(AP) — With five returning starters and a talented freshman class the Maryland’s women’s basketball team expects to be a national powerhouse and the dominant force the Big Ten — again.
Since joining the conference in 2014, Maryland has won four of five regular season titles and reached the tournament final every time. The Terrapins played Iowa for the championship last season and were unable to contain center Megan Gustafson, who scored 45 points in a 90-76 victory.
Gustafson is now in the WNBA, leaving Maryland as an overwhelming favorite to resume its role as the team to beat in the Big Ten. The coaches picked Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan and Purdue to follow Maryland in the standings.
Maryland senior Kaila Charles, the top returning scorer in the league with an average of 17 points per game, will be joined by starters Taylor Mikesell, Blair Watson, Stephanie Jones and Shakira Austin from a team that went 29-5 last season. Add three freshmen and Tennessee transfer Mimi Collins, and it adds up to Maryland being the unanimous pick by the Big Ten’s 14 head coaches to claim another regular season crown.
Losing in the Big Ten Tournament and in the second round of the NCAA Tournament has provided extra incentive for those who experienced the disappointment.
“They used it as great motivation in their offseason,” said two-time Big Ten coach of the year Brenda Frese. “They are hungry. And now they are also going to have some great help and additions, that they quite honestly needed.”
Frese expects the freshmen to contribute immediately, including the versatile 6-foot-3 Diamond Miller.
“They all come from winning backgrounds,” she said. “Most of them have all won a state championship if not multiple, and you see that when you watch them play with the level of confidence and the mentality they have towards winning.”
Diamond Miller, a 6-foot-3 freshman, brings versatility on the perimeter.
“She gives us a dimension at the wing that we haven’t had in quite some time,” Frese said. “Tremendous wingspan, can score it, can defend, can rebound with that size.
Some other things to know heading into the Big Ten women’s basketball season:
A NEW LEADER
Gustafson’s departure certainly leaves a void at Iowa in terms of talent in the middle, but her work ethic set the tone for the upcoming season.
“She was a great leader, a super leader by example. That has stayed here,” coach Lisa Bluder said. “She built that culture.”
Senior Kathleen Doyle, who’s seven points shy of 1,000 for her career, is expected to fill the void in the locker room.
“She’s an incredible, emotional leader,” Bluder said of Doyle. “She’s really kind of the heart and soul of our basketball team.”
Michigan State (21-11, 9-9 last season) returns four starters from a team that lost to Notre Dame 91-63 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“There are some things we need to do better to play on that stage,” coach Suzy Merchant acknowledged.
Sophomore guard Nia Cloud and seniors Taryn McCutheon, Nia Hollie and Victoria Gaines are back. The Spartans went 15-1 at home last season, including a 77-60 rout of Maryland.
BRING IT ON
Michigan (22-12, 11-7) has reached the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years for just the second time in program history. This season, the Wolverines have a strong schedule that includes matchups before mid-January against Notre Dame, Syracuse, Michigan State and Maryland.
“If we can come out with a couple wins in these games, it will be very good for us in our later run,” senior guard Akienreh Johnson said.
FOCUS ON IMPROVEMENT
Nebraska is looking to bounce back after finishing 14-16 and tying for sixth place at 9-9.
Coach Amy Williams has shown she can lead a turnaround. In 2017-18, the Huskers won 14 games more than the year before and reached the NCAA Tournament. Last season, the Huskers fell off with a young and inexperienced team, losing 10 games by six points or less.
Williams brings back four starters, the top seven scorers and four sophomores who combined for the most points by a group of Nebraska freshmen since 1981-82.
“The big thing for us is we really try hard not to get caught up in picking wins and losses and how many wins it would take for us to feel this was a positive season,” Williams said. “Our expectations are to keep getting better and try to maximize what this team is capable of.”