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Thrills, drama highlight pending Big Ten season

Three universities will look to reign supreme in the Big Ten this year. Given the vets returning, the conference championship will likely come down to the wire.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Lexington Regional- Ohio State vs Notre Dame Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Could Ohio State repeat as Big Ten champions?

In the preseason, that’s what the coaches and select media seem to think. Ohio State was selected as the favorite to win the conference in the Big Ten’s preseason poll. They are also slated at the No. 5 spot in the preseason AP poll, and the No. 8 spot in the USA Today poll.

The Buckeyes will be led by Kelsey Mitchell, who last year finished ninth in the nation in scoring averaging 22.6 points per game. Mitchell’s ability to score in a variety of ways (outside shots, drives to the basket, and getting to the foul line) make her a scoring threat of the highest order, who has the potential to lead the nation this year.

It’s no wonder then, that she is the favorite to win Big Ten player of the year.

Last year, Ohio State also was the only team that toppled Maryland, the program that has continuously dominated since joining the conference back in 2014. Were it not for a loss to Michigan State, they would have won the 2016-17 Title outright.

And speaking of Maryland… the perennial favorite was chosen just behind the Buckeyes in the preseason conference poll.

But never count Brenda Frese and the Maryland Terps out. Yes, freshman point guard Destiny Slocum may have transferred, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones were first-round picks in the 2017 WNBA Draft.

You can never count out a Maryland team, however. Frese has an innate ability to get players to buy into her philosophies. Even though their top three scorers are gone, it’s not surprising that they are ranked 15th in the AP Poll and 13th in the USA Today poll.

They will look to keep their conference title streak rolling led by returners Kristen Confroy, Brianna Fraser, Ieshia Small, Kaila Charles and Blair Watson. They also have the benefit of Channise Lewis, a freshman guard coming into the fray, as well as Eleanna Christinaki, a junior transfer from Florida who will be eligible during the second semester of the school year.

While Maryland will look to challenge Ohio State, they will have to go through the Michigan Wolverines, ranked third in the preseason conference poll and 24th in the AP poll, as well as 23rd in the USA Today poll.

Last year, Michigan was left out of the NCAA tournament, but after accepting an invitation to the WNIT tournament, won the whole thing. Talk about fueling the competitive fires.

The Wolverines also return Katelynn Flaherty and Hallie Thome, who averaged just over 20 and 16 points, respectively. How head coach Kim Barnes makes sure her role players fit in around these scoring threats will likely be key to their success.

Make no bones about it: Down the stretch, these three teams will duke it out to be crowned champions. The good news is that this means the Big Ten will be more competitive than ever.