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Big Ten women's basketball preview 2021-22

Big Ten Women’s Basketball Preview 2021-22: Terps Repeat?

Maryland was the sole champion of the 2020-21 Big Ten women’s basketball regular season, but Indiana wasn’t far behind. Now, the Terps bring back a lot of what had them in the driver’s seat last season, while Indiana returns its big three, Michigan’s Naz Hillmon is still in the mix, and Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes might have something to say, too.

It should be another compelling campaign for women’s basketball in the Big Ten. Let’s take a look at what to expect from each of the 14 competitors.

Big Ten Women’s Basketball Preview 2021-22: Terps Repeat?

The Favorites: Iowa, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan

Iowa

Head coach: Lisa Bluder (22nd season)

2020-21 record: 20-10 (11-8)

Conference finish: 6th

There is one very, very big reason why Iowa is among my favorites, and if you watch women’s college basketball at all last season, you know what it is: Caitlin Clark.

As a freshman, Clark cemented herself as one of the best players in the country and possibly one of the best players of the generation. Her 26.7 points per game led all of Division I, and she was top in the Big Ten in three-point field goals per game (3.9), third in three-point field goal percentage (40.6 percent, with 286!!! attempts), and second in free-throw percentage (85.8 percent with 176!!! attempts). The crazy thing is, she’s even better than her stats indicate.

Iowa has other pieces around her, too. Monika Czinano was virtually automatic from the floor last season, and McKenna Warnock offers another option on the perimeter. But it’s really Clark who makes the Hawkeyes go, and if she takes a step forward in her game, which is possible and a scary proposition, Iowa could genuinely win this league.

Indiana

Head coach: Teri Moren (8th season)

2020-21 record: 21-6 (16-2)

Conference finish: 2nd

Indiana was one of the top contenders for the Big Ten women’s basketball crown in 2020-21, and it figures to be in the mix again in 2021-22.

The Hoosiers return their top-three scorers from a year ago – Mackenzie Holmes, Grace Berger, and Ali Patberg – which gives them one of the more formidable three-headed offensive attacks in the league. Berger is, and will continue to be, one of the top point guards in the league, with excellent court vision and a knack for taking care of the ball.

Depth after those three might be the reason why Indiana doesn’t win the league, but the Hoosiers were one game behind Maryland for a share of the title in 2020-21 and all three of their big pieces are back. You have to include them among the favorites, especially with how they defend.

Maryland

Head coach: Brenda Frese (20th season)

2020-21 record: 26-3 (17-1)

Conference finish: 1st

Despite an earlier exit from the NCAA Tournament than the Terps would have liked, they were one of the best teams in the country a year ago, and there’s not much to suggest that won’t be the case again.

Ashley Owusu, Diamond Miller, Chloe Bibby, Katie Benzan, Mimi Collins, and Angel Reese all scored in double figures in 2020-21, and all six are back to orchestrate this high-powered offensive attack. Maryland will beat you to death with their pace, ability to get to the rim, and shooting, and it yet again has the personnel to do so with an extra year of experience and maturity for almost all of its players.

Owusu and Miller in particular are special players. Owusu’s frame allows her to overpower opponents with the ball in her hands while simultaneously having outstanding footwork that lets her nimbly get to the tin. Miller is more of a shooter, hitting on 35.5 percent of her triples last year, but can do more, too, like rebound and protect the paint as a 6-foot-3 guard.

Brenda Frese has more than enough talent at her disposal to get another Big Ten women’s basketball trophy to College Park.

Michigan

Head coach: Kim Barnes Arico (10th season)

2020-21 record: 16-6 (9-4)

Conference finish: 4th

The return of Naz Hillmon and Leigha Brown are both big for Michigan. Together, they combined to create one of the more potent guard-post relationships in Big Ten women’s basketball in 2020-21, and having them both back to operate the offense in 2021-22 is a huge help for Kim Barnes Arico. Hillmon, the 2021 Big Ten Player of the Year, was especially effective, averaging a double-double on 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds per contest.

The Wolverines are also bringing in some fresh talent, including Laila Phelia, the No. 28-ranked recruit in the Class of 2021, according to ESPN. She won a pair of Ohio state titles at Mount Notre Dame in 2019 and 2021 and ended her high school career on a 72-game winning streak. Her team was 28-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country before COVID-19 cut the season short. Basically, she has been around a lot of winning, and while her game on the court can be of use to the Wolverines, her experience and winning mentality will be helpful, too.

The Contenders: Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern

Michigan State

Head coach: Suzy Merchant (15th season)

2020-21 record: 15-9 (8-7)

Conference finish: 8th

Michigan State is bringing back much of the talent that got it into the 2021 NCAA Tournament, headlined by senior guard Nia Clouden, who did everything for the Spartans in 2020-21. She led the team in scoring (18.7 points per game), distribution (3.9 assists per contest), and steals (1.6 per outing), and was an important part of what MSU did on the glass. Her return is a big reason for Michigan State to feel good about this coming campaign.

