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This week in the Big Ten: Conference play begins Friday with 12 of 14 teams in action, Iowa and Michigan State open Sunday

Plus, it’s the Megan Gustafson show in the Big Ten once again, and the Hawkeyes and Spartans kick off their 2018-19 conference campaigns Sunday afternoon on ESPN2.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Minnesota vs Iowa
Kenisha Bell is averaging nearly 20 points per game for Minnesota this season. The Golden Gophers look to continue their undefeated start when Big Ten play begins Friday.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten has a lot going for it this season. With four teams in the AP top 25 — No. 4 Maryland, No. 12 Minnesota, No. 16 Iowa and No. 21 Michigan State — not to mention the defending Women’s National Invitation Tournament champion, Indiana, the conference season is shaping up to be extremely competitive.

Maryland, of course, is favored to win the conference, and with good reason: they bring back a strong core of players despite suffering some big losses to transfer and graduation over the past two seasons, and their undefeated start and top-5 ranking bears testament to their readiness for the Big Ten season, even if they’ve been relatively untested so far. Their hallmark win — that is, their only ranked win — was against a then-No. 10 South Carolina team that has shown so far that it’s probably been over-ranked all season.

But the Terrapins have shone in some areas that can make them a true threat, including their balance — with four players averaging double figures in scoring — and the fact that they top the Big Ten in scoring margin and rebounding margin, which teams like Iowa with one star scorer and rebounder could struggle against.

The Big Ten’s other remaining undefeated team, Minnesota, will similarly face their first true tests upon kicking off the conference season. With the Golden Gophers’ road schedule including such locations as Michigan State, Indiana and Maryland, the transition from relatively straightforward non-conference play to Big Ten competition could get rough. Also like their fellow undefeated Terrapins, Minnesota has four players averaging double figures in scoring, led by redshirt senior guard Kenisha Bell’s 19.5 points per game.

Bell comes in third in scoring in the Big Ten, right behind Penn State senior guard Teniya Page’s 19.8 points per game and Iowa’s...well, you all know who’s coming next.

Iowa senior center Megan Gustafson was the nation’s top scorer last season and is leading the pack once again this season, averaging 26.5 points per game. She’s been named Big Ten Player of the Week six of the seven times the honor has been awarded in 2018-19, including this past week for a Big Ten season-high 44-point performance against Drake in which she also registered her nation’s-best tenth double-double of the season. And while it’s certainly unfair (and incorrect) to say that she’s the only reason that Iowa has had success this season — senior guard Tania Davis, to name just one other, is having a breakout year — Gustafson is the unquestionable star.

The only teams to not play in today’s slate of Big Ten openers, Iowa and Michigan State will face off on the national stage in Sunday afternoon’s ESPN2 showdown. And while the Hawkeyes have certainly been tested this season — their two losses prove this, though their sweep of in-state rivals Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Drake does as well — facing a Spartans team that knocked off then-No. 3 Oregon in the very arena where their Big Ten opener will take place will be a whole different animal.

Big Ten opening games

Ohio State Buckeyes (4-5) vs. Purdue Boilermakers (9-4)

When: Friday, Dec. 28 at 4 p.m. ET

Where: Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, IN

How to watch: Big Ten Network

What to watch for: This is the Buckeyes’ first time visiting Purdue with a losing record since 1991. Considering these teams’ last meeting saw Ohio State pull away for a 73-60 home win, the Boilermakers should take advantage of this opportunity to grab a big morale-boosting first Big Ten victory, even if the Ohio State team they’re facing isn’t quite the same as the one that won the conference last season.

Northwestern Wildcats (7-4) vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (7-3)

When: Friday, Dec. 28 at 4 p.m. ET

Where: Rutgers Athletic Center, Piscataway, NJ

How to watch: BTN Plus

What to watch for: With a victory, Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer — who reached the 1,000-win milestone on Nov. 13 — will become the first Big Ten women’s basketball coach to win 200 conference games. The bulk of her 199 wins came during her 12 seasons at Iowa, with 30 more coming in the four-plus seasons that Rutgers has been in the Big Ten.

Michigan Wolverines (9-3) vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers (5-6)

When: Friday, Dec. 28 at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, NE

How to watch: Big Ten Network

What to watch for: Michigan is on the up-and-up against Nebraska, winning just four games against the Huskers overall but with three of those four wins coming in the past two seasons. For the Wolverines’ freshman star Naz Hillmon, who takes her Big Ten second-best 73.6 percent shooting into her first conference season, this game against a faltering Nebraska team could inspire some confidence for her and her teammates.

No. 4 Maryland Terrapins (11-0) vs. Penn State Nittany Lions (7-4)

When: Friday, Dec. 28 at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Bryce Jordan Center, University Park, PA

How to watch: BTN Plus

What to watch for: Although this game seems decided on paper, the Nittany Lions made the Terrapins work during last season’s meeting at the Bryce Jordan Center as Maryland won by just four points, 69-65. Maryland is 5-0 against Penn State in Big Ten play, though the Nittany Lions will look to avoid letting the Terps tie up the all-time series in this game, which the Lions lead 14-13.

Indiana Hoosiers (11-1) vs. Illinois Fighting Illini (8-3)

When: Friday, Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. ET

Where: State Farm Center, Champaign, IL

How to tune in: BTN Plus

What to watch for: Both teams are coming off recent losses, with Indiana’s two-season, 16-game winning streak ending in their second-to-last game against Grambling State and Illinois losing in rout fashion to Missouri. Boasting a 7-1 home record this season, the Illini will look to rebound from that sole loss while avenging their 16-point defeat at Indiana last season.

Wisconsin Badgers (9-3) vs. No. 12 Minnesota Golden Gophers (11-0)

When: Friday, Dec. 28 at 9 p.m. ET

Where: Williams Arena, Minneapolis, MN

How to tune in: Big Ten Network

What to watch for: If Minnesota wins this game, the 12-0 start would not only be just their third in program history, but it would also mark head coach Lindsay Whalen’s third such start as a Golden Gopher. Both previous 12-0 starts came in her junior and senior seasons at Minnesota. With the Gophers taking an 11-game winning streak against Wisconsin into this game, chances are high that they’ll get the job done and continue to make history in Whalen’s first season at the helm.

No. 16 Iowa Hawkeyes (9-2) vs. No. 21 Michigan State Spartans (10-1)

When: Sunday, Dec. 30 at 1 p.m. ET

Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, MI

How to watch: ESPN2

What to watch for: Iowa center Megan Gustafson is nine points away from tying Ally Disterhoft on Iowa’s all-time scoring list, and the question isn’t if she’ll get it done in this game, but how quickly. This should be a high-scoring game across the board, as Iowa and Michigan State are the top two teams in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (advantage Iowa) and points per game (advantage Michigan State).

Elsewhere in the Big Ten:

  • Along with Iowa’s Megan Gustafson’s Player of the Week honor, Maryland forward Shakira Austin picked up her third Freshman of the Week award this week. In her first career start on Dec. 20, Austin flirted with a triple-double in points (17), rebounds (13) and blocks (8 — tying the Maryland single-game record).
  • The Big Ten Honor Roll recipients were Michigan State senior center Jenna Allen, Minnesota senior guard Kenisha Bell and Purdue junior forward Ae’Rianna Harris.
  • After two seasons of playing a 16-game Big Ten schedule, the conference returns to an 18-game schedule in 2018-19 — five home-and-homes and one meeting each with the other eight teams.
  • Every single conference game will appear on either Big Ten Network, BTN Plus or an ESPN network for the fifth year in a row.

Big Ten full schedule and results