Last season, the Indiana Hoosiers won the Big Ten regular season championship, matching the title earned exactly four decades prior. In the conference tournament, the Iowa Hawkeyes prevailed, winning a second-straight Big Ten tournament crown before a NCAA tournament run that would take them all the way to the national championship game.
Led by Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Caitlin Clark, Iowa is expected to finish the 2023-24 season atop the 14-team Big Ten. Coaches only were asked to assess the expected top five finishers in the conference standings, providing the following predicted order:
- Ohio State
Media offered a slightly different perspective of how the top of the conference might shake out:
- Ohio State
The pair of preseason polls present a clear top four, with Illinois and Michigan forming a second tier. From there, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers and Wisconsin will aim to exceed prognostications.
Here are our thoughts on the best of the Big Ten—Iowa, Ohio State, Indiana and Maryland—and the rest of the Big Ten:
All eyes will be on Caitlin Clark throughout the 2023-24 season. After collecting a cavalcade of national awards last season, she’s continued to fill her trophy case with preseason honors. She unanimously was selected Preseason Player of the Year for the Big Ten, her third-straight season receiving the honor. She also unanimously was named to the preseason All-American Team for the second-straight season.
Yet, No. 3 Iowa is more than Clark. Key contributors to last season’s squad—Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Hannah Stuelke—return with more command of and comfort in head coach Lisa Bluder’s zippy offensive system. Our Iowa expert, Zachary Draves, has you covered for all things Iowa. And he suggests the Hawkeyes may have a weapon they lacked last season—depth. Zachary introduces the reserves who could provide extra ammunition for Bluder.
Yet, in the crucible of a competitive conference and in the NCAA Tournament, it will come down to Clark. With her bold bombs from downtown, precision playmaking and inside-the-arc craft on the offensive end, combined with her active hands on defense, Clark has the ability and attitude necessary not only to meet—but possibly exceed—the expectations foisted upon her as one the sport’s leading faces. NIL deals with Nike, State Farm and Buick will only amplify the attention on Clark and Iowa, and increase opponents’ motivation to take them down.
Ohio State’s season didn’t get off to the start envisioned, as the No. 10 USC Trojans upset the seventh-ranked Buckeyes in Las Vegas in the opener. The result, however, will have no ramifications on Ohio State’s standing the Big Ten, while the experience should have the Buckeyes better prepared for inter-conference competition.
• “One of the most dangerous, one of the most exciting teams to watch in the country.” pic.twitter.com/HmvgHCZsee— Ohio State WBB (@OhioStateWBB) November 5, 2023
Although Cotie McMahon struggled against USC, the forward showed more than enough in her freshman season to inspire confidence in her ability to turn in a sophomore campaign worthy not only of her unanimous Preseason All-Big Ten Team nod, but also one impressive enough to push Clark for Big Ten Player of the Year honors at season’s end.
Grad guard Jacy Sheldon, also a Preseason All-Big Ten Team member, started her final college season in style, exploding for 28 points as she also provided her ever-dogged defense. It is that defense will determine the ceiling for head coach Kevin McGuff’s team. Celeste Taylor comes to Columbus from Duke, with the grad guard combining with Sheldon to form one of the nation’s most menacing perimeter defensive pairings. In short, the Buckeyes have the goods needed to corral Clark and usurp Iowa for the conference’s top spot.
We’re at the apex of Indiana women’s basketball. Head coach Teri Moren has turned the Hoosiers into a team to be reckoned with, both at the conference at national levels. Last season, Indiana won the regular season conference crown for the first time in four decades. In 2022, they advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the second-straight season. In 2021, the Hoosiers earned a trip to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history. In 2023-24, can No. 9 Indiana put it all together, establishing themselves as the Big Ten’s best before then finding their way to the Final Four?
If they do so, grad big Mackenzie Holmes, who earned a unanimous berth on the Preseason All-Big Ten Team and is a Preseason All-American, will have a lot to do with the Hoosiers reaching even higher heights. Last season, she averaged an über-efficient 22.3 points per game, while also grabbing 7.3 boards and blocking nearly two shots per contest.
Although the Hoosiers certainly will miss the steady presence of Grace Berger, the perimeter trio of senior guard Chloe Moore-McNeil, senior guard Sydney Parish and fifth-year guard Sara Scalia together equip Indiana with the ball handling, playmaking, shooting and scoring needed to be the best team in the Big Ten. Moore-McNeil also offers top-tier perimeter defense.
On Sunday, Nov. 12, Indiana will have the opportunity to announce their readiness to realize their high aspirations, taking on No. 15 Stanford in Palo Alto.
To begin the 2023-24 season, the 14th-ranked Terrapins certainly are not retreating into their shells. After taking care of Harvard in the season opener, Maryland meets No. 6 South Carolina and No. 2 UConn in back-to-back games, a two-game gauntlet that will provide head coach Brenda Frese and her squad with a perspective of their strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement.
We were for this pic.twitter.com/Tm7dssmsJM— Maryland Women’s Basketball (@TerpsWBB) November 5, 2023
An already-known strength for the Terps is Shyanne Sellers, the junior guard who is a unanimous Preseason All-Big Ten Team selection. Against Harvard, Sellers nearly set a new career high, scoring 25 points while also dishing out five assists. The point guard will be surrounded by a number of weapons. Grad wings Brinae Alexander and Faith Masonius are two of the nation’s best 3-point shooters, while grad guards Jakia Brown-Turner, who comes to College Park from NC State, and Lavender Briggs both offer a versatile offensive punch.
Compared to most of their competition, the Terps again will be undersized, demanding that they outwork opponents on the defensive ends and outgun them on the offensive end. If that formula is realized more often that not, don’t be surprised if Frese finishes her 22nd season at Maryland with another conference crown.
