Let’s bounce around the Big Ten, stopping at Maryland, Michigan State and Ohio State to see how the early weeks of the 2023-24 season is treating the Terrapins (5-3), Spartans (6-1) and No. 16 Buckeyes (5-1).
Can the Terps get back on track?
Considering Maryland lost the player who was selected No. 2 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the Terrapins are having trouble cranking out the wins. Yet, it is the lack of competitiveness, rather than the lack of wins, that is concerning.
Maryland has been blown out by the three teams that were ranked at the time they played: then-No. 6 South Carolina, then-No. 8 UConn and then-No. 23 Washington State. The Terps also barely escaped against the only other Power 5 team they’ve played, squeaking by Syracuse 83-81. Accordingly, Maryland fell out of the top 25 for the first time in 13 years.
Prior to Monday, the Terrapins had been ranked for 251 consecutive weeks — the second-longest active streak behind No. 6 UConn pic.twitter.com/v773koKaEr— espnW (@espnW) November 20, 2023
Because of a relative lack of size, Maryland has found success in recent seasons through a fast-paced and high-volume attack. In short, they take a lot of shots and, at their best, make a lot of shots. This season, the taking and making is not happening at the requisite rates. Last season, Maryland ranked 11th nationally in field goals attempted and 10th in field goals made. This season, they’re 36th in field goals attempted and 104th in field goals made. The Terps’ accuracy on triples also has suffered, as their 3-point percentage has gone from last season’s mark of 36.4 percent to 31.4 percent; Maryland also is taking less 3s per game.
As simple as it may sound, players hitting shots at their expected percentages would begin to address many of Maryland’s ills. Successful offensive trips also would allow the Terps to set their defense, and subsequently convert stops and takeaways into easy offense. Although it was against a UMass team that has only one win on the season, Maryland turned the Minutewomen over a season-high 28 times in their third and final game of the Cancun Challenge.
Although Maryland has an early Big Ten match against Northwestern on Dec. 10, they otherwise face a friendlier non-conference schedule until the end of the month. That’s multiple opportunities for Maryland to find a shooting groove and some defensive grit before Big Ten play begins in earnest.
Can the Spartans shoot their way to the top of the conference?
In contrast to the Terrapins, the shots are falling for the Spartans. Michigan State is shooting a nation-leading 45.9 percent from 3 on 24.6 attempts per game. That mark is absurdly good and absolutely unsustainable. Junior guard DeeDee Hagemann has been the Spartans sharpest 3-point shooter, hitting 56.5 percent of her long-range attempts. Sophomore guard Abbey Kimball and senior guard Moira Joiner lead the Spartans in total 3-point attempts and both are shooting well north of 40 percent, with Kimball at 44.7 percent and Joiner at 48.6 percent.
But what happens when the shots stop falling at such a prolific rate? Can the Spartans hang with the best teams in the Big Ten if the 3-point gods aren’t grinning widely on them?
That a generous offensive approach has helped spur Michigan State’s shooting success is encouraging. The Spartans are fourth in the nation in assists per game, an indication that the team is sharing ball and searching for great shots. Even more encouraging, the Spartans’ ball-sharing spirit has not resulted in an excess of turnovers. Going into Thursday night’s action, Michigan State ranked fifth nationally with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.89. The Spartans’ solid offensive foundation suggests that, when colder shooting nights inevitably come, they can still be compete with the conference’s contenders. And if their shots continue to fall more often than not, Michigan State will be in the Big Ten’s contender class.
Can Celeste Taylor help the Buckeyes be better than last season?
Ohio State has recovered from an opening night loss to now-No.6 USC, reeling off five straight wins without much trouble. Their next true test arrives on Sunday, when they take on No. 20 Tennessee in Knoxville.
What can OSU’s early slate tell us about how grad guard Celeste Taylor, who arrived in Columbus after spending two seasons at Duke, has acclimated to her new team?
A defensive-minded player with a shaky shot, Taylor is playing to expectation. On the defensive end, she’s quickly proven a perfect cog in the Buckeyes’ high-pressure defensive system, swiping two steals per game. On offense, her shot attempts and shooting percentages are at or below her career lows. As this season’s Buckeyes are more talented than last season’s Blue Devils, it is not surprising that Taylor’s shot attempts have decreased. As she should be seeing better shooting opportunities, her percentages should find their way to or above her career averages. More positively, her playmaking is popping with superior surrounding talent. Taylor is averaging a career-best 3.8 assists per game; her turnovers also are at a career-low of 1.8 per game. And even though she is struggling to hit her free throws, she getting to the line more than ever, more evidence that, despite subpar shooting numbers, Taylor is helping Ohio State generate efficient offense.