March 6, 2024 

Big Ten Tournament preview: Questions for all 14 teams in the conference

Can Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes win their third straight title?

The 2024 Big Ten Tournament begins in Minneapolis on Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. ET when No. 12 Purdue faces off against No. 13 Northwestern and runs through the championship game on Sunday at noon ET.

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No. 2 Iowa has won the last two tournaments but should face stiff competition — particularly from No. 1 Ohio State and No. 3 Indiana — for a third-straight title.

For some teams, like Michigan, Maryland and Penn State, the tournament is a chance to solidify their NCAA Tournament resumes; for others, particularly those playing on the first day of the tournament, it’s a chance to try to build some positive momentum heading into next season.

The teams at the top want to win the trophy, for one, but they also want to make it through the weekend without any serious injuries as they gear up for the NCAA Tournament.

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Here’s one note to watch for each of the 14 Big Ten teams, in reverse order by seed:

No. 14 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (8-23; 2-16 Big Ten): Can they beat the Gophers again?

Rutgers won just two Big Ten games this season, but one of them came on Feb. 13 against a Minnesota team they’ll face off with on Wednesday night. The Gophers have been reeling since losing sophomore guard Mara Braun to a season-ending injury, losing four in a row to close out the regular season including a 90-34 loss against Penn State on Sunday.

The Scarlet Knights have dealt with injuries of their own, namely to Kaylene Smikle, their leading scorer from last season who hasn’t appeared in a game since Dec. 30. But with seven players on the roster who could return next season, this week presents a chance for Rutgers to try to win a game or two and end what’s been a tough season on a more positive note.

No. 13 Northwestern Wildcats (9-20; 4-14 Big Ten): Is this the end of the Joe McKeown era?

The Wildcats’ head coach has led the program to unprecedented levels of success. In 2020, they won the Big Ten regular season title for the first time in 30 years; the following year, they won their first NCAA Tournament game since 1993. 

McKeown brought in elite talent over the years, from Amy Jaeschke to Nia Coffey to Ashley Deary to Veronica Burton, but the last two seasons have been a struggle. 

Since Burton’s departure for the WNBA in 2022, Northwestern has gone 18-41. The Wildcats can’t necessarily be expected to compete at the top of the conference every season with academic requirements making adding players through the transfer portal a challenge, but the program has faced a difficult last two years, and McKeown’s contract expires at the end of next season.

No. 12 Purdue Boilermakers (12-17; 5-13 Big Ten): How do Katie Gearlds’ building blocks perform?

Before the season, the Purdue head coach talked about how important the six freshmen she brought in would be to the program’s future. Some, like Mary Ashley Stevenson and Rashunda Jones, played significant minutes throughout the year. 

The Boilermakers still have four key graduate students and seniors (Abbey Ellis, Madison Layden, Jeanae Terry and Caitlyn Harper) who figure to see most of the minutes in this tournament, but the contributions of Stevenson (named Big Ten Freshman of the Year by media) and Jones could help set the tone for what looks to be a very young Purdue roster next season. 

Stevenson has averaged 9.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game so far this year, while Jones has averaged 7.7 points and 1.7 assists. The scoring numbers might not jump off the page, but Stevenson and Jones rank third and fourth respectively in scoring among Big Ten freshmen this season.

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Mara Braun attempts a shot against Michigan State
Mara Braun attempts a shot for Minnesota against Michigan State on Jan. 20. Credit: John McClellan

No. 11 Minnesota Golden Gophers (15-14; 5-13 Big Ten): Can the Gophers stop the skid?

It’s been a brutal collapse for a Minnesota team that was exceeding everybody’s expectations through late January. Entering the Gophers’ Jan. 28 game with Illinois, they were 14-5, with wins over Michigan and Nebraska. But sophomore guard Mara Braun, the team’s leading scorer, suffered a season-ending foot injury in that Illini game, sending Minnesota’s season into a tailspin. 

The Gophers dropped that game to Illinois and subsequently lost eight of the next nine. Head coach Dawn Plitzuweit surely deserves a ton of credit for the work she’s done in her first season to even get this team to finish above .500 after last year’s 11-19 campaign, but the late-season collapse has certainly dampened the excitement in Minneapolis. Still, the Gophers have a chance to try to right the ship and win a game or two in their home city this week.

No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers (13-15; 6-12 Big Ten): What does Serah Williams do for an encore against Penn State?

