Guru's College Report: Rutgers and Maryland Help The Big 10 Up Its Cache
By Mel Greenberg
ROSEMONT, Ill. – Welcome and dread seemed to be the small talk in women’s circles here at the annual Big 10 media day, also held for the men’s teams, Thursday morning last week here at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare Hotel.
Dread in that the addition of Rutgers and Maryland brings a set of two new feared opponents to deal with once the conference wars begin in late December.
But welcome, for now, probably has more meaning in that in Maryland, which both the coaches and media in separate conference polls picked to land on top, and Rutgers, coming off winning the WNIT, are bringing an enhancement value to further state the days not too long ago of hard times and few teams in the Associated Press poll are further behind in the rear view mirror.
In fact the conference has now moved ahead of the Atlantic Coast Conference behind the leading SEC for total AP rankings among current members.
Maryland made it to the Women’s Final Four, though the departure of All-American Alyssa Thomas, who landed as a productive newcomer on the WNBA Connecticut Sun, has somewhat dented the Terrapins’ ability to be among the national elite at the outset.
Rutgers has everyone back, a beefed up schedule, in part due to the conference shift from a one-year stay in the American Athletic Conference extended from a productive life in the Old Big East, and also in part to Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer loaded the non-conference portion with more heavyweights as she had usually done until last season.
Both newcomers have heavy barriers removed from life experienced in their previous neighborhoods.
A year ago Maryland was on the other side of its new role as a conference favorite, having to deal with the arrival of newcomer Notre Dame, which was perfect until the NCAA title game when the Irish had to deal with both its and Rutgers’ previous thorn in Connecticut.
Both Terrapins’ coach Brenda Frese and Rutgers’ Stringer are no strangers to being part of the Big 10 brand: Frese got Minnesota into the national limelight with a one-year stay before succeeding longtime Maryland coach Chris Weller while Stringer turned Iowa into a national powerhouse in the mid-1980s.
“Back then, the league was more physical and top heavy with teams like Iowa and Ohio State, but today there’s more versatility and when you focus on teams, you focus as much on the coaches as the players because there are so many outstanding ones,” Stringer said.
“She also noted, they talk about learning us (Maryland and Rutgers), they only have to learn two new teams, we each have to learn 11 when the conference season begins,” she said.
As much as the Big 10 is considered Midwest in its geographical proximity, there is a lot of old line East in terms of teams and coaches.
Penn State, for example, which won the top seed in the conference but now must do some rebuilding with the departure of Maggie Lucas, who was a key newcomer on the WNBA Indiana Fever, used to compete with Rutgers in the 1980s in the Atlantic 10.
The duo used to also compete in Region 1B in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) and Stringer was there also in the late 1970s building her first powerhouse in Cheyney in suburban Philadelphia, and also leading the Wolves to the first NCAA title game in 1982.
Northwestern’s Joe McKeown, a Father Judge grad in Northeast Philadelphia, previously had a long coaching stint at A-10 George Washington, while new Minnesota coach Marlene Stollings is coming out of VCU, which also is a A-10 member.
Furthermore, Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff had Xavier built for a while into a national powerhouse while competing in the A-10 while this entire mix has Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico remembering the wars of the old Big East when her Saint John’s squad became an upstart causing havoc to Rutgers and even taking down Uconn once, ending a long home-win streak on a buzzer beater.
There’s also the nostalgia rivalry with Rutgers and Iowa because of Stringers’ past with the Hawkeyes and being looked upon an up and coming coach who has been in charge for some time in Lisa Bluder.
But it won’t be a first time when the two meet for their initial Big 10 confrontation.
“We’ve been to their place, they’ve been to ours and we’ve also met in the NCAA tournament,” Bluder recalled when asked about another reunion.
Iowa, by the way, is one of three teams expected by the coaches and media who vote in separate conference polls, to give the best pursuits to Maryland.
One thing that is different from the time that Stringer and Frese last lived in the Big 10 is the rich Big 10 TV network that means increased exposure, always useful when it comes to showing yourselves in the recruiting process across the country.
The Big 10 notes that every game in the conference and conference tournament – a total of 139 games – will air on its Big 10 and Big 10 Plus (streaming) networks as well as games produced by an ESPN network or CBS.
And some will appear even more as part of national telecasts on teams in their non-conference schedules.
The conference does not show the entire result in its preseason release – and right here says Rutgers should be a strong player when all is said and done – but after consensus points to Maryland, the coaches went with Michigan State second and Iowa third, while Michigan State made it a consensus No. 2 courtesy of the media, who picked Nebraska third.
The Cornhuskers slipped past everyone in March to win conference tournament but graduated All-Conference Jordan Hooper.
When it comes to players, both groups chose Minnesota senior guard Rachel Banham as the top star in preseason forecasting.
Of the 11 combined players picked – the media’s five became six because of a tie – Banham, Iowa senior guard Samantha Logic, and Nebraska junior guard Rachel Theriot made both teams, while Michigan State sophomore guard Aerial Powers, and Northwestern sophomore forward Nia Coffey made the coaches’ player picks.
Differentiating, the media chose Maryland sophomore guard Lexie Brown, Minnesota sophomore center Amanda Zahui, and Ohio State junior guard Ameryst Alston.
No one from Rutgers, as is obvious, made the first and only squads, but let it be known that senior Betnijah Laney, junior Kaleah Copper, and sophomore Tyler Scaife, are not a bad threesome to have in your attack and defense.
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