The Spartans also have four-star point guard Damiya Hagemann entering the program, who can help relieve the pain of losing Tory Ozment and Janai Crooms from the 2020-21 team. Add her with Clouden, Alyza Winston, and Julia Ayrault, and you have a pretty strong backcourt. Is it enough to win the Big Ten? Probably not, but it should be enough to keep the Spartans very much in the mix to dance again.

Minnesota

Head coach: Lindsay Whalen (4th season)

2020-21 record: 8-13 (7-11)

Conference finish: 10th

Minnesota quite literally is missing only one player from last season’s roster, and that player appeared in three games in 2020-21. So, you can expect the Gophers to look pretty similar to a year ago.

A lot of Big Ten women’s basketball teams return a good chunk of talent from last season, but Minnesota takes it to another level. Jasmine Powell, Sara Scalia, Kadi Sissoko, Gadiva Hubbard, Klarke Sconiers, Alexia Smith, Kayla Mershon, Laura Bagwell Katalinich, they’re all back and presumably better with another offseason and more experience in them. Smith and Sissoko were both five-star recruits, and Lindsay Whalen has to think she can get more out of both of them, especially Smith.

A big issue for Minnesota last year was defense. The Gophers were near the bottom of the league in points allowed per game (78.7), last in the Big Ten in blocked shots (53, 2.52 per contest), and 11th in steals (129, 6.14 per outing). That would have to be massively solved for them to win the league and somewhat fixed to at least contend, but with so much talent back, Minnesota should improve from where it was in 2020-21.

Nebraska

Head coach: Amy Williams (6th season)

2020-21 record: 13-13 (9-10)

Conference finish: 9th

Nebraska got into the WNIT last season, its first postseason appearance since dancing in 2018, and has some of its best players from last season back for this one. Sam Haiby, who averaged 16.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per contest, plus shot 37.4 percent from deep in 2020-21, will be in Lincoln again, as well as the team’s second-leading scorer Isabelle Bourne.

But there is a big question for Nebraska: how will it replace Kate Cain? The Cornhuskers blocked the most shots in the league last season, and Cain was a big reason for that successful rim protection, swatting 2.8 shots per night with her 6-foot-5 frame. But she’s gone now, and it’ll be up to Bella Cravens and company to make up for the loss.

Maybe putting Nebraska as a contender is a bit zealous, but I think there’s too much returning on this roster to put this team in purgatory. A tournament bid is possible for the Huskers in 2022.

Northwestern

Head coach: Joe McKeown (14th season)

2020-21 record: 16-9 (11-7)

Conference finish: 5th

Northwestern’s leading scorer from a season ago, Veronica Burton, who is also the back-to-back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, is back for 2021-22, as well as Sydney Wood, Courtney Shaw, and Paige Mott as some of the returning pieces of last year’s rotation that got the Wildcats to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Wildcats also have three top-60 players in the Class of 2021, according to ESPN, coming into the program: Hailey Weaver, Jillian Brown, and Caileigh Walsh. How much they’ll be able to contribute immediately remains to be seen, but with Lindsey Pulliam and Jordan Hamilton moving on, you have to think there will be opportunities in the backcourt for the newcomers.

Can Burton become a dominant force in Big Ten women’s basketball this season? Will the freshmen be able to replace what was lost in the offseason? Northwestern should be competitive again at a minimum, but if it all comes together, it could be a fair bit better than that.

Stuck in Purgatory: Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers

Ohio State

Head coach: Kevin McGuff (9th season)

2020-21 record: 13-7 (9-7)

Conference finish: 7th

Dorka Juhasz transferred out to UConn and Aaliyah Patty left for Texas A&M, and those are large losses for Ohio State. But sometimes the transfer portal giveth, and it provided the Buckeyes with a bounty of Taylor Mikesell (Oregon), who brings tons of experience to their backcourt, including a stint in the Big Ten previously with Maryland.

Mikesell will combine with Jacy Sheldon, the team’s leading scorer in 2020-21, Madison Greene, and Braxtin Miller to create a formidable guard core. That’s great, but there are some serious concerns about how Ohio State will handle the paint and glass without Juhasz. Tanaya Beacham and Rebeka Mikulasikova will really have to step up.

I think Ohio State is losing too much production down low and on the glass with Juhasz transferring out to be a contender for the Big Ten women’s basketball crown. A return to the Big Dance is possible, but it’s far from guaranteed.

Penn State

Head coach: Carolyn Kieger (3rd season)

2020-21 record: 9-15 (6-13)

Conference finish: 11th

A lot of the players from the 2020-21 team are back in State College, sans Johnasia Cash, who averaged 13.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game last season. That’s a big loss, and Penn State will have to fill her rebounding production one way or another.

Perhaps the most important player who will be back is Kelly Jekot, who only played nine games last campaign before a season-ending injury cut her season short. In that small sample size, Jekot was the team’s leading scorer, second-leading rebounder, and was top on the team in minutes, so to have her back will make a huge difference.

