference in 2014-15. But Power 5 conferences such as CCA, Pac-12 and SEC have dominated the national landscape in recent years. Midway through the 2020-21 women’s basketball season, the Big Ten are big news with six ranked teams and seven representatives on ESPN’s latest Bracketology. ESPN.com’s Mechelle Voepel, Charlie Creme and D’Arcy Maine investigate what all this means for the Big Ten and more – including what a collision between Oregon’s Pac-12 and Stanford might reveal about the Cardinals’ defense. In addition, our experts will choose the two biggest competitions on the program this weekend.
With six teams on the rankings, including two undefeated, is Big Ten about to break through? And don’t forget Iowa, who is ungraduated, but has only one loss and one nominee for the Wooden Award in the person of debutant Caitlin Clark.
Voepel: This is good news for the Big Ten, because this competition is less in the spotlight than other Power 5 conferences in recent years. But the depth of the competition is getting tighter, and there may be a breakthrough like in Pac-12. I’m not saying it’s inevitable, but at least there are good signs.
Maryland’s entry into the Big Ten in 2014-15 has raised the profile of the competition, including the journey of the Terrapins to the Final Four in 2015. Then Rutgers went to the Final Four. But the last time a Big Ten team reached the last four was for Maryland in 2005 with the state of Michigan, and the only national conference championship was in Purdue in 1999.
It’s all old history – everything that goes back a few years is old in the eyes of the new recruits – but that’s the problem. The Big Ten as a whole hasn’t attracted that much top talent, but that’s partly because the NCAA tournament programmes lack dynamism. Is there a team outside Maryland running for the Final Four? Probably not. But there may be more to come.
Maryland, number 12, is still in first place in the Big Ten. And despite a very short bench due to injuries – including that of newcomer Angel Reese, who broke his foot and is not expected to return until February – the Terps went to Michigan’s No. 23 on Thursday and inflicted the Spartans first loss of the season, 93-87.
Maryland coach Brenda Frese had encouraging words for the competition after the victory.
There’s this battle, as you can see now with the men of the Big Ten, Fries said. It’s the deepest thing I’ve seen since we got here. We love these games.
Yeah, it’s part of Freeze’s job to support the Big Ten. But Michigan, still unbeaten after a tough 64-62 win over Nebraska on Thursday, Ohio State, 6-0 (although they have imposed a post-season suspension for possible NCAA violations) and Iowa, 8-1, can be considered very interesting teams.
Whether we see much progress in the lower half of the Big Ten is another question, but there is something to be said for the other leagues. Again, we must be realistic and try to measure legitimate progress. I think the Big Ten are making something of it.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Caitlin Clark, a freshman in Iowa State, is the nation’s second biggest scorer with 27.6 points per game. Stephen Malley/hawkeyesports.com
Maine: In terms of recruitment and becoming one of the best women’s basketball conferences in the university? Looks like he’s on his way. How would you like to come here and predict the participation of a conference team in the championship or the finals of the foursome this season? I’m an optimist, but I’m not going that far.
The success of several current teams and the monstrous numbers of Caitlin Clark serve only to increase attention and interest in the Big Ten for the next generation of players. I know she’s only a freshman and it seems almost unfair to put so much pressure on her, but I have a feeling that Clark might end up having the Sabrina Ionescu effect for Iowa in terms of program recognition. I hate myself for writing that sentence.
Cream: At the beginning of this season I wrote that the CAC is the deepest conference in the country. That may have been true then, but that distinction now belongs either to the Securities and Exchange Commission or to the Big Ten. It’s been a while since the Big Ten have had such a discussion, so yes, it seems that the Big Ten are on the verge of a breakthrough.
Iowa is better than expected, thanks in large part to Clark. That includes Michigan, one of three unbeaten teams and the only team to beat the Hokies this season. The Wolverines rose from 25th to 15th in the preseason and from 6th to 4th this week, with Naz Hillmon’s junior lead being one of the first national players of the year.
Maryland remains the favorite to finish second in the nation in terms of score (95.3 PPG), and although Indiana has a less than perfect start with losses to Tennessee and Kentucky in December, the Hoosiers still have to fight for the conference title and a top-four spot in the NCAA tournament.
