December 28, 2021
Three Big Ten players who can shake up the conference’s landscape in the new year
With two months left in the regular season, these three players are poised to make big impacts.
Halfway through the 2021-22 campaign, it’s apparent: the state of the Big Ten is strong.
The Big Ten currently has five teams in the top 25 in the most recent Associated Press poll, including two in the top 10. In the past few weeks, Michigan took down then-No. 5 Baylor for the program’s first win against a top-five team (it was 0-33 until that win on Dec. 19), Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes put up a 30-piece against Ohio State, and Michigan State’s Nia Clouden erupted for 50 points against FGCU.
While a lot of the attention will be on how the omicron variant of COVID-19 will impact the college sports in the new year, there is plenty of action to look forward to as we approach the final two months of regular season play.
Here are three players in the Big Ten I am most intrigued by heading into 2022.
Nicole Cardano-Hillary, Indiana
Cardano-Hillary starred at George Mason before heading over to Indiana last season. Now, she is the engine of the Hoosiers’ defensive unit. She is the classic player who fans love if she is on their team and despise if she is on the opposite bench. Cardano-Hillary is a self-proclaimed “pest” on the defensive end of the floor and impacts the game beyond the box score.
The best example of this came against NC State on Dec. 2. Cardano-Hillary went 0-10 (0-6 from beyond the arc) but had her handprints all over outcome of the game. The Wolfpack went on a late surge to win the matchup between the two teams, but her on-ball defense was infuriatingly disruptive for NC State.
Whether it is going fighting through screens, disrupting pass lanes or attempting to win an academy award for best actress with masterful floppery, Cardano-Hillary is going to make her presence known each time out on the floor.
Every team vying for a national championship needs a player like Cardano-Hillary. Indiana sports the 12th-best defensive rating in the country, in large part because of her elite defensive ability.
Diamond Miller, Maryland
Miller is another name most who follow the conference are familiar with given her spectacular 2020-21 season. However, the former All-Big Ten First Teamer has been limited to three games this year due to lingering knee issues. Maryland hasn’t skipped a beat without its dynamic guard. The Terrapins, who rank No. 6 in the most recent AP poll, have the second-best offensive rating (117.5) in the nation, according to Her Hoops Stats.
Adding Miller back into the mix will only ignite the offense further. On her way to scoring 17 points per game, she only had one game last season where she was under double-digits. Miller also connected on 35.5% of her 3.7 three-point attempts which could add another layer to an already dynamic offense.
Though Miller is more known for her ability to score, it’s her energy on the defensive end and in transition that could make the difference for Maryland. Her 1.2 defensive win shares last season ranked in the 85th percentile, per Her Hoops Stats. In her return to the floor against Coppin State, she looked like she was close to being at 100%. She recorded two blocks and at one point went on a 7-0 run by herself.
“I trust my knee. I just have to get my touch back,” Miller told the Baltimore Sun after the game. “Everything else, I’m pretty good.”
If she looks like the player she did last season, Miller could elevate a Maryland team that already has one of the best offenses in the country.
Jaz Shelley, Nebraska
No one is surprised Shelley has been successful at her time at Nebraska so far, but very few people thought the sophomore could carry this team to where it is at now. The 5’9 guard from Australia put her name on the map two years ago at Oregon when she hit ten threes in her lone start for the Ducks before transferring this past year.
Now holding the reins to Nebraska’s offense, Shelley has blended her speed with the craftiness that makes her one of the Big Ten’s most intriguing guards.
In the clip above, she beats her defender off the dribble and forces Minnesota’s center to come meet her on the block. Shelley peels back out and finds Bella Cravens underneath the basket for a wide open look before Cravens’ defender can recover.
Shelley processes the game at a different speed than her peers and knows how to work different angles on both ends of the floor to overcome height mismatches against her.
The question Shelley and Nebraska will have to answer at the beginning of 2022 is whether they can creep into the top-25 before the season’s end. They received 45 votes in week eight and, given the shaky foundation at the bottom of the rankings, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Cornhuskers could climb into the top-25.
The road to get there is brutal, however, as they open the new year against Michigan, Iowa and Indiana.