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Big Ten update: Checking in on No. 15 Indiana, Nebraska and Minnesota

While Mackenzie Holmes has been great, does No. 15 Indiana have enough depth? Nebraska, in contrast, has gotten contributions from up and down the roster. For Minnesota, the combination of a solid defense and Mara Braun’s scoring has led to a strong start.

Syndication: The Herald-Times
Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes powers to the hoop during a victory for the No. 16 Hooisers.
Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times / USA TODAY NETWORK

After analyzing Maryland (7-3, 1-0), Michigan State (7-2, 0-1) and No. 12 Ohio State (8-1, 1-0) a couple of weeks ago, let’s see how three other Big Ten teams—No. 15 Indiana (8-1, 1-0), Nebraska (8-2, 1-0) and Minnesota (9-1, 1-0)—have navigated the early season.

Does No. 15 Indiana have enough depth?

In Saturday’s 66-56 home win over Rutgers, Indiana grad big Mackenzie Holmes put together a performance requisite of her pre-season All-American honor, going a spectacularly-efficient 12-for-15 from the floor as she scored season-high 25 points. Holmes’ previous season-high came in her homecoming game, when the Gorham, Maine native tallied 22 points to push her Hoosiers past the Maine Black Bears, 67-59.

However, that the Hoosiers did not exactly dominate Maine nor Rutgers is a bit concerning for a team with ambitions of winning the conference and advancing far in the NCAA Tournament. Indiana’s lack of depth is problem that potentially could cap the Hoosiers’ ceiling.

Against the spunky Scarlet Knights, no reserve scored for the Hoosiers. The trio of senior guard Chloe Moore-McNeill, senior guard Sydney Parrish and grad guard Sara Scalia also all played 37 minutes. It’s a pattern that’s emerged in all of Indiana’s close contests. The bench contributed only four points against Maine as all starters played at least 32 minutes. In their win over Princeton, Indiana received no bench production. Only sophomore forward Lily Meister entered the scoring column in the victory over Tennessee, chipping in eight points.

Even if the bench was providing a bit more pop, it’s likely that head coach Teri Moren would rely heavily on her experienced starting lineup in most competitive games. While she was quiet against Rutgers, Scalia has had multiple strong scoring performances. Parrish had her best game of the season on Saturday, registering a double-double of 14 points and 10 boards. Moore-McNeil is the team’s top offensive and defensive playmaker. Sophomore guard Yarden Garzon offers connective play. Still, it would be comforting if another player or two could emerge as a reliable, positive piece for the Hooisers.

Nebraska’s winning with depth, offense

The Cornhuskers and head coach Amy Williams, in contrast, have enjoyed significant contributions from up and down the roster, with nine players who have appeared in all 10 games averaging at least 15 minutes per game. This collective effort has helped Nebraska become one the nation’s better offense through the first month of the season; the Cornhuskers own the 14th-ranked offense in the nation with an offensive rating of 115.9. While that number is boosted by putting 108 points on an overmatched UNC-Wilmington team, Nebraska has scored more than 70 points in all games.

Nebraska’s 80-74 win at Michigan State demonstrated the best of the Cornhuskers’ depth, with 10 players playing at least 10 minutes; all also scored. So even though junior center Alexis Markowski didn’t scratch the scoreboard until well into the second half, the Huskers maintained a lead over the Spartans for most of the afternoon. Although she scored a season-low—albeit still a team-high—13 points, Markowski grabbed a season-high 17 boards. Senior guard Jaz Shelley continued her box score-stuffing play with 11 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.

The Cornhuskers will face an interesting test at Kansas on Dec. 20 before resuming conference play by hosting Maryland on New Year’s Eve. If Nebraska can flex their superior size and depth against the Terps, it might be time to start taking them more seriously as a team that could disrupt the expected Big Ten standings.

Keep an eye on Minnesota and Mara Braun

After winning only 11 games last season, Minnesota already has earned nine victories. New head coach Dawn Plitzuweit has helped the Gophers discover a defensive identity. A defensive rating of 98.8 in 2022-23, which ranked 340th out of 356 Division I teams, has become a defensive rating of 74.1 in 2023-24, good for 10th in the nation. Although Minnesota has not played the toughest schedule, they did host UConn, and held the Huskies to 62 points—their lowest total of the season. So, it seems the defensive improvement is legit. However, a number of offensive-focused Big Ten teams—from aforementioned Nebraska to high-octane Iowa to sharpshooting Michigan State—will stress test the Minnesota defense.

Sophomore guard Mara Braun has been essential to Minnesota’s defensive success. She’s first in the Big Ten and eighth in the nation with 1.1 defensive win shares. And she’s playing dialed in defense while carrying a heavy offensive burden for the Gophers. Playing a conference-leading 34.5 minutes per game, Braun leads Minnesota with 19.6 points per game. Her work from behind the arc boosts her production; in conference, she trails only Iowa’s Caitlin Clark in 3-pointers attempted and made. Of late, Braun has reached an even higher level. After dropping 33 points—including 14 in overtime—on Drake and 25 on Kentucky, she put Minnesota in position to polish off Purdue on Sunday, totaling 21 points, five board, three assists, a steal and a block. While she did go 4-for-8 from 3, she also missed her first free throw of the season, taking her percentage from perfect to a still-sparking 96.8.

Fellow sophomore Amaya Battle sealed the Gophers’ victory over the Boilermakers, intercepting a Purdue pass with approximately three seconds remaining before hitting two free throws to break the 58-58 tie and give Minnesota the two-point conference win.

A stout, alert defense, combined with the offensive production Braun is capable of, suggests Minnesota has the potential to sneak up conference foes and secure an upset or two.