September 29, 2023 

Three teams that could rise in the Big Ten in 2023-24

These programs missed the NCAA Tournament last year but are ready to turn things around

It’s pretty safe to assume that Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State, Maryland and Michigan will be among the Big Ten’s best in 2023-24. But what about teams that might fly under the radar? What about the programs that were closer to the bottom than the top of the Big Ten standings last year?

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It’s entirely possible these teams don’t progress in 2023-24 and perform just as poorly or worse than they did last year. But there’s a strong case to be made for several Big Ten teams that missed out on the NCAA Tournament last season to turn things around in 2023-24. Here are the three teams that have the highest upside based on their roster construction.

Penn State

In 2023-24, the Nittany Lions could make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014, or they could finish with a losing record for the seventh straight year. Neither would be surprising, but there’s a strong case to be made that the former is more probable.

Head coach Carolyn Kieger pushed all her chips to the middle of the table by adding five transfers. She hopes that, along with a strong guard trio of Makenna Marisa, Shay Ciezki and Leilani Kapinus, they can elevate the program to the next level.

In the Nittany Lions’ first four seasons under Kieger, they have seen a progression in wins — from seven to nine to 11 to 14. Still, they’ve never finished with a record above .500, and the defense has struggled mightily, consistently ranking near the bottom of the conference in Her Hoop Stats defensive rating.

With more experience on the roster and the potential for a lethal offense, this could be the season Penn State finally turns things around. Starting with the three key returners, Marisa, Ciezki and Kapinus are all in the upper echelon of players in the Big Ten. Marisa averaged 22.2 points per game in 2021-22 and 17.5 points per game last year, while also ranking in the 97th percentile nationally in assists and the 90th percentile in steals. Ciezki was one of the top 3-point shooters in the country at 41.6% last year as a freshman, and Kieger argues she’s accelerated her growth this offseason. And Kapinus is a top-tier rebounder and defender, averaging 6.7 rebounds and 3.1 steals per game last season.

To complement those three, the additions of guards Ashley Owusu from Virginia Tech and Taylor Valladay from Virginia could be particularly impactful.

Owusu’s college basketball career has been parabolic, to say the least. After three strong seasons at Maryland, injuries and off-the-court issues limited her to just seven starts in Blacksburg last season. Now with her third team in three seasons, there are arguments for and against how positive an impact she can have. If she can rediscover what made her tick in College Park, though, she could be a key asset for the offense.

“She’s got a chip on her shoulder,” Kieger told The Next this summer. “She’s excited to be back in the Big Ten; she’s excited to take a program and help them get to the tournament. She knows what it takes to win. She knows what it takes to win in the Big Ten. … She’s in a really great spot right now, and I think our style of play is going to fit her to a T. Give her the ball in her hands, work off ball screens, navigate ball screens. She’s going to have shooters on both sides of the floor to give her space and create space.”

Meanwhile, Valladay averaged 10.0 points and 3.8 assists per game at Virginia last season and could provide another steady ball-handler for the offense to run through. Add forward Kylie Lavelle, who averaged 11.1 points per game at Drexel last season, to the mix as well, and you don’t have to squint to see how this offense could be tough to slow down.

Whether the defense will be good enough is another question, and the answer will likely play a big role in determining the outcome of Penn State’s season. Unlike previous seasons, however, there’s appropriately a significant reason for optimism about what 2023-24 could bring in State College.

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Perhaps it’s unfair to consider the Cornhuskers an under-the-radar program considering they’re just a year removed from a 24-9 season. But Nebraska took a step back last season, struggling to consistently show up in games. It beat Maryland and Illinois on the road by more than 20 points each but lost to Rutgers and Minnesota. Flip those two losses to wins, and the Huskers likely qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Head coach Amy Williams is back to the drawing board this offseason.

The good news is that the talent is already in Lincoln. Even with the losses of guard Sam Haiby and forward Isabelle Bourne — key cogs to the last few seasons of Nebraska basketball — guard Jaz Shelley and forward/center Alexis Markowski return. Williams also added guard Darian White, who averaged 14.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game at Montana State last season. She’s also a two-time Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year.

“Darian is really spunky. She just plays with a motor,” Williams told The Next in July. “Having a Defensive Player of the Year under your belt is a really good sign as well. She wants to play on both ends of the court, and she’s an outstanding kid with a great attitude who wants to be great and wants to compete and wants to challenge herself at a high level. We’re really excited about the way she can transition in here.”

Combined with Shelley, an elite scorer and passer, and Markowski, who nearly averaged a double-double in each of her first two seasons, this could be a tough unit to slow down. Shelley needs to reduce her turnovers (she ranked in the third percentile nationally in turnovers per game last year), and Markowski will look to improve her field goal percentage, which dropped from 49.2% her freshman season to to 43.3% last season.

In addition, guard Allison Weidner was averaging double figures in scoring last season before a leg injury in January ended her season. Her return could give the Huskers four bona fide scorers in 2023-24.

If Nebraska can replicate the way it played against the Terps and Illini last season — and even in tight losses to Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa and Michigan — while also taking care of business against the bottom-tier competition, Williams’ bunch could catapult itself back into the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan State

For a program that has a new head coach and not much experience on the roster, there’s ample reason to be skeptical of how high the Spartans’ ceiling can be in 2023-24. One thing is clear, though: Head coach Robyn Fralick knows how to run an offense.

She took Bowling Green from a program that averaged 63 points per game and was in the 34th percentile in Her Hoop Stats offensive rating in 2017-18, the season before she took over, to one that averaged 76.5 points per game and was in the 90th percentile in Her Hoop Stats offensive rating last season. Last year’s team also featured five players who averaged double figures.

It remains to be seen how much of that Fralick can replicate at the Power 5 level, with only four players on the roster who have averaged double figures before. When she first took over the Falcons, it took time to see progress. The team went from 10-19 the year before she arrived, to 8-21 in each of her first two seasons, to 21-8 in 2020-21. It’s possible it takes a similar timeframe to elevate Michigan State to the level Fralick hopes, but the Spartans didn’t struggle as much as Bowling Green did, finishing 16-14 in 2022-23.

The team lost last year’s top two scorers in guard Kamaria McDaniel (graduated) and guard/forward Matilda Ekh (transferred to Virginia Tech). But the return of guards DeeDee Hagemann, Moira Joiner and Gabby Elliott and the additions of Bowling Green transfer guard/forward Jocelyn Tate and Western Michigan transfer guard Lauren Ross could give Fralick enough offensive talent.

Tate and Ross should give the offense a big boost. Tate averaged 10.3 points per game for Fralick last year, and her familiarity with the offense means she can help her teammates acclimate to the system. Ross averaged 22.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game last season. Her scoring average ranked eighth-best out of 3,382 qualified players in the country.

Depth will likely be the key shortcoming for the Spartans in 2023-24, complicating how good the team can be. But if the Spartans can stay healthy and Tate and Ross can replicate their mid-major success in the Big Ten, Michigan State could be a team to keep an eye on in 2023-24.

“It’s the best of the best,” Fralick told The Next in July about joining the Big Ten, which sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament last season. “These are games I’ve been watching on TV since I was a kid and as a coach. … [It has] the best players, the best coaches and it makes you have to get better. That piece is scary, that piece is exciting and mostly that piece is motivating.”

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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