When Wisconsin and Penn State faced off on Feb. 11, the sophomore forward had one of the best games of her young career, scoring 31 points and securing 15 rebounds in a 69-64 upset win over the Lady Lions. Williams has been a major bright spot in Madison this season, and she’ll have a chance at another monster performance on Thursday when Wisconsin and Penn State square off again.

At 6’4, Williams enjoys a favorable matchup against a Lady Lions team that generally plays a smaller lineup. She’ll likely have the 6’4 Ali Brigham on her, but Brigham played 22 minutes in that first meeting and scored just two points, while picking up three fouls. 

Wisconsin will hope to use Thursday as an opportunity to pick up a win against a potential NCAA Tournament team and secure a trip to the tournament quarterfinals on Friday, as head coach Marisa Moseley looks to keep her rebuild moving in a positive direction.

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No. 9 Illinois Fighting Illini (14-14; 8-10 Big Ten): Does the Nebraska win provide renewed confidence?

The Illini had a brutal schedule for the last four games of the regular season, against Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska. To emerge from that stretch 2-2, including a 74-73 win over the Huskers on Sunday, has to give Illinois renewed confidence that it can compete with anybody in the conference.

Illinois lost to Maryland, the team it faces on Thursday, by 16 points on Feb. 11, but the Terps have also played uneven basketball all season. With a veteran-laden team under Shauna Green, Makira Cook, Kendall Bostic and co. should give Maryland a battle in the game that will decide who faces No. 1 Ohio State in the quarterfinals.

No. 8 Maryland Terrapins (17-12; 9-9 Big Ten): Can the Terps solidify their NCAA Tournament status?

With Illinois’ NCAA Tournament hopes virtually extinguished, the Terps have the most to lose in Thursday’s battle; expect them to play that way. Throughout the season, Maryland’s received strong contributions from Jakia Brown-Turner, Bri McDaniel, Shyanne Sellers and Brinae Alexander. But putting those contributions together consistently has been an issue.

Since the start of February, Sellers has had four games where she’s shot over 50% from the field but three games shooting under 30%. Brown-Turner and McDaniel have come on as of late, but the Terps will need all three to play well in order to beat Illinois and try to push the Buckeyes if they advance to play on Friday.

No. 7 Penn State Lady Lions (18-11; 9-9 Big Ten): Which Penn State team shows up?

Like Maryland, Penn State has quite a bit to lose with a one-and-done trip to Minneapolis. The Lady Lions played well over the last two games, averaging over 90 points, but that came on the heels of a six-game losing streak. 

Sitting on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament, Penn State almost assuredly needs to beat Wisconsin to keep its hopes alive. Look for the Lady Lions to try to exploit their advantage at guard against the Badgers. While Wisconsin has a good number of young players on the perimeter, Penn State has four different main scoring options in Ashley Owusu, Makenna Marisa, Shay Ciezki and Leilani Kapinus who’ve all performed at a high level throughout their careers.

Laila Phelia dribbles the ball up the floor for Michigan.
Guard Laila Phelia dribbles the ball up the floor for Michigan in the Wolverines 2023 NCAA Tournament game against UNLV in March. Credit: Michigan Athletics

No. 6 Michigan Wolverines (18-12; 9-9 Big Ten): Can the Wolverines generate enough offense?

The Wolverines have the best scoring defense in the conference, but in order to make a run in this week’s tournament, Michigan’s going to need to find a way to generate more offense. Kim Barnes Arico’s team will face the winner of Rutgers-Minnesota in the second round on Thursday, a game in which lockdown defense could be enough to win; but against No. 3 Indiana, the team the Wolverines would face if they reach the quarterfinal, that probably won’t cut it.

Aside from junior guard Laila Phelia, it’s been a struggle this season for Michigan to find a reliable second scoring option. Graduate guard Lauren Hansen has filled that void at times, as have senior forward Cameron Williams and junior guard Jordan Hobbs, but the Wolverines will hope that all four players play their best basketball of the season together in Minneapolis to make it to the weekend.

No. 5 Nebraska Cornhuskers (19-10; 11-7 Big Ten): Will the Huskers avoid a bad loss?

If not for their loss to Illinois on Sunday, the Huskers would’ve had a double bye into the quarterfinals. But several surprising losses have arisen throughout Nebraska’s schedule this season. In addition to the defeat to the Illini, the Huskers also lost at home to last-place Rutgers on Feb. 3.

