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8 things to know about this season’s Big Ten

The Megan Gustafson era is over, but is Iowa really out of contention? Plus, Maryland, the Michigan schools and more are poised to have outstanding Big Ten seasons — if they can get past tough non-conference opponents unscathed.

James Madison v Maryland
Maryland senior guard Kaila Charles was named the 2019-20 Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, and the Terrapins were picked first in the preseason poll.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

It’s going to be a whole new Big Ten this season.

Well ... the tournament champion will probably be different. And with Maryland back where it’s comfortable, en route to another Big Ten title, maybe that part won’t change either. But the idea this season is that it could be different. Even more than last season, which was ended up being a two-team race all year long.

There’s significantly more preseason buzz at the national level — five teams made in the 2019-20 AP preseason poll, compared to last season’s two — and the storylines are rife beyond those select inclusions. This season is about Maryland, yes, but it’s also about which teams will be able to stand in the Terrapins’ way.

And with all the pressure on Maryland, this Big Ten season is wide-open for a host of disruptors — who already see themselves as future champions — to pick up where Iowa left off last season. That is, if Iowa isn’t planning a furious comeback of its own.

Welcome to the 2019-20 Big Ten season. Here’s what to know:

1. Preseason poll shows upward trend for five schools

2019 BIG Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament - Championship
Maryland head coach Brenda Frese
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Five Big Ten schools appear in Wednesday’s preseason AP Top 25: Maryland (No. 4), Michigan State (No. 17) and Minnesota, Indiana and Michigan (Nos. 23-25, respectively). The Terps were the only one of these teams to appear in last season’s final AP Top 25, coming in at No. 9. With a significant contender no longer in the mix — we’ll get to Iowa below — it’s no wonder the Big Ten has opened up once more.

2. Maryland is the team to beat — again

James Madison v Maryland
Taylor Mikesell (left) and Kaila Charles
Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

For the fifth time in six seasons since joining the Big Ten, Maryland was selected as the preseason favorite to win the conference. Since the 2014-15 season, the Terps have won three regular-season titles and three tournament titles, most recently in 2019 and 2017, respectively.

With all five starters returning to a team that went 15-3 in Big Ten play last season, the future is bright for the Terps — especially since they’re led by Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Kaila Charles. After a stellar freshman season that led to Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, Taylor Mikesell also joins Charles on the Preseason All-Big Ten Team.

3. Iowa suffered some offseason setbacks

Iowa v Maryland
Kathleen Doyle
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

If “offseason setbacks” is how you refer to losing three senior starters, anyway. Consensus player of the year Megan Gustafson, along with Tania Davis and Hannah Stewart, accounted for 63 percent of the Hawkeyes’ scoring in 49 percent of the team’s minutes last season. But you don’t need numbers to feel the scope of what this team will be missing.

Iowa still has two strong starters in preseason All-Big Ten pick Kathleen Doyle and three-point specialist Makenzie Meyer, but the team will still be undergoing a serious rebuild this season. How will the defending tournament champions fare?

4. The battle of the Michigan teams will be fierce

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 25 Div I Women’s Championship - Second Round - Michigan State v Notre Dame
Shay Colley
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No one is quite convinced which Michigan team will reign supreme this season. The preseason Big Ten coaches poll saw Michigan State at No. 2 and Michigan at No. 4. However, the Big Ten media poll put Michigan at No. 2 and Michigan State at No. 3.

Each team has a star: Michigan features sophomore Naz Hillmon was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year by the media (Maryland’s Mikesell was the coaches’ pick), while Michigan State has All-Big Ten first team pick Shay Colley. And each team has plenty of room to ascend, with Michigan finishing fourth last season and Michigan State in that four-way tie of 9-9 teams right in the middle of the pack. Distinguishing themselves early will be the key to continued success.

5. Can Minnesota stay consistent all season?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 07 Big Ten Conference Women’s Tournament - Indiana v Minnesota
Destiny Pitts
Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Although a dream non-conference performance under first-year head coach Lindsay Whalen saw the Golden Gophers enter Big Ten play 11-0, they got a rude awakening almost right away. Minnesota ended up breaking even in conference play, but it had to overcome losing seven of its first nine games first.

Having broken into the media’s Big Ten preseason rankings at No. 5, it’s clear there’s hope for Minnesota this season. Whalen enters her second season with three returning starters, including junior Destiny Pitts, the preseason All-Big Ten selection who’s also already one of Minnesota’s best three-point shooters ever. But will these positives be enough to maintain their dominance all season?

6. Recruiting classes suggest bright futures for struggling teams

High School Basketball: McDonald’s All American Games
Ashley Owusu (right) and Diamond Miller, both Maryland freshmen
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Three of the schools with top-20 recruiting classes, according to espnW’s HoopGurlz Class Rankings, barely made a splash in the preseason Big Ten rankings.

Maryland led the conference with the No. 3 class, snagging top point guard Ashley Owusu, while Michigan State came in at No. 7. But the other teams on the class rankings — No. 4 Ohio State, No. 18 Penn State and No. 19 Indiana — aren’t exactly Big Ten favorites this season. Indiana is perhaps the closest, their 2018 WNIT title not quite a distant memory despite finishing 8-10 in conference play last season.

But in a few years? Why not a Penn State vs. Indiana Big Ten championship game?

7. Packing the national award lists ... with youth

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 07 Big Ten Conference Women’s Tournament - Purdue v Nebraska
Kate Cain, Nebraska junior and member of Lisa Leslie Award preseason watch list
Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Twelve Big Ten players were named to national preseason award watch lists this month, one fewer than last season. But it’s also a younger group this time around: Last season saw eight seniors make preseason lists, while this season, only five are seniors.

As a power conference, the Big Ten isn’t really known as “up-and-coming” in many conversations. But taking into account these preseason lists, combined with the conference’s overall preseason presence on the national stage, why not embrace the underdog role?

But ... maybe not right away, considering ...

8. Mid-major challenges open the season

NCAA Womens Basketball: Ohio State at Connecticut
Ohio State and UConn last met in 2018; the Huskies won 85-53.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Before these teams can address the looming Big Ten season, they’ll of course have to make it through non-conference play. And some of the toughest mid-majors in the country appear on many of the schedules of the Big Ten’s brightest.

Minnesota has an early challenge, taking on Missouri Valley power Missouri State. Iowa hosts Ivy League champ Princeton and the Missouri Valley’s other power, in-state rival Drake. Maryland faces three regular-season and conference tournament champions: the Colonial Athletic’s James Madison, the MAAC’s Quinnipiac and the Ohio Valley’s Belmont.

As far as teams taking on preseason AP Poll picks, Northwestern gets the Big East’s No. 18 DePaul, while Ohio State hosts the American’s (and future Big East’s) No. 5 UConn to kick off Thanksgiving week.

Sometimes, non-conference challenges come where power-conference teams don’t expect them — and when they’re objectively least ready for them. Getting past the teams that are too often written off is crucial to any NCAA Tournament résumé-boosting, especially among power-conference teams that can’t afford any “bad” losses to good, albeit overlooked, teams.