Will it be enough to get Penn State out of purgatory in this league? I’m not so sure, but having Jekot available is definitely much better than not.

Rutgers

Head coach: C. Vivian Stringer (27th season)

2020-21 record: 14-5 (10-3)

Conference finish: 3rd

I’m predicting a decent fall for Rutgers from third in the league to not even necessarily in the NCAA Tournament, but when you lose a player as good as Arella Guirantes, a step back is to be expected. She wasn’t just one of the best players in the Big Ten last season, she was one of the nation’s top talents, and most programs aren’t capable of replacing that with the snap of a finger.

But it’s not only Guirantes who is gone. Diamond Johnson and Tekia Mack, the team’s other double-double scorers in 2020-21, have both departed. In fact, Rutgers’ top-five point-getters from last season are no longer on the team. C. Vivian Stringer has to find a way to replace 65.8 points per game from those five players alone.

Stringer is an all-time coach and some members of the rotation are back, so I don’t think Rutgers will totally tank to the basement of Big Ten women’s basketball. But it’s going to be a much different season from the last one.

The Basement: Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin

Illinois

Head coach: Nancy Fahey (5th season)

2020-21 record: 5-18 (2-16)

Conference finish: 13th

It was a tough year in Champaign, and it doesn’t look like 2021-22 will be tons better. Jada Peebles, the leading scorer from a season ago, is back, and that’s a good thing. The addition of four-star guard Adalia McKenzie is a positive thing, too. But otherwise, there isn’t a ton to be excited about.

Illinois could not score last season, averaging a league-worst 59.6 points per night. It wasn’t horrible defensively, but if you can’t score, you won’t win, and looking at the 2021-22 roster, I don’t see any massive offensive production change that could allow the Illini to escape the basement.

Purdue

Head coach: Sharon Versyp (15th season)

2020-21 record: 7-16 (4-14)

Conference finish: 12th

It was a disappointing season in West Lafayette in 2020-21, and compared to most of Big Ten women’s basketball competitors, the Boilermakers aren’t returning much of their previous talent. Leading scorer Kayana Traylor and her 15.0 points per game are gone, and Fatou Diagne and her 8.0 rebounds per night are gone.

Combine that with reports from the Journal & Courier about Sharon Versyp creating a “toxic and hostile” environment within the program, which might have had something to do with the announcement not long before that 2021-22 would be the long-time coach’s final season at Purdue, and you can see why I don’t expect a ton from the Boilermakers this winter. That’s a lot of things to overcome for a team that wasn’t particularly good to begin with.

Wisconsin

Head coach: Marisa Moseley (1st season)

2020-21 record: 5-19 (2-18)

Conference finish: 14th

Wisconsin was brutal last season, so much so that it lost Johnathan Tsipis his job. Now, it’s the Marisa Moseley era in Madison, and while that might mean something different on the scoreboard in the future, I’m not sure how big of a difference it’ll make in 2021-22.

At this point, the Badgers haven’t had a winning season (2010-11) nor appeared in the NCAA Tournament (2010) in more than a decade. The rot has fully set in, and it’ll take Moseley more than a few months to change that.

This season could be better than last one with Katie Nelson, a grad transfer from Boston University and 2021 All-Patriot First Team player, entering the program and Sydney Hilliard and her 15.5 points per game still on the team. But will it be enough to finish outside of the conference’s bottom four? That’s hard to see.

2021-22 Big Ten Women’s Basketball Players to Watch

Caitlin Clark – Guard – Sophomore – Iowa

Caitlin Clark was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season and one of the most electrifying players in the nation, let alone the league. I think she’s WNBA ready right now, and she’s still a college underclassman. She’s an absolute monster, and if you aren’t watching her, you are seriously, SERIOUSLY missing out on an unreal talent.

Naz Hillmon – Forward – Senior – Michigan

Not only was Naz Hillmon the consensus 2021 Big Ten Player of the Year, she was also the 2021 Michigan Athlete of the Year, on multiple First Team All-America lists, and posted a double-double average on 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting 62.3 percent from the field. She’s one of the most lethal post weapons in Division I offensively and cleans up on the glass, too.

Ashley Owusu – Guard – Junior – Maryland

Ashley Owusu is one of the more unique players in the league. She has a wide, 6-foot frame that doesn’t make her look like the speedy, elusive guard she is, and the best part is, she uses her body incredibly well to elevate those attributes. She has aggression is spades, which is a perfect fit for the Maryland offense. Did I mention that she’s extremely adept at finishing around the rim? Owusu is one of the most exciting players to watch in Big Ten women’s basketball, and there’s no question about that.

2021-22 Men’s & Women’s College Basketball Conference Previews

Learn more about the upcoming 2021-22 men’s and women’s college basketball seasons with Nothing But Nylon’s extensive conference previews, with a new conference covered every week before the campaign tips off in November.

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