March 18, 2024 

One question facing each of the seven Big Ten teams entering March Madness

Does Caitlin Clark's final chapter end with a championship? Is Mackenzie Holmes healthy enough to play?

The NCAA Tournament has finally arrived, and the Big Ten will send seven of its teams to compete for a national title. Iowa, as a No. 1 seed, headlines the pack, aiming to return to the championship game for the second year in a row, while Ohio State and Indiana look to have the talent to make deep runs as well.

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Here’s one question facing each team entering the 2024 NCAA Tournament:

No. 1 Iowa Hawkeyes: Can they make it out of a region with LSU and UCLA?

In order for Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes to make it out of their region, they’ll potentially need to beat No. 2 UCLA or No. 3 LSU to make another run at a national championship. Of course, LSU beat Iowa in the national title game last year, 102-85.

It’s also no lock that the Hawkeyes even make it to the Elite Eight. If they make it through their first-round battle with either Holy Cross or UT Martin, they’ll face the winner of No. 8 West Virginia-No. 9 Princeton and then could potentially face No. 4 Kansas State — a team that beat the Hawkeyes already this season — in the Sweet 16.

Making another deep run will also require players not named Clark to step up — Kate Martin, Gabbie Marshall, Molly Davis and Hannah Stuelke to name a few. They’ve generally done so when the time has called, but facing a challenging road ahead, head coach Lisa Bluder will need all hands on deck.

Iowa opens with its first game on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.

No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes: Does their early Big Ten Tournament exit provide renewed focus?

Fixating on early conference tournament exits seems unhelpful, given how uncorrelated they are with NCAA Tournament success. They can either be a sign of deeper issues (perhaps injuries) slowing down a team that had success earlier in the season, or perhaps it’s an opportunity for a team to rest up and regroup entering March Madness.

For Ohio State, the latter seems quite plausible. Moving on from playing Big Ten opponents, the Buckeyes’ full-court press should pose a stiff challenge for teams that have never seen it before. That, coupled with the depth Ohio State has from Jacy Sheldon to Taylor Thierry to Cotie McMahon to Celeste Taylor, puts the Buckeyes in strong position to make some noise in this tournament.

Ohio State faces No. 15 Maine in its first game on Friday at noon ET.

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No. 4 Indiana Hoosiers: Is Mackenzie Holmes healthy?

This was the all-important question for the Hoosiers entering the Big Ten Tournament, and it’s the all-important question for the Hoosiers entering the NCAA Tournament. Holmes didn’t appear in Indiana’s quarterfinal matchup against Michigan until the fourth quarter, with head coach Teri Moren trying to give her as much rest as possible after she injured her left leg in the Hoosiers’ season-finale against Maryland.

Indiana’s success hinges on Holmes’ health. She said Sunday night that she’s feeling “a lot better,” which is a positive sign, but it’s not hyperbole to suggest that her presence on the court, at as close to 100% as possible, will determine how long Indiana’s March Madness run lasts. 

The Hoosiers have an elite cohort of guards in Sara Scalia, Sydney Parrish, Chloe Moore-McNeil and Yarden Garzon, but it’s hard to see how Indiana makes it to the second or third weekend of the tournament without Holmes playing a significant role.

Indiana opens up play against No. 13 Fairfield on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET.

No. 6 Nebraska Cornhuskers: Can they build off their Big Ten Tournament run?

The Huskers find themselves in the opposite boat as Ohio State, as a team that made a somewhat unexpected run to the Big Ten Tournament championship game. How much does that matter? 

It likely serves as a confidence boost, but it probably doesn’t mean a whole lot more than that. Facing No. 11 Texas A&M in the first round, the Huskers will hope that the magic guard Jaz Shelley was playing with in Minneapolis hasn’t disappeared in the last week and a half. Nebraska will also look for contributions elsewhere, particularly from Alexis Markowski, Natalie Potts and Logan Nissley, all of who played major roles in the team’s run to the conference tournament title game.

The Huskers tip off against the Aggies on Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET.

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No. 9 Michigan Wolverines: How far can the Wolverines ride their defense?

As many a coach has said, defense wins championships. Michigan seems highly unlikely to find itself in contention for a national title, but the Wolverines have a shot to make things interesting during the tournament’s first weekend because of how stout their defense is.

They’ll face No. 8 Kansas, which could be a favorable matchup for head coach Kim Barnes Arico. The Jayhawks have one of the lowest assisted shot rates in the country, meaning they rely heavily on individuals creating their own scoring chances. That should help keep things relatively simple for the Wolverines who won’t have to worry about elite passing and movement throwing off their positioning.

There’s a ceiling on how far this formula can take them, though. A potential second-round game against No. 1 Southern California would require more than just strong defense, and Michigan just hasn’t shown that it can score consistently. Having Laila Phelia opens the door for an upset, but it’ll still take a massive lift for the Wolverines to survive into the Sweet 16.

Michigan tips off against Kansas on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET.

No. 9 Michigan State Spartans: Do they establish their style of play?

Head coach Robyn Fralick often talks about how her team needs to do what they do best better than what their opponents do best. With limited size on their roster, Michigan State’s utilized its heavy guard rotation to play fast, share the ball and play aggressive defense all season, and it’s worked most of the time.

Now, the Spartans will look to bounce back from their quarterfinal exit in the Big Ten Tournament and challenge No. 8 North Carolina with their elite ball control. The Tar Heels don’t shoot the ball well from 3-point range at all (25%, 261st out of 360 teams), so if Michigan State can establish its pace of play early and get out and run, it has a good chance of walking away with an NCAA Tournament win, something that likely would’ve sounded preposterous at the start of the season.

A win would potentially set up a game against No. 1 South Carolina where the Spartans’ lack of size would cause quite a few issues, but Fralick taking this program to the NCAA Tournament and winning a game would be a major feat in itself.

Michigan State tips off against UNC on Friday at 11:30 a.m. ET.

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No. 10 Maryland Terrapins: Can Brenda Frese work her magic yet again?

It looked like the Terps would fall short. Sans an upset win in the Big Ten Tournament, they were likely on the outside of the field looking in. But then Maryland beat Ohio State in the conference tournament quarterfinals, and now Frese can try to extend her March magic a little further.

This team’s been a work in progress all season, with almost an entire new cast of talent and an injury to Shyanne Sellers, one of just two returning starters. But as Sellers said after the win over the Buckeyes in Minneapolis: “The Maryland team you see in March is not the same team you see at the beginning.”

The Terps face No. 7 Iowa State on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel

Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

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