INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Maryland controlled the road to the women's Big Ten Tournament title for seven straight seasons. Five times, the Terrapins claimed the top prize and their only losses came in title games.
This week, their dominance could end.
Five teams arrived in Indianapolis this week with top 15 rankings, hopes of hosting NCAA Tournament games and a realistic shot of winning the league's most wide-open tourney in years.
"This is when you want to play your best basketball," Iowa star Caitlin Clark said after Sunday's crucial victory over then-No. 6 Michigan. "And we're playing our best basketball."
Clark makes anything possible.
A year ago, she led the Hawkeyes to a surprise runner-up finish at the conference tourney, falling only to Maryland in the championship game. This year, with No. 12 Iowa's titles hopes teetering, she helped the Hawkeyes rally with four four straight wins to earn a share of the regular-season crown and the No. 2 seed.
Now the nation's leader in scoring (27.5 points per game) and assists (8.3) has even larger aspirations -- dethroning the two-time defending champs for Iowa's first tourney title since 2019.
But writing off the No. 11 Terrapins (21-7) would be a mistake.
After losing four straight to ranked foes in December and January and playing short-handed for much of the season, Maryland won nine of its last 10, including Feb. 14 at Iowa, and earned the lowest seed (No. 4) of its Big Ten era. Coach Brenda Frese isn't complaining.
"To lock up the double bye is huge, just given the fact that we don't have the depth that we've had in the past," she said. "To have that extra day for your legs is going to make a big difference."
Who else could challenge?
Top-seeded Ohio State (22-5) and third-seeded Michigan (22-5) have four losses in conference play -- just like Maryland and Iowa -- and all four begin play Friday.
Even fifth-seeded Indiana (19-7) is in the mix after spending most of the season in the top 10. But the Hoosiers played nine of their 16 league games over the final 22 days of the regular season and limped in with three straight losses. Indiana opens Thursday against either 12th-seeded Penn State or 13th-seeded Rutgers.
But a rematch between the Hawkeyes (20-7) and Terps might prove worth the wait.
"A month ago we had seven players, we had two COVID shutdowns, we had rescheduled games," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "And these guys kept believing."
No. 10 Michigan and No. 13 Ohio State could renew their bitter rivalry in the first of Saturday's two semifinals. It's a matchup that could bring some redemption to both programs.
The Wolverines appeared headed toward the league's regular-season title until Sunday's stumble gave the Buckeyes a share. Ohio State, meanwhile, didn't play last year in Indy because of a self-imposed postseason ban.
Michigan is led by Naz Hillmon, the first player in school history with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Ohio State is the only school with two players -- Jacy Sheldon and Taylor Mikesell -- topping 19 points per game.
BACK ON BIG STAGE
A year ago, the men's and women's teams shared the big stage in Indianapolis. They played the same week in nearby arenas and in front of dramatically smaller and socially-distanced crowds. That won't be the case when Wednesday's three-game opening round begins. This year, there will be no health and safety restrictions for fans, though organizers still encourage wearing masks indoors.
One person who won't be there is longtime Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, who opted to sit this season out. Associate head coach Tim Eatman replaced Stringer on the bench. He also filled in for Stringer at last fall's Big Ten media days -- also at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Though the Hoosiers are playing about an hour's drive from campus, it hasn't led to consistent success. Coach Teri Moren is just 4-7 in this tournament and Indiana has only reached the semifinals twice since winning its only tourney title in 2002.
Meanwhile, first-year Purdue coach Katie Gearlds will be back at a venue she knows well from her playing days. The former Boilermakers star won the Class 3A high school state title here in 2003 and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2007 Big Ten tourney. She was also Indiana's 2003 Miss Basketball. Ninth-seeded Purdue (16-13 opens Thursday against eighth-seeded Michigan State (14-14).
If someone outside the top five reaches the semis, it could be Nebraska. At 22-7, the Cornhuskers share the league lead for wins with Ohio State and Michigan. They are No. 4 in scoring offense (78.6 points) and scoring defense (62.9) and open Thursday against Illinois or Wisconsin.
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