Overall, it’s been a strong bounceback season for a Nebraska team that missed out on the NCAA Tournament last year, but a win over the winner of Northwestern-Purdue on Thursday will help erase that sour taste from Sunday’s loss and refocus the Huskers’ efforts on Michigan State, a team it beat in early December. 

The good news for Nebraska is that it handled both Northwestern (75-50 win on Feb. 20) and Purdue (68-54 win on Jan. 31; 77-65 win on Feb. 17) pretty handily during the regular season. But, one of the biggest weaknesses of Amy Williams’ teams over the last two seasons has been playing up and down to their competition. The former works out great when it leads to a win over Iowa, but the latter severely harms the Huskers’ NCAA Tournament seeding.

No. 4 Michigan State Spartans (22-7; 12-6 Big Ten): Do the Spartans finally pick up a ranked win?

There are few boxes Michigan State didn’t check off in a tremendous first season for head coach Robyn Fralick. The Spartans went from entering the season as a relative unknown to one of the top teams in the conference, but a ranked win eluded them all year. Michigan State played four games against ranked opponents; it lost all four, but three of the four were decided by five points or fewer.

If the Spartans get past their quarterfinal opponent, they’d potentially get a third crack at trying to beat Ohio State, a team they lost to 70-65 on Jan. 14 and 86-71 on Feb. 11. Coaches always say it’s hard to beat a team, particularly a team as good as Michigan State, three times in a season. The Spartans will hope for a chance to prove that to be true.

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Mackenzie Holmes attempts a layup against Maine on Nov. 30.
Mackenzie Holmes attempts a layup with Maine’s Adrianna Smith defending her on Nov. 30, 2023. Credit: Indiana Athletics

No. 3 Indiana Hoosiers (24-4; 15-3 Big Ten): Is Mackenzie Holmes healthy?

When Holmes exited Indiana’s final game of the regular season against Maryland with an apparent left leg injury, it was one of the most unfortunate feelings of déjà vu. Last year in the Big Ten Tournament, Holmes injured the same leg and had to miss Indiana’s first round NCAA Tournament game, before returning in the second round upset loss to Miami (FL). 

Head coach Teri Moren characterized Holmes as day-to-day, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Indiana be ultra-cautious with the unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection. This is the Hoosiers’ final ride with Holmes — rushing her back to try to make a run at a Big Ten Tournament title instead of preparing for the NCAA Tournament might not be Moren’s choice of priorities.

No. 2: Iowa Hawkeyes (26-4; 15-3 Big Ten): Can Caitlin Clark lead the Hawkeyes to their third straight conference tournament title?

Even for teams that receive the double bye, winning three games in three days is an immense challenge. But the way the Hawkeyes are built — with their prolific offense headlined by Clark — makes them uniquely positioned to win their third straight tournament. 

A team like Ohio State that relies heavily on its full-court press defense has to adjust entering the weekend to either press less to conserve energy or employ its usual style and risk running out of gas by championship Sunday. Iowa’s offense is hard enough to slow down when opposing defenses are fully rested; trying to slow it down after having played two games the previous two days is an even heavier lift. If Clark continues to drop 30-point performances with strong contributions from guard Kate Martin and forward Hannah Stuelke, the Hawkeyes could be celebrating another championship. 

No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes (25-4; 16-2 Big Ten): Do the Buckeyes avoid the post-Iowa loss letdown?

Last year, it was Indiana that traveled to Carver-Hawkeye Arena having already locked up the Big Ten regular season title, lost a tight battle with Iowa and then had a shaky performance in the Big Ten Tournament. Ohio State has already had the first two things happen; can it avoid the third?

This is an ultra-experienced Ohio State team, led by graduate guard Jacy Sheldon, junior guard Taylor Thierry and sophomore forward Cotie McMahon. But this group also has tremendous depth. Bringing guard Celeste Taylor — just named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year by the coaches — over from Duke has only improved an already elite defensive unit, and with other players like Rebeka Mikulasikova and Rikki Harris who can knock down shots, this is a remarkably difficult team to slow down. 

There’s still reason to be skeptical over how successfully Ohio State can defend with the level of intensity it prefers for three straight days, but the Buckeyes have proven time and again this season to be one of the top teams in the country and should be a tough out for any opponent it faces.

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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