As the countdown continues to the start of the 2020-21 women's college basketball season on Nov. 25, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation's top conferences. We continue with the Big Ten, where the race seems wide open. The Northwestern Wildcats look to build on their historic run in 2019-20, when they won a share of their first Big Ten regular-season title in 30 years and were ranked 11th in the final poll of 2020, despite not being ranked in the preseason. The Maryland Terrapins continue to be the conference's standard-bearer despite several key transfers. But are the Indiana Hoosiers poised for a run in 2021?
Big Ten 2020-21 superlatives
Player of the Year
Mechelle Voepel: Lindsey Pulliam, Northwestern
Graham Hays: Ali Patberg, Indiana
Charlie Creme: Lindsey Pulliam, Northwestern
Newcomer of the Year
Voepel: Angel Reese, Maryland
Hays: Angel Reese, Maryland
Creme: Angel Reese, Maryland
Big Ten 2020-21 writer roundtable
Did Northwestern miss its best opportunity with the cancellation of last year's tournament?
Hays: It's a close call because everything came together for Northwestern a season ago, and it won't be easy to simply swap out Abi Scheid's 3-point shooting and Abbie Wolf's interior presence for a team that didn't have a surplus of either asset.
Northwestern was headed for its second NCAA tournament appearance this century and had legitimate Sweet 16 aspirations. We see programs crescendo like that and then struggle to remain at that level (although it might be worth noting that Northwestern coach Joe McKeown managed it with George Washington teams that made back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances in 2007 and 2008).
In this case, circumstances work in Northwestern's favor. It isn't clear that the top of the heap in women's college basketball is as strong this season as it was a season ago, and the same can be said for the Big Ten. Northwestern's losses are notable, but Iowa and Maryland are also both somewhere between reloading and rebuilding. Ohio State's resurgence might be slowed by offseason transfers. No team is likely to run away from the pack. Even if Northwestern is initially top heavy in relying on guards Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton, most of the conference would love to be overly reliant on those two.
Creme: I had Northwestern projected as a No. 3 seed before the NCAA tournament was canceled last March, and it will take something very unexpected for the Wildcats to reach those heights in 2021.
Graham is right. Chemistry was a big part of Northwestern's 26-4 record and the Big Ten regular-season title shared with Maryland. Northwestern likely will find it tough to absorb the losses of Scheid and Wolf because of their intangibles, not to mention the production they provided. However, every team that finished in the top half of the Big Ten a year ago, with the possible exception of Rutgers, suffered some degree of significant personnel loss. A league title is still within reach with Pulliam, a contender for conference player of the year and All-American status, and Burton, last season's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, back even if long-range NCAA tournament prospects aren't quite as good.
Voepel: Size is the other thing that went away with the 6-foot-2 Scheid and 6-4 Wolf, so the Wildcats are going to be on the smallish side this season. But there should be a pretty clear path for 6-3 freshman forward Anna Morris to make an impact right away. She's a coveted recruit from New Jersey who, like Scheid, has 3-point shooting ability, but like Wolf should be able to battle in the paint.
Another freshman, guard Jasmine McWilliams, also could move into an important role at a young age. So even while it seems such terrible luck for Northwestern to have lost the chance at making a strong NCAA tournament run last season, there's still an opportunity to do a lot this season. Especially, as Graham and Charlie noted, because there is more uncertainty among a lot of teams league-wide and nationally after the loss of several top players.
Maryland has nine conference losses in the past three seasons, after losing three times in its first three Big Ten seasons. Is Maryland lifting the Big Ten or is the Big Ten dragging down Maryland?
Hays: Both can be true. There aren't many programs that can transcend their surroundings. In fact, the list is basically just UConn. The Big Ten hasn't been at a national championship level in a long time. The conference has not produced a Final Four team other than Maryland since 2005. And while there is room to argue about what separates a trend from an anomaly, Maryland didn't reach the Sweet 16 in either of its two most recent tournament appearances.
There is, in other words, more evidence of Maryland looking increasingly like the Big Ten than vice versa.
Here's where the "but" comes in. Charlie had four teams from the Big Ten on the top five NCAA tournament seed lines last spring (along with Michigan as a No. 6 seed). The Big Ten hasn't put three teams in the Sweet 16 in more than a decade, but it was well within reach a season ago. The same is true in 2020-21, with Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern and, yes, Maryland at the front of the pack.
All of which means this question might not be settled. The rest of the Big Ten might finally be rising to meet the challenge Maryland set upon its arrival from the ACC, even if that improvement helps temporarily knock Maryland out of the annual Final Four contenders club.
Creme: I did have four teams from the Big Ten on the top five seed lines heading toward Selection Monday last year because the conference did see a bit of a resurgence. In particular, Iowa and Northwestern performed better than expected. Indiana appears to be on the rise. The league is showing signs of improving. The reason?
Brenda Frese's program set the bar immediately upon joining the Big Ten in 2014-15 and gave the rest of the league a new measure of success. While it has now taken half of a decade, some schools within the conference are finally starting to approach Maryland's level. It's a better conference now than it was in 2014, when the only Sweet 16 entrant was Penn State. How much better is still a debate, and perhaps the next couple of seasons are crucial to see if this improvement is sustainable or if the Terps just pull away from the rest of the Big Ten again.
