Indiana coach Teri Moren started chasing Big Ten championships a decade ago.
Back then, conference newcomer Maryland set the standard by winning three straight regular-season titles, three straight Big Ten tourney crowns and stringing together winning streaks of 22, nine, 23 and four against league foes. By Season 4, the rest of the league finally caught up to the Terrapins.
Now the new hunt begins as Moren and other conference coaches try to prevent sharp-shooting Caitlin Clark and third-ranked Iowa from running away from the pack.
The defending league champion Hoosiers aren't ceding anything to a team they nearly swept last season.
“I still really, really like our pieces,” Moren said. “I’ll bet on these guys, knowing what I’ve — by seeing what I’ve been able to see with them inside practice. I do think we have a chance (at a national championship).”
Why wouldn't they believe they can still win titles?
Guard Grace Berger is the only one of Indiana's top six scorers not returning this season and they still have preseason All-American Mackenzie Holmes from a team that lost only four games by a total of 12 points. And it took Clark's buzzer-beating 3-pointer at Iowa just to salvege a series split.
The ninth-ranked Hoosiers are not the only threat to Iowa taking its first outright conference crown in five years.
Guards Jacy Sheldon and Taylor Thierry and 6-foot forward Cotie McMahon, last season's Big Ten freshman of the year, give No. 7 Ohio State a strong foundation, too, after their deepest NCAA Tournament run in decades.
“Yeah, that was a really big step for us. We hadn’t been to the Elite Eight in 30 years,” coach Kevin McGuff said. “We aspire for more, certainly, and it’s hard to do because there’s so many great teams and programs in women’s basketball. But that’s what we’ve got our sights set on.”
Nobody should discount the 14th-ranked Terrapins, either.
While they may not dominate conference play as they once did, they sure haven't fallen far. Maryland expects 6-2 guard Shyanne Sellers, an all-conference and all-defensive team selection in her first season as a starter, to help plug voids left by first-round WNBA draft picks Diamond Miller and Abby Myers.
“I love where junior Shyanne Sellers is at, she understands the load she’s going to have to carry for us this year,” Terrapins coach Brenda Frese said. “She took a major step forward. Now she’s going to have to own even bigger responsibility on her shoulders this season. But she’s more than capable of it.”
Illinois, Indiana and Maryland all used their home-court advantage to beat Iowa last season — and that was with Monika Czinano patrolling the post for the Hawkeyes. Czinano has graduated and if any Big Ten team can replicate those feats from last season, the title chase may be more competitive than expected.
THE CLARK EFFECT
Maryland's initial success in Big Ten play forced conference schools to make a stronger commitment to women's basketball and helped propel the league forward.
Clark's presence has had a similar impact with increased attendance and even sellouts becoming more common around the league. Earlier this month, a charity game inside Iowa's football stadium drew a record attendance of 55,646 and coach Lisa Bluder is hoping for similar scenes inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena this season.
"When they come into Carver, it’s going to be one hostile environment,” she said. “We have sold out every single game, every single ticket.”
The four top teams in the conference seem pretty clear but a dark horse contender could be No. 23 Illinois, which is in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 for the first time since 1999.
Second-year coach Shauna Green has four double-digit scorers back — seniors Genesis Bryand, Makira Cook and Kendall Bostic along with junior Adalia McKenzie.— from last season's surprise team.
“Last year we made some strides,” Green said. “Definitely not where we want to get to, but a great start, and it’s very nice to have our returning five starters back. We've added some depth this year. We just were not deep enough (last season).”
Minnesota and Michigan State open this season with new coaches after two familiar faces, former Golden Gophers star Lindsay Whalen and Spartans coach Suzy Merchant, resigned in March.
Dawn Plitzuweit left West Virginia after just one season to take the Minnesota job. She was at South Dakota from 2016-22.
Michigan State hired Robin Fralick away from nearby Bowling Green.
Every team seems to be getting key players from the transfer portal these days.
But the top conference newcomers to watch this season may be guard Celeste Taylor, who left Duke for Ohio State; forward Jakia Brown-Taylor, who left North Carolina State for Maryland, and center Camille Hobby, who is now at Illinois after playing previously with the Wolfpack.
AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll