Women's basketball: Can Maryland win a fourth straight Big Ten title?
What a year it was for Big Ten women's basketball in the 2016-17 season. The gap between the top (Maryland, Ohio State) and the bottom (Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Rutgers) of the conference was 12 wins in Big Ten play, with seven other teams at or above .500. Maryland has won at least a share of the regular-season title in every year since it joined the conference but the Terrapins will have to replace their three leading scorers from last season.
The Buckeyes advanced to the Sweet 16 – the furthest of any team in the conference – but can any Big Ten team make it further in 2018?
Best player: Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State
Mitchell led the conference and finished ninth nationally in scoring in 2016-17 at 22.6 points per game and she'll be the focal point of Ohio State's offense once again. She took more than double the number of shots than her next closest teammate last season and she's able to score effectively from behind the 3-point line and at the free throw line.
She made 115 three while shooting at nearly a 37 percent clip from behind the arc and she was roughly an 82 percent free throw shooter. Mitchell, whose trophy case includes a pair of Big Ten Player of the Year awards, scored at least 13 points in every game and she eclipsed the 30-point mark seven times.
There may not be a better scorer in the country this season than Kelsey Mitchell.
Best team: Ohio State
The Buckeyes return four of their top four scorers from their Big Ten championship-winning team last season. Plus, they were the only Big Ten team that managed to slay the giant that is Maryland women's basketball. However, a road loss at Michigan State kept Ohio State from winning the regular season title outright.
Practice... Welcome Back pic.twitter.com/kMaxaK6G62— OSU W Basketball (@OhioState_WBB) October 4, 2017
Mitchell is clearly the star of the team but she has a strong supporting cast around her in 6-3 forward Stephanie Mavunga (11.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg), guard Sierra Calhoun (9.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and guard Linnae Harper (8.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg). That core, the team's NCAA tournament experience and a strong homecourt advantage (the Buckeyes are 45-6 at home over the last three seasons) should mean the Big Ten championship goes through Columbus this season.
Sleeper team: Indiana
Indiana's trend as a program is upwards, there's no question about it. Over the last three seasons, the Hoosiers have improved from 15-16 to 21-12 to 23-11, with postseason appearances in each of the past two springs. The task now for Indiana is to make the jump into the top tier of the Big Ten and make an NCAA tournament run. The Hoosiers might just have the personnel to do so.
Seniors Tyra Buss (18.2 ppg, 4.6 apg) and Amanda Cahill (14.8 ppg, 8.9 rpg) are among the conference's premier offensive players and freshman wing Jaelynn Penn will be one of the best freshmen in the Big Ten. After finishing fourth in each of the last two seasons, can the Hoosiers climb the standings to challenge Ohio State and Maryland?
Best freshman: Sidney Cooks, Michigan State
The Spartans finished tied for sixth in the Big Ten last season and they'll try to take a step forward with freshman forward Sidney Cooks. The 6-4 Wisconsin native is among the best freshmen in the country as she's a matchup nightmare with terrific size and the skill to play as a face-up four.
Her offensive game extends to the 3-point line and she can also defend the rim on defense.
Andy Wittry has written for SI.com, Sporting News, the Indianapolis Star, Louisville Courier-Journal and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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