The 2023-24 guide to Big Ten women's basketball
It's time to size up the competition for this year's Big Ten women's basketball. Last year, Indiana and Iowa were neck and neck for the conference title, with the Hawkeyes winning the tournament.
Axios Local reporters help break down this year's squads as we get ready for conference play, which starts in December.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Coach Shauna Green had a miracle first season with the Illini, taking them from bottom feeders in the Big Ten to winning 22 games in 2023 and securing their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000.
The intrigue: The arrow is pointing up for this season, as all of her starters return. The Illini also added Camille Hobby (NC State) through the transfer portal to add depth.
State of play: The Illini are off to a good start, although their nonconference schedule is much harder than last year, when they went 10-1.
Last year, the Hoosiers won the Big Ten regular season and entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed, but lost in the second round to Miami, a disappointing sendoff to Grace Berger, who went to the WNBA, writes Axios' Lindsey Erdody.
Yes, but: Most of the team returns this year, including forward Mackenzie Holmes, and they are motivated to have a happier ending this spring.
State of play: Despite being ranked in the top 25, the season is off to a bumpy start. They dominated Eastern Illinois in their first game, but then fell flat in an early challenge from ranked Stanford.
The bottom line: If they can figure things out quickly, they'll be a top Big Ten team and high seed in the NCAA Tournament. But if these early struggles linger too long, it'll be rough once conference play picks up in early January.
How do you top the greatest season in program history? You bring back one of the most famous women's basketball players in the world, writes Axios' Everett Cook.
- But after losing in the NCAA Championship last year to LSU, the defending National Player of the Year is back not only to grow her profile — Clark's back to win it all.
Yes, but: The Hawkeyes lost two key contributors, Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock, from last year's team. The post players combined to average 28 points and 12 rebounds, per ESPN.
- And Iowa fell to unranked Kansas State on Nov. 16 while being ranked No. 2.
What we're watching: Clark is the best player in the country, but does she have another level to hit? And will that make up for the learning curves of an unproven frontcourt?
Maryland women's basketball hasn't yet found the consistency that led them to March Madness success last season, writes Axios D.C.'s Cuneyt Dil.
Flashback: Head coach Brenda Frese led a squad with many fresh faces last season to the Elite Eight.
Yes, but: So far, this year's roster has failed to seize momentum early in games.
- The Terrapins lost two early games against ranked opponents South Carolina and Connecticut.
- And the team barely avoided a third-straight loss with a two-point win over Syracuse on Nov. 19.
There are too many variables with the Wolverines this year to know if they're capable of repeating last season's success, writes Axios' Everett Cook.
- Michigan went 22-10 before losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to the eventual national champion LSU, but the program lost three starters, including WNBA draft pick Leigha Brown.
The intrigue: To counter those losses, coach Kim Barnes Arico brought in three transfers who all scored more than 1,000 points at their former programs, per the Detroit Free Press.
- And there's plenty of young, unproven talent on the roster.
The bottom line: If Michigan gets back to the tournament this year, it will likely be because of junior Laila Phelia. The guard was named to the All-Big Ten second team last year and could be special enough to pull the Wolverines together.
Michigan State Spartans
After she stepped away from the program in March due to health reasons, this is the first season Michigan State is without former head coach Suzy Merchant since 2007, writes Axios' Everett Cook.
- Merchant won more than 325 games as head coach, but the Spartans only made the NCAA Tournament in two of the last five seasons.
Driving the news: New coach Robyn Fralick inherits a roster with eight returning players, per the State News. And she got junior guard Jocelyn Tate to leave Bowling Green with her for MSU, giving the coach a familiar face in the backcourt.
The bottom line: The Spartans would surprise people by returning back to the postseason, but with a new coach, stranger things have happened.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Lindsay Whalen experiment in Minnesota didn't work out, writes Axios Twin Cities' Nick Halter.
- In March, the beloved former Gopher was forced out as coach after five seasons and replaced by Dawn Plitzuweit.
Player to watch: Luckily, Whalen's strong recruiting class of 2022 stayed in Minnesota, including star guard Mara Braun.
The 'Huskers are looking to improve upon 18 wins and a strong showing in the WNIT last season, advancing to the third round.
State of play: The team brings back four starters in that quest and coach Amy Williams is confident that they have what it takes to make the NCAA Tournament.
Yes, but: Forward Isabelle Bourne passed on her last year of eligibility and returned home to Australia.
Last season was dismal for the 'Cats who only mustered up a couple wins in conference play.
State of play: Northwestern lost a few graduating starters, including star guard Sydney Wood.
Yes, but: Head coach Joe McKeown scored through the transfer portal bringing in Boston University's Maggie Pina.
The bottom line: It could be a fresh start for the bottom-dwelling Wildcats.
Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes feature most of the playmakers from last season's Elite Eight run, writes Axios Columbus' Tyler Buchanan.
- They're an experienced, well-coached team primed for another deep tournament run.
Player to watch: Point guard Jacy Sheldon, a team leader and Central Ohio native with a taste for chicken tender sandwiches — and winning.
Penn State Nittany Lions
The Penn State women's team has a lot of new faces this year, writes Axios Philadelphia's Isaac Avilucea.
Flashback: Half of fifth-year head coach Carolyn Kieger's roster are newcomers. They're off to an strong start, and have four players averaging double-digit points, led by guard Makenna Marisa.
- They won 14 games last season, doubling the number of wins in Kieger's first season.
Yes, but: They haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2014, when they were bounced from the Sweet 16 by Stanford.
Purdue showed promise last season, eking out a winning record in the Big Ten (9-8) and making it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017, writes Axios' Lindsey Erdody.
State of play: Coach (and former Purdue player) Katie Gearlds returns for her third season, with eight newcomers, including several high-ranked recruits, joining the team this year.
The intrigue: The Boilermakers have three sets of sisters on the roster — the most of any other team this season.
The bottom line: Purdue is set up for a similar season. They'll be in the middle of the pack, likely with a winning record, but struggling to make too much noise in a conference with four top 25 teams.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
It's the second year for coach Coquese Washington and she's hoping to improve on last year's 5-13 record in the Big Ten.
State of play: The team lost a couple starters, but worked the transfer portal to get Destiny Adams to come over from UNC.
What we're watching: Chyna Cornwell has a chance to improve upon her Big Ten Honorable Mention from last season.
It's year three of coach Marisa Moseley's tenure in Madison, but the roster will look much different.
State of play: The Badgers lost a ton of talent from last year's departing seniors and didn't use the transfer portal to replace them.
- Instead, they will rely on the incoming class of freshmen to improve on last year's 11-20 record.
What we're watching: The return of Halle Douglass, who tore her ACL after playing in just five games last season.