Just as it did in 1990, 2011, and 2014, the Big Ten will be growing in 2024. In addition to UCLA and USC, who announced their intent to join the conference last summer, the league nabbed another pair of Pac-12 universities in Oregon and Washington last week. All four schools figure to join the conference after the 2023-24 academic year.
It is hard to know how to feel about this recent wave of expansion. The moves were primarily motivated by lavish football broadcasting deals and the parties involved have seemingly failed to account for the impacts the shift may have on all other sports the conference sponsors. Is the realignment a Good Thing for Big Ten women’s basketball?
The answer to that question is different for everyone and hinges on who you are and what you value. Let’s talk about it:
On the court
The thing you need to know about Big Ten women’s basketball is that it’s currently the best, and deepest, conference in the country.
The league’s current comp boasts at least three teams with 2024 Final Four aspirations plus another five or so that expect to be ranked when November rolls around. It’s also got the reigning AP National Coach and Player of the Year in Indiana’s Teri Moren and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark respectively. That’s pretty good.
Suffice to say the league is loaded and it’s reasonable to expect that only programs of a certain caliber will be able to compete. Here’s how the new kids on the block stack up:
Last year: tied-4th in Pac-12 (27-10, 11-7), lost to South Carolina in Sweet Sixteen
Best recent finish: 2018 Elite Eight
Outlook: UCLA has a very good women’s basketball program. The Bruins have appeared in six of the last seven NCAA tournaments and currently sit at fifth in CBS Sports’ “Way Too Early” Top 25. They upset top-seeded Stanford in their league tourney last season and even gave South Carolina a fight during the early portion of the season. 2023 Pac-12 All-Freshman team guards Londynn Jones and Kiki Rice, members of the best 2022 recruiting class in the country, are players I’m excited to watch when the Bruins go B1G.
Last year: tied-4th in Pac-12 (21-10, 11-7), lost to South Dakota State in NCAA Tournament First Round
Best recent finish: 2023 NCAA First Round
Outlook: USC is on the rise. The Trojans qualified for their first NCAA tournament in nine years in 2023 and bring back a nightly double-double in wing Rayah Marshall. The addition of the nation’s best incoming freshman, former Sierra Canyon high school guard Judea “Juju” Watkins, ensures that USC will be ranked in every preseason poll this fall. Watkins and fellow top-100 recruit Malia Samuels will highlight the Trojans’ inaugural Big Ten roster next fall.
Last year: tied-8th in Pac-12 (20-15, 7-11), lost to Washington in WNIT quarterfinals
Best recent finish: 2019 Final Four
Outlook: The Ducks’ tale is an interesting one. Oregon looked primed to win a title when two-time Wooden Award winner Sabrina Ionescu carried them to three straight Elite Eights from 2017-19, but the COVID-19 pandemic ended Ionescu’s senior year prematurely.
Despite losing Ionescu to the WNBA in 2020, the Ducks seemed well-equipped to handle life without her and welcomed the nation’s No. 1 freshman class that fall. The class was made up of five 5-star recruits, none of whom still call Eugene home three years later. I do not care to speculate, nor investigate, exactly why Oregon underwent such a mass exodus of talent... but I need you to know that it happened. All my fellow Hoosier fans already know what’s up.
Pandemic and portal hitches aside, head coach Kelly Graves has Oregon in a decent spot. Forward Grace VanSlooten and guard Chance Gray made the Pac-12 All-Freshman team last season and will be flanked by ESPN Top-100 recruits Sofia Bell, Sarah Rambus, and Sammie Wagner for the next three years. In a perfect world, the young Ducks take this season to gel before putting it all together come Big Ten time.
Last year: tied-8th in Pac-12 (19-15, 7-11), lost to Kansas in WNIT semifinals
Best recent finish: 2016 Final Four
Outlook: U-Dub has not appeared in an NCAA tournament since 2017, but third-year head coach Tina Langley is rebuilding quickly. The Huskies won five more conferences games in 2022-23 than they did in 2021-22 finished the season strong with a deep WNIT run. Ari Long, a 4-star incoming freshman guard, is a name Big Ten fans should start familiarizing themselves with now.
As a fan, I found this exercise to be quite encouraging. Barring any transfers or decommitments, 22 of the top 100 players in the class of 2023 will play 3+ years in the conference, and at least 17 members of the 2024 Top-100 (about half of the class is still uncommitted) will spend their entire careers playing Big Ten ball. That’s an SEC football-level immediate influx of talent. Nice!
There’s also something to be said for current Big Ten phenoms like Indiana’s Yarden Garzon, Ohio State’s Cotie McMahon, and Minnesota’s Mara Braun who will all be seasoned vets by 2024. Women’s basketball in the new Big Ten will be as good, if not better, than it has been over the last few years.
Off the court
Okay, this is where everything falls apart. For the athletes, I think this is really going to suck.
Being a student and an athlete is tough. Between practice, lifts, meetings, class, schoolwork, and anything else that life entails you’re basically in “work mode” all the time. I don’t know how they do it. I barely scraped by as a club athlete and cannot imagine the time management skills new era Big Ten hoopers will need. The logistical demands of the current, 20 game circuit are grueling as is.
Piscataway and Lincoln, the current B1G towns with the greatest distance between them, are roughly 1,300 miles apart. The distance between College Park and Seattle is more than double that. Those midweek games will give players tons of frequent flyer points, but professors don’t accept miles in lieu of assignments. Jetlag will become the sixth defender on the floor in every Big Ten barn.
All that travel is going to put the Pacific schools at a huge disadvantage and will likely give the teams that travel West in December an upper hand compared to those who do so in February. I want to watch a regular season title race that comes down to the wire, not a battle of attrition. There is no just, fair fix here, so miss me with that “two games in a weekend” nonsense. The stakes are too high.
Simply put: this expansion is asking for too much from student-athletes. College sports are supposed to be about creating opportunities for educational and personal development but right now all I can think about is a potential conversation between a coach and recruit that goes like this:
CROOT: “I love ball.”
COACH: “Cool. Do you love it enough to take a Wednesday night red eye from L.A. to State College and back twice in three weeks?”
I hate that scenario because of the undue stress it can create in an athlete’s mind. Players work incredibly hard to play high-level ball and I don’t want them questioning whether the experience is worth it because they’re unsure if they can handle the gauntlet.
Asking the question also puts coaches in a tough spot. They love the game too and have no desire to scare off prospects but they have to play that role (whether they want to or not). I am also curious to see if any schools will start slacking when it comes to administrative stuff because their staffs are being stretched too thin.
I’ll admit, I am intrigued by the idea of seeing Indiana play in the Rose Bowl, but sports with multiple competitions per week are not built for this... the athletes deserve better.