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Column: Despite strong season, Big Ten won’t be top women’s basketball conference until it plays like one in March

The Buckeyes are in a group that needs to exceed past postseason play performances.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Championship - Ohio State vs. Iowa Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

All season, the Big Ten women’s basketball conference has been breaking records. There are more fans attending games, teams are breaking previous attendance figures and practically all season there have been at least five teams consistently in the Associated Press Top-25, usually with three in the top-10.

At the 2023 Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament, the five-day annual event climbed in average viewership on the Big Ten Network for the second season in a row. A 25% increase in viewership to go on top of an overall 19% increase in regular season views throughout the 2022-23 season.

The tournament bump is no surprise. In the 13-game tournament, eight games ended with teams within five points of each other. It also featured 18 and 24-point comebacks by the Purdue Boilermakers and Ohio State women’s basketball team.

Even if it was a pretty ugly first half for the Buckeyes in the tournament final, the championship game brought in the highest attendance of any single session of tournament basketball with 9,505.

Everything is looking up in Big Ten women’s basketball land, but it won’t drive home the conference’s dominance until it can perform on the biggest stage of them all: March Madness.

Sunday night, at 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN reveals the NCAA committee’s 68-team tournament field. In the most recent edition of the sports network’s bracketology, there are seven Big Ten teams tentatively in the tournament — not a rare feat with the conference reaching the same total in the 2021 edition of the tournament.

However, like that 2021 edition, the Big Ten hasn’t had great history making it late into March Madness. Take that 2021 season; Only one of those seven teams made it to the Elite Eight.

To find the last time a Big Ten team made the tournament, jump in a time machine and head back to 2015, when the Maryland Terrapins played their first season in the conference. The Terps broke a 10-year drought for Big Ten teams making it to the Final Four.

Now, in 2023, the athletes and teams within the Big Ten are at a place where they can, and should, challenge the ACCs and Big Easts of the world at the top of college basketball.

In this year’s edition, the likeliest candidates are the Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes and Maryland Terrapins. Each team features stars like Indiana forward Mackenzie Holmes, Terps guard Diamond Miller and, you guessed it, Iowa guard Caitlin Clark.

This season, all three have shown up in big moments. However, of the three, there are two that stood out in non-conference play. The Terrapins and Hoosiers have won against the best conferences in the country. For example, take the ACC/B1G Challenge.

Indiana convincingly defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels in Bloomington to an 87-63 score line. That’s without leader and point guard Grace Berger in the lineup.

Maryland started the year with a Miller-less lopsided loss to the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks, but once the senior guard returned, impressive non-conference wins popped up. A win against the Baylor Bears, defeating UConn and a two-point Miller-induced buzzer beating victory against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

That’s only non-conference. Within the Big Ten schedule, it’s been nothing short of a battle. Iowa and Indiana split games, with the final day coming down to a buzzer beater three-point shot by Clark. This year, the NCAA Tournament could be different because overall there’s been an evolution in Big Ten country.

“One of the things that’s really consistent about our league at the top is we’ve got teams that can really score the ball,” said head coach Kevin McGuff at the B1G Women’s Basketball Tournament. “Vastly different when I first got here, most teams kind of walk it up, grind it out and not the offenses have really evolved.”

Any of those three teams, and even the Buckeyes too when they’re playing at their best, could be the teams that show the country that this season isn’t an outlier — it’s the new normal. That’s if the wins come in March Madness.

To put it bluntly: If a Big Ten team doesn’t at least make it to the Final Four, the league is far below its potential.

This season, it’s likely that four, maybe five, conference teams will host the first two rounds of the tournament. That’s not a guaranteed trip to the Sweet Sixteen, which the Iowa Hawkeyes showed last year, losing to the Creighton Blue Jays at home in the second round. After all, tournament time is about upsets and exciting games, but in 22-23, 100% of those home teams need to make it into the Sweet Sixteen.

From there, there’s no reason that three or four Big Ten teams couldn’t make it to the Elite Eight. The last time the Big Ten had more than one team in the tournament that late was in 2004. Most players in the conference today were barely out of diapers in 2004.

The current batch of players are some of the best in the nation. Holmes is second in the country in shooting efficiency at 68.7% and is surrounded by lethal shooters in guards Sydney Parrish, Yarden Garzon and Sara Scalia. Not to mention Berger who slid into the point guard role this season and has run one of the top three teams in the country to their best season in program history.

For Iowa, lately it’s been more than just the Clark and center Monika Czinano show. Guard Gabbie Marshall shot 57% to end the season from three-point range heading into the Big Ten tournament game. In that title win, Marshall went 3-for-3 from beyond the arc.

Maryland lost forward Angel Reese and guard Ashley Owusu but have had a better season this year. That’s with Miller’s arrival as a top WNBA lottery pick and 21-22 Ivy League Player of the Year Abby Meyers doing it all on the Terrapins lineup alongside Miller.

Also, Ohio State is still a top-10 scoring team in the nation, sitting No. 8 with 80.8 points per game. The Buckeyes’ 24-point comeback against the Hoosiers wasn’t a fluke. With guard Jacy Sheldon’s return, and the danger posed to opponents on any given night by forward Cotie McMahon and guards Taylor Mikesell and Taylor Thierry, Ohio State isn’t outside of the conversation for a deep tournament run.

The last, and only, time a Big Ten team won a national championship in women’s basketball was in 1999. That’s when the Purdue Boilermakers beat the Duke Blue Devils. There’s of course stiff competition, South Carolina isn’t going to lose easily, but don’t be surprised if there’s a Big Ten team competing for it again this season.