Big Ten expansion brings new challenges to women’s hoops

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Big Ten women’s basketball — not football — has been the most impacted sport ever since the conference first expanded in 1990. First, it was Penn State, then Nebraska in 2011, and now Maryland and Rutgers, who this summer officially became members.

“This is a power conference,” declares Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer, the grande dame of Big Ten women’s hoops and women’s basketball’s winningest active coach.

“Arguably, we are the best women’s basketball conference in the country,” says Nikita Lowry Dawkins, in her first year as Minnesota assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, in a recent MSR interview. She has both played (Ohio State,

Bobbie Kelsey
Bobbie Kelsey

1985-89) and coached in the conference (her alma mater and at Michigan). “Once we get started, people will see that the talent in our conference is amazing, and the coaching is impeccable.”

Northwestern sophomore and Hopkins graduate Nia Coffey last season was one of the conference’s top performers, and according to her coach she is expected to be equally as effective this year, if not better. “She has that skill and talent. She has that drive, and she thinks she’s the worst player in our team,” notes Coach Joe McKeown.

Conference expansion hasn’t been kind to the hometown Gophers: Minnesota’s all-time records against Penn State (12-27) and Nebraska (6-10) are not encouraging, and now in comes Maryland, the

C. Vivian Stringer Photos by Charles Hallman
C. Vivian Stringer
Photos by Charles Hallman

conference preseason favorite and last year’s Final Four finalist, and Rutgers, who won the WNIT last season and returns all five starters.

“I think this year’s team will be by far one of the most athletic teams we’ve had in my 12 years at Maryland,” says Maryland Coach Brenda Frese.

For the record, Minnesota is winless in its only meeting with Rutgers (1981-82) and 0-2 against Maryland.

“If you want to be the best, you have to play the best and beat the best,” continues Dawkins.

Furthermore, two more teams now mean an 18-game Big Ten regular season schedule. “It’s definitely something that is a difference for us and a change for the coaches having the two more games in the conference,” notes Wisconsin Women’s Coach Bobbie Kelsey. “That’s what we have, and we have to live with that.”

It’s been five seasons since the U of M, whose season begins November 14 at home against Southeastern Louisiana, recorded a first-division finish. They return two probable starters:  senior guard Rachel Banham and sophomore center Amanda Zahui B. Forward Shae Kelley, a senior transfer from Old Dominion, is expected to be a third starter. The locals also are hoping that freshman Carlie Wagner, a big scorer in high school, will replicate that as a collegian.

But even with Banham, the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year, and Zahui B., also a preseason all-conference pick, it’s way too early to predict how this young squad will fare against seasoned teams this year.

“I think you are going to see an exciting style of basketball,” predicts Dawkins of the 2014-15 Gophers. “It’s a fun game to coach when you’re up and down, doing things defensively to keep the offense in balance.”

 

Finally… 

Gender inequity again is on display this college basketball season: “At least one game [is] on an ESPN television network every day but seven” between November 14 and March 8 — “more than 1,500 college basketball games” will be televised on “the ESPN Family of Networks,” said the four-letter network’s press release.

However, only nine women games are part of their seven-week “Big Monday” series, and only two women’s games as part of its seventh annual “nearly 29 hours” Tip-Off Marathon  November 17-18.

 

Coaches’ quotes from Big Ten Media Day transcripts were used in this report.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.