As the 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament reaches its apex, the Indiana Hoosiers have bowed out, losing 66-53 to the Arizona Wildcats in the Elite 8. The Hoosiers were one of seven Big Ten teams to make the tournament and hold the honor of making the deepest run.
Ever since the Big Ten was realigned in 2014, the Maryland Terrapins have usually been considered the best the conference has to offer, and that wasn’t untrue in 2021. Maryland went 17-1 in Big Ten play, winning the regular-season title for the sixth time (fourth outright) in seven years and the conference tournament for the fifth time. The Terrapins were rewarded with a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and were picked by most to be an Elite 8 team, with a Final Four or even NCAA Championship run seeming plausible as well.
As expected, Maryland dominated its first two games in the NCAA Tournament, but was stunned by Texas in the Sweet 16, its fast-paced offense suddenly stymied in one of the bigger upsets in recent tournament history.
In a way, a Sweet 16 appearance being viewed as a disappointment speaks to Maryland’s consistent excellence since joining the Big Ten, but it also opens a channel for discussion of other Big Ten teams, specifically their respective journeys through the NCAA Tournament. In other words, while the Terrapins were a good story, they weren’t the only story — far from it.
The Hoosiers are a prime example. They’ve been on the rise since Teri Moren took over in 2014, most recently winning the WNIT in 2018 and making it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament the season after. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament; otherwise, Indiana would have been a shoo-in with its 24-8 overall record.
Moren’s crew continued its ascent in 2020-21, going 21-6 (16-2 in Big Ten play) and earning a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. An upset of Mercado Region No. 1 seed NC State proved to be the biggest win in program history — Indiana hadn’t advanced past the Round of 32 in any of its prior NCAA Tournament appearances. The Hoosiers’ Elite 8 run would have seemed nearly impossible just a few years ago, yet in 2021 they were the final Big Ten team standing on a national stage.
Elsewhere, the Michigan Wolverines and Iowa Hawkeyes joined Maryland as Big Ten teams to make the Sweet 16. Michigan, led by Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon, played No. 2 seed Baylor tough enough to take the Lady Bears to overtime, while Iowa participated in one of the season’s biggest matchups: a game against the UConn Huskies, pitting freshman superstars Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers against one another. Even the Northwestern Wildcats, while clearly overmatched against Louisville, gave the Alamo region No. 2 seed something to sweat in the Round of 32.
All in all, fans of the Big Ten should generally be pleased with how their conference was represented in the NCAA Tournament. The depth of the Big Ten was on full display; no other conference had four teams advance to the Sweet 16 or later, and only two of the seven teams the Big Ten sent to San Antonio (Rutgers and Michigan State) failed to advance past the Round of 64. While the eventual 2021 national champions won’t be from the Big Ten, the conference is set up to remain highly competitive at the national level for years to come.