Speaking of D’Arcy: Apart from the Terps, I’m still not sure I see a Final Four team here. However, there is potential for the Sweet 16 this year for the Big Ten, where only one team has reached the regional championships in the last two NCAA tournaments (Iowa, 2019).
No 11 Oregon plays no. 1 Stanford on Friday (14.30 ET). Is this still a high-level game in the Pac-12?
Cream: A week ago, I would have said no. Stanford-Arizona was supposed to be that game this season. On New Year’s Day, the Cardinals defeated the Wildcats, then 6, 81-54 in Tucson, displacing a team that was supposed to be the biggest threat to Stanford in the Pac-12 league. Now that Stanford has also beaten UCLA, then number 10, with 12 points, this label has been transferred to Oregon.
The Ducks are also the only team among the other three contenders for offensive firepower to possibly follow the gifted Cardinals. With five players averaging double-digit points, including replacement Cameron Brink, Stanford ranks 11th nationwide in terms of points (85.4 PPG). Oregon, with four players with a two-digit point average, ranks 14th (83.6 PPG).
From the point of view of visibility, it is a pity that the game is played on a Friday afternoon without national television, but the importance of this game for the Pac-12 race cannot be overlooked. A victory at Stanford means he will pass all the tests during his few weeks away, paving the way for a conference championship.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Taylor Chavez and the Ducks had a 27-minute winning streak, losing 3. January versus UCLA. Chris Pish – Sports in the United States Today
Maine: Charlie makes some interesting comments about the imperfect broadcast (at noon PT, right?) and the lack of national audience, but the way things are going this season, if the big game is really going to be played, I think it should automatically be considered in the Marquee category.
It should be a great match between two well-known rivals, both looking for a conference dominance for the post-season character. Although Oregon lost to UCLA last weekend to go to the top ten, the Ducks have given the cardinals the most problems in recent years by winning the last three games. With their first loss of the season (and almost a year in the making) and looking for their very first victory against the country’s number one team, the Ducks should have motivation seeping out of every pore for this game, even at 11:30 in the morning.
Voepel: In fact, we have now arrived at a point where teams that have to play at 6 am in the parking lot of a Target store do so. Four other Pac-12 games scheduled for Friday have already been postponed due to COVID-19/ injury problems.
If you have the opportunity to view the Cardinals and Ducks on the Pac-12 network on Friday, you should do so. And I think this game might show a little more how good the Stanford defense is.
When I asked coach Tara VanDerveer at a recent Zoom conference how this team is defending itself at its best at Stanford, they weren’t ready for comparisons. It is clear that she is fully focused on what this particular group does. But the Stanford defense looks good. And frankly, we still expect Stanford’s offense to be good.
So far, the cardinals have limited their opponents to an average of 51.8 points per game and .301 hits on the field, which is better than the last 15 seasons. These are of course the season figures, and these statistics are only nine games old. But it shows that the cardinals are certainly on the right track in defense. Last season they authorized PCA 60.2 and .357.
Oregon had to redo his whole character, if you will, after so much loss on graduation. But Kelly Graves thinks the Ducks did a really good job. We have seen how youth and inexperience have influenced the loss of UCLA, but it can be considered a good learning experience against a good team. The Ducks are now facing team number 1 of the country in what will be another important event for them.
Which game or team has the most influence on bracketology this week?
Cream: Iowa could win the most this week. The Hawkeyes were not on the field during the preseason, but behind Clark and their PPG of 27.6, they moved up to 7th place in the standings this week. With the victories at Northwestern on Saturday and Ohio State on Wednesday, it’s even higher – probably much higher.
The match against the Buckeyes is very important. Although Ohio will not participate in the NCAA tournament due to a self-imposed ban after the end of the season, the Buckeyes are currently No. 7 on the NET Ranking list, a new NCAA scoring tool that the selection committee will use to quantify the teams. Iowa is in 27th place. A victory for the Hawkeyes would significantly improve this ranking and their ranking in future forecasts.
While Iowa wouldn’t be able to finish in first place with a top four sweep this week, the Hawkeyes will be able to challenge the rest of the season and be in great shape in a competitive Big Ten race.
ESPN.com expert selects the best matches of the weekend