Tier 2: Illinois, Michigan
In her 12 seasons at Michigan, head coach Kim Barnes Arico has built Michigan into high-caliber women’s college hoops program, with five-straight trips to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Can Michigan take the next step, both in the conference and nationally? If the Wolverines put themselves in the conversation with the four teams at the top of the conference, Laila Phelia probably will have a lot to do with it. The junior guard, who was a unanimous selection to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team, is coming off a season where she averaged 16.7 points per game. In Monday night’s season opening win over Purdue Fort Wayne, she dropped 25 points, tying her career high. Grad guard Lauren Hansen, arriving in Ann Arbor from Missouri, gives the Maize and Blue another perimeter scoring threat.
Big bucket Laila pic.twitter.com/9se2fLj49b— Michigan Women’s Basketball (@umichwbball) November 7, 2023
Illinois is an interloper at the top of the Big Ten, with much credit due to the swift turnaround initiated by second-year head coach Shauna Greene. In Greene’s first season in Champaign, the Illini finished tied for fifth in the Big Ten standings after five-straight seasons of a 13th or 14th place finish. They snuck into the NCAA Tournament as a First Four selection, the first time the Illini danced in 20 years. After a season of overachievement, the expectations now arrive, begining with a No. 23 ranking to start the season. With senior point guard Makira Cook, a Preseason All-Big Ten Team nominee, absent due to injury, senior guard Genesis Bryant starred in the Illini’s season opening win over Morehead State, scoring a career-high 32 points.
Tier 3: Nebraska, Purdue
While there might be separation between Nebraska, Purdue and the Big Ten’s top six, that doesn’t mean 2023-24 will be unsuccessful for the Cornhuskers or Boilermakers. The workmanlike monikers are appropriate for two teams, as they’ll be ready to rumble every time they meet one the conference’s best and should make enough of a ruckus, in a good way, to both earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Head coach Amy Williams’ Cornhuskers, recipients of a quintet of votes in the AP’s preseason top 25 poll, will be led by 6-foot-3 junior big Alexis Markowski, who was selected to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team. She was the only Big Ten player to average a double-double last season, posting 12.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. She opened the season with a tidy 13-point and eight-rebound effort as the Huskers downed Northwestern State with ease. Senior guard Jaz Shelley led Nebraska with 17 points.
Jaz from 3!!!— Nebraska Women's Basketball (@HuskerWBB) November 6, 2023
so happy to be saying that again :) pic.twitter.com/wzaRvkbv4A
After taking her alma mater back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017, third-year head Katie Geralds continues the process of returning the program to the championship-winning peak reached under Carolyn Peck. This season’s opener—a game against fourth-ranked UCLA in Los Angeles—was part of this effort. It turned out to be quite the tough test, with the Bruins running away with the more than 40-point victory. Despite the drubbing, the Boilermakers exhibited the kind of fight that, in the cold days of the long conference schedule, could result in a few upset wins.
Tier 4: Michigan State, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Minnesota
For the teams in this tier, the hope is that a new, or still relatively new, head coach will result in accelerated improvement. Robyn Fralick, previously at Bowling Green, takes over at Michigan State, while Dawn Plitzuweit is in charge at Minnesota by way of West Virginia. At Rutgers, Coquese Washington enters her second season at the helm. Marisa Moseley begins her third season at Wisconsin.
All four programs not only are embracing the challenge of playing in possibly the nation’s toughest conference, but also willingly putting themselves in less-than-comfortable situations to prepare for the grind of the Big Ten. Wisconsin traveled abroad over the summer, enjoying the sights, sounds and flavors of Italy while also playing exhibition games in Rome, Florence and Venice. Minnesota will host UConn on Nov. 19, an incredibly tough test for Preseason All-Big Ten Team selection Mara Braun and the Gophers. Washington is preparing Rutgers to continue the process of rediscovering the program’s glory days with non-conference games against Auburn, Seton Hall and Virginia Tech.
In Lansing, Fralick has expressed excitement for the difficulties of Big Ten play, saying at Big Ten Media Day:
I that I that’s part of the challenge ahead when you’re new is figuring out the context, the level, tendencies, teams...But we’re excited for the challenge...I just think that we’re going to have a lot to learn, and we’re going to operate out of the posture of knowing that, and giving our team the best possibilities to be successful.
Tier 5: Penn State, Northwestern
These once-proud programs are relegated to the bottom of the conference standings after rough performances in 2022-23.
Once a NCAA Tournament fixture, Penn State has not earned a berth to the Big Dance in a decade. Under head coach Carolyn Kieger, who embarks upon her fifth season with the Nittany Lions after leading Marquette to three-straight NCAA Tournament appearances, Penn State has yet to win more six conference games. However, if Ashley Owusu rediscovers the elite offensive play she displayed during her three seasons at Maryland before injuries derailed her lone season at Virginia Tech, hope could emerge in Happy Valley. A backcourt tandem of a healthy and engaged Owusu and Makenna Marisa, a Preseason All-Big Ten Team nominee, may not be on the level of the conference’s best, but the duo certainly would be capable to leading the Nittany Lions to more than a few upset victories.
After winning the regular season Big Ten title in 2020 and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2021, Northwestern managed only two conference wins in 2022-23. But head coach Joe McKeown and the Wildcats are not allowing last season’s subpar results to scare them away from a tough non-conference slate. After playing at Notre Dame on Nov. 15, Northwestern will participate in the Ball Dawgs Classic in Las Vegas over the Thanksgiving holiday, meeting Florida State before potentially facing Stanford. The Wildcats will be battle tested for Big Ten play.