Voepel: Maryland is a very different-looking team this season. Junior Taylor Mikesell transferred to Oregon and junior Shakira Austin to Ole Miss, and four seniors graduated, including Kaila Charles, last season's top Terps scorer and rebounder.
Yet we expect the Terps to roll on, with 2020 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ashley Owusu the top returner and incoming Angel Reese, the country's No. 2 overall recruit in the 2020 class, expected to contend for that honor this season. Nothing seems to slow down Maryland's recruiting, and as long as Frese is in charge, that will continue. That's key to keeping Maryland at/near the top of the Big Ten. The Terps recruit more talent than a lot of league schools, and even when they lose it prematurely, they can reload quickly.
Would Maryland be perennially sharper in the NCAA tournament if the school had stayed in the ACC? It's a tricky question: After winning the 2006 NCAA title, Maryland didn't return to the Final Four until 2014, its last season in the ACC. But 2013-14 was the season Notre Dame entered the ACC, followed the next year by Louisville. Both those teams went to the top of the ACC right away, just as Maryland left and did the same in the Big Ten.
Bottom line is that from a women's basketball standpoint, Maryland has done more for the Big Ten than vice versa. If the league ever does take that long-awaited next step, it will be in part because Maryland boosted that elevation.
How many Big Team teams are realistic Final Four contenders?
Hays: Previous answer notwithstanding, I don't see a championship contender out there. This is where it's a double shame that Indiana and Northwestern didn't get an opportunity to play the NCAA tournament a season ago because both have core groups that would have benefitted from the postseason experience and been better prepared to contend going into this season.
Indiana is the team I can talk myself into envisioning as a No. 3 or No. 4 seed that pulls off an upset, or benefits from one in its part of the bracket, and makes it to the Final Four. All four double-digit scorers return, and Grace Berger and Ali Patberg are at least one of the best guard duos in the Midwest, if not an even greater geographic swath. Add in fellow returnee Jaelynn Penn and perhaps George Mason transfer Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, if she receives a waiver, and that's an impressive backcourt. If Notre Dame transfer Danielle Patterson makes a difference in her first season on the court in Bloomington, Indiana, the Hoosiers could use her versatility.
It's a lot of "ifs," but that might be what it takes to get the Big Ten to San Antonio.
Creme: At the risk of being too blunt, there aren't any. Yes, the Big Ten appears to be better with more potential Sweet 16 teams both last season and in 2020-21, but with Maryland and its significant roster turnover likely to take a step back at least for this season, a true Final Four contender isn't to be found.
If I had to pick one, the Terps would be the choice. However, they check in at No. 13 overall on my preseason Bracketology board. The talent might be there, but it's a collection of pieces that hasn't played much together. Frese has two transfers (Katie Benzan and Mimi Collins), two guards coming off injuries (Channise Lewis and Zoe Young), and the No. 2 recruit in the country (Reese), all of whom could make a high-scoring rotation when added to Owusu and 6-3 sophomore Diamond Miller.
Even if it does all come together, and that would appear even more difficult in a shortened, condensed season, this Maryland team is still not ready to compete with the likes of South Carolina, Stanford, UConn, Baylor, Louisville or NC State for a spot in the Final Four. That might be a year away.
Voepel: The Big Ten's lack of Final Four presence is a thorn in the league's side. The death Monday of Nancy Darsch, who coached at Ohio State from 1985-97, brought back memories of one of the Big Ten women's basketball's biggest highlights: the 1993 Women's Final Four, where Darsch-led Ohio State and Iowa -- then led by current Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer -- were contenders. Purdue's 1999 national championship -- the league's crowning achievement -- is now nearly 22 years in the rearview mirror.
When the Terps made the Big Ten's last appearance, in 2015, they were in their first season in the Big Ten and everyone still thought "ACC" when they saw "Maryland." Before that, it was Michigan State in 2005, losing the NCAA final to Baylor. The Big Ten would be boosted by a team getting into the last weekend again, and maybe it will happen in the next few seasons. But it seems quite unlikely in 2021.
What's the biggest preseason Bracketology question in the Big 12?
Creme: How many teams can the Big Ten get into the NCAA tournament?
This seems fairly generic, but it ties into the above discussion. If the Big Ten doesn't have any Final Four contenders, but does seem to be an improved conference, what would be a possible measure of that? How many teams the Big Ten sends to the NCAA tournament is one answer.
Last spring, it appeared six were a certainty and seven a strong possibility. In 2019, six Big Ten teams reached the NCAA tournament. Heading into this season eight are in play: Maryland, Indiana, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan, Rutgers, Michigan State and Iowa.
If the Big Ten hits that number, it means the league has become deeper and probably less top-heavy. It also likely means that Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant figured out a way to incorporate plenty of new faces and that Iowa coach Lisa Bluder found her replacement for Kathleen Doyle in highly regarded freshman point guard Caitlin Clark.