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Column: Ohio State’s quiet rise to the top of the Big Ten and the Big Ten’s quiet rise to the top of women’s hoops

Take that, UConn. 

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 24 Womens - Penn State at Ohio State Photo by Graham Stokes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Beating Michigan to win a Big Ten title is always a sweet feeling — even if it’s not actually Ohio State doing the beating.

The most exciting player in Division I women’s basketball this season doesn’t sit on Ohio State’s roster, but Ohio State fans the world around would be remiss to have not been cheering for her this past Sunday afternoon.

Then, the No. 21 Iowa Hawkeyes pummeled the No. 6 Michigan Wolverines 104-80, anchored by Caitlin Clark — arguably the best player in college basketball this year. With the win, the Hawkeyes won a share of the Big Ten regular season title — shared, as fate would have it, with Ohio State.

Quiet as a mouse, the Ohio State Buckeyes women’s basketball team rose to the top of the Big Ten, their only losses coming to the cream of the crop of the conference. A January win over the Iowa Hawkeyes would prove the difference maker, propelling the Buckeyes ahead of Indiana, Maryland, Iowa and, yes, Michigan.

Also quiet as a larger and more strategic mouse, the Big Ten as a conference has managed to perforate a women’s basketball landscape that’s seen parity break down in recent years, making way for newcomers from new conferences.

Back to the tactical for a moment: Sunday’s game was an exciting one to watch, especially as the Ohio State women’s team had already beaten Michigan State earlier in the day, and the Ohio State men were getting beat by Maryland and it was preferable to turn that fiasco off. Clark drained three after three (she would finish 8-of-11 from range, with many of her points coming from well beyond the arc). She would end the game with 38 points.

It was also easy to cheer for Clark and the Hawkeyes. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was sold out for a women’s game for the first time since 1988, when then-No. 1 Iowa beat No. 8 Ohio State 75-64. The atmosphere was an electric one that has become more commonplace in women’s hoops.

Moreover, the win meant the Wolverines, who would have won the title outright with a win Sunday, were shut out and fell to third in the conference standings. Ohio State, which owns the tiebreaker over Iowa, locked in the top seed in the upcoming conference tournament, which opened today with first round games among the lowest four seeded teams.

It was nice to watch Clark be the kryptonite against Michigan. It’s chilling, however, to consider how she can do the same thing against Ohio State. In the Buckeyes’ sole matchup against the Hawkeyes in January, Clark had 43 points. For what it’s worth, there were two games where she scored more points this season. In short, she’s hard to contain — which is why Iowa is considered by some to be a title contender.

The thing is, though, Clark — who earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors and leads the nation in points, assists and triple-doubles — is just one of many great players in the Big Ten this year. Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, for example, made history Sunday, becoming the first player in program history (male or female) to score 2,000 points and pull down 1,000 rebounds. Clark is also one of the faces of a $1 million NIL initiative, sponsored by H&R Block, aimed at targeting inequities in name, image and likeness compensation in women’s athletics.

It’s exciting to see players like Clark and Hillmon well on their way to earn national recognition (especially Clark, an underclassman, who we’ll see more in years to come), but one player does not a team make.

So let’s talk about the teams — and how they’re elevating the Big Ten’s recognition as a power in women’s basketball.

The Big Ten came out ot the third and final women’s basketball committee top-16 rankings reveal with four teams in the top-16. By comparison, the Big 12 also had four teams, the SEC three, the Pac-12 and ACC two, and Big East one.

The top-four seeds in that reveal — South Carolina, Stanford, NC State and Louisville — represent the cross section of a shifting women’s basketball landscape, with the Big Ten teeming just on the outside, banging on the door. The blue blood programs of UConn and Tennessee were No. 9 and No. 13, respectively.

Michigan was the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the reveal at No. 8, followed by Maryland (12), Iowa (14) and Indiana (15). Notably absent, even after winning a share of the regular season title, was Ohio State. The Buckeyes may have been just a little too quiet in their rise to the top of the conference, but they’re a projected No. 6-seed in the tournament according to the latest ESPN bracket (while the Buckeyes ran the table in the Big Ten, they don’t have a marquee out of conference win and they did drop 4-of-6 against ranked conference opponents). Also according to that bracket, the Big Ten is projected to have seven teams in the 68-team field — behind only the SEC and ACC.

Especially having just slayed the relative giant that is Michigan, Iowa is considered one of the hottest teams in women’s basketball right now. After starting the season off as a top-10 team, the Hawkeyes struggled with COVID-19 and finding their rhythm amidst canceled games, dropping matchups to Duke, Iowa State and even IUPUI. But they’ve come on strong to wrap up the season to earn their share of the conference title.

As a result, the Big Ten Tournament is set up for an absurd finish. Michigan, Maryland, Iowa, Ohio State and Indiana are ranked 10th-14th, respectively, in the latest AP Poll. The good teams in the conference run deeper than one might expect, and perhaps one could even make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

Historically, the Big Ten has one just one women’s basketball title ever — Purdue in 1999. It’s fierce competition at the top, but the Big Ten has some fierce teams of its own who could change that trend this year.