No. 4 Maryland is expected to be the Big Ten's best women's basketball team this season, returning all five starters from the nation's highest-scoring team that won the conference championship.
The Terrapins will be as prepared as possible to play contenders such as No. 8 Indiana, No. 9 Iowa and No. 11 Michigan thanks to an incredibly tough stretch of non-conference games.
Over one week in late November, Maryland will face defending champion and third-ranked Stanford, No. 5 North Carolina State and No. 7 Baylor. Two weeks later, the Terrapins have another measuring-stick game on the road against No. 1 South Carolina.
“The toughest schedule we will have ever played," said Brenda Frese, who has won 512 games at Maryland since 2002 and has been facing Big Ten foes in league games since 2014. “And then you look at just the Big Ten, it will be the toughest we’ve ever faced in our time being in the league.”
The Terrapins have six Big Ten regular season titles and have won the conference tournament five times in seven Big Ten seasons, but the competition might be catching up.
For the first time in the AP Top 25 preseason poll, the Big Ten has four teams in the top 15 and five among the top 20. The last time the conference had a trio of teams in the top 10 in any poll was on Feb. 9, 2004.
The Hoosiers, with their highest ranking in school history, were picked in the league poll to finish second in the conference followed by the Hawkeyes, Wolverines and No. 17 Ohio State.
Michigan State, one of seven Big Ten teams to play in the last NCAA Tournament, ranks second in AP Top 25 votes among unranked teams.
“The league is as tough as ever and there are three really good teams at the top: Maryland, Indiana and Iowa,” Spartans coach Suzy Merchant said Tuesday. “There may be other conferences that are more top heavy, but top to bottom, the Big Ten is the best."
It's easy to see why Maryland appears to be the class of the conference.
The Terrapins' top eight scorers are back from last year's team that went 17-1 in the Big Ten, 26-3 overall and advanced to the NCAA Tournament round of 16.
Juniors Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller, both of whom averaged 17-plus points per game last season, helped the team lead the country with 90.8 points per game and rank first with 1.69 assists for every turnover.
“Maryland is different,” Merchant said. “They have size and experience with all five starters back, and they all score and they're all going to be pros."
BEST OF THE BEST
Iowa's Caitlin Clark and Michigan's Naz Hillmon split preseason Big Ten player of the year honors with the coaches picking Clark and media members selecting Hillmon.
The 6-foot Clark, a preseason AP All-American, led the nation with 26.6 points per game last season and ranked second with 7.1 assists a game as a freshman, helping the Hawkeyes rank second in the country with an average of 86.1 points.
The 6-2 Hillmon scored 23.9 points, ranking second in the Big Ten, and a conference-high 11.4 rebounds to become the first Wolverine to be named the Big Ten women's player of the year last season as a junior.
BEST OF THE REST
The All-Big Ten preseason team also includes: Owusu and Miller, Indiana's Grace Berger and Mackenzie, Iowa's Monika Czinano, Michigan's Leigha Brown, Michigan State's Nia Cloude and Northwestern’s Veronica Burton.
STRINGER STILL OUT
Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer, 73, is away from Rutgers indefinitely due to COVID-19 concerns. The former Iowa and Cheyney coach has 1,055 victories, ranking fifth all time, and has helped her teams reach the Final Four four times.
Stringer is staying away from the program because in part to avoid transmitting COVID-19 to her 40-year-old daughter, who has required special care since contracting spinal meningitis at age 2.
The Scarlet Knights are expected to at least start the season with associate head coach Tim Eatman filling in for Stringer.
The Buckeyes would have likely given the Big Ten eight teams in the last NCAA Tournament, but self-imposed sanctions stemming from recruiting violations by a former assistant coach kept them home.
“Our kids worked very hard to put ourselves in position for the postseason and I think it was the right decision, but it was really hard on our kids," coach Kevin McGuff said.
Michigan State took a hit before the season tips off, losing senior Tory Ozment and junior Julia Ayrault to season-ending injuries, forcing it to lean even more on Alyza Winston and Alisia Smith.
“Those two combined to score 30 points a game last year, so that’s a good place for us to start," Merchant said.
AP Sports Writers Mike Marot and Noah Trister contributed.
More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25.