Women's college basketball: Is the Big Ten on the verge of a breakthrough?

Diamond Miller and Maryland continue to be the Big Ten front-runner, but coach Brenda Frese says the league is deeper than it has been since the Terps joined it in 2014-15. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Maryland has been the standard-bearer in the Big Ten since the Terps joined the conference in 2014-15. But in recent seasons, Power 5 conferences such as the ACC, Pac-12 and SEC have dominated the national landscape. Midway through the 2020-21 women's college basketball season, the Big Ten is big news, with six ranked teams and seven representatives in ESPN's latest Bracketology. ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel, Charlie Creme and D'Arcy Maine examine what it all means for the Big Ten and more -- including what the Pac-12 showdown between Oregon and Stanford might reveal about the Cardinal's defense. Plus, our experts make their picks for two of the biggest games that remain on the schedule this weekend.

With six ranked teams, including two that are unbeaten, is the Big Ten on the verge of a breakthrough? And don't forget Iowa, which isn't ranked but has just one loss and a Wooden Award candidate in freshman Caitlin Clark.

Voepel: It's good news for the Big Ten that we're having this discussion, because the league has not been in the spotlight the same way that the other Power 5 conferences have been in the last several years. But the depth of the league is fleshing out, and maybe there is going to be a similar breakthrough as has happened with the Pac-12. I'm not saying it is imminent, but there are at least good signs.

Maryland joining the Big Ten in 2014-15 gave the league more credibility, including with the Terrapins' trip to the 2015 Final Four. Rutgers brought in its Final Four credentials then, too. But the last time a Big Ten team went to the Final Four before Maryland was 2005 with Michigan State, and the conference's only national championship was Purdue's in 1999.

This is all ancient history -- anything past a couple years is "ancient" in recruits' eyes -- but that's the problem. The Big Ten hasn't attracted as much top talent, in general, but part of that is the programs' lack of NCAA tournament pizzazz. Is any team beyond Maryland a Final Four contender? Probably not. But maybe a few are getting closer.

No. 12 Maryland is still the Big Ten's top-ranked team. And despite a very short bench because of injuries -- including to highly touted freshman Angel Reese, who is out with a broken foot and isn't expected back until February -- the Terps traveled to No. 23 Michigan State on Thursday and handed the Spartans their first loss this season, 93-87.

Maryland coach Brenda Frese had encouraging words for the league after that win.

"You're getting those battles just like you see on the men's side right now in the Big Ten," Frese said. "It's the deepest I've seen since we came into it, so we just love these matchups."

Yes, it's part of Frese's job to bolster the Big Ten. But we can look at Michigan, still undefeated after a tight 64-62 win over Nebraska on Thursday, Ohio State at 6-0 (although it is facing a self-imposed postseason ban for potential NCAA violations) and Iowa at 8-1 and say that these are some pretty interesting teams.

Whether we're seeing much progress with the bottom of the Big Ten is another question, but you could say that about other leagues. Again, we have to be realistic and try to measure legitimate progress. I think the Big Ten is making some of that.

Maine: In terms of recruiting and becoming one of the better conferences in women's college basketball? It certainly seems like it is on its way. As for going all in here and predicting a championship or a Final Four appearance from a conference team this season? I'm an optimistic person, but I'm not quite going to go that far.

With the success of several of the current teams and Caitlin Clark's monster numbers, it only brings more attention to the Big Ten and peaks the interest of the next generation of players. I know she's only a freshman and it almost seems unfair to put this much hype on her, but it feels like Clark could eventually have a Sabrina Ionescu-type effect for Iowa in terms of recognition for the program. I already hate myself for writing this sentence.

Creme: Earlier in the season I wrote that the ACC was the deepest conference in the country. That might have been correct then, but that distinction belongs to either the SEC or the Big Ten now. It has been a long time since the Big Ten would even enter such a discussion, so yes, it appears the Big Ten is on the cusp of breakthrough.

Iowa has been better than anticipated, largely because of Clark. That also goes for Michigan State, one of those three unbeatens and the only team to beat the Hawkeyes this season, and Michigan. The Wolverines have gone from ranked 25th in the preseason to 15th this week, and from No. 6 seed in the preseason Bracketology to a No. 4 seed this week, with junior forward Naz Hillmon in early contention for national player of the year.

Maryland remains the frontrunner and is the second-highest scoring offense in the country (95.3 PPG) and, while Indiana isn't off to an ideal start with December losses to Tennessee and Kentucky, the Hoosiers should still likely contend for the conference title and a top-four NCAA tournament seed.

To D'Arcy's point, outside of perhaps the Terps, I'm still not sure I see a Final Four team here. However, plenty of Sweet 16 potential exists this year for a Big Ten that has only had one team reach the regionals in the last two NCAA tournaments (Iowa in 2019).

No. 11 Oregon plays No. 1 Stanford on Friday (2:30 p.m. ET). Is this still the marquee game in the Pac-12?

Creme: A week ago, I would have said no. Stanford-Arizona was supposed to be that game this season. Then the Cardinal trampled the then-No. 6 Wildcats 81-54 in Tucson on New Year's Day, easily deposing the team that was supposed to be Stanford's biggest threat in the Pac-12. Now -- as Stanford also beat then-No. 10 UCLA by 12 points -- that label shifts to Oregon.

The Ducks are also the one team among the three other contenders with the offensive firepower to possibly match the ultra-talented Cardinal. Stanford, which has five players averaging double-figure scoring, including reserve Cameron Brink, is the 11th-highest scoring team (85.4 PPG) in the country. Oregon, with four players averaging double figures, ranks 14th (83.6 PPG).

From a visibility standpoint it hurts that the game is being played on Friday afternoon with no national television presence, but this game's importance to the Pac-12 race can't be overlooked. A Stanford win means it will have passed all its tests, all while not being at home for weeks, and will have established a clear path to a conference championship.

Maine: Charlie makes some great points about the less-than-ideal tip-off (before noon PT, really?) and lack of national audience, but the way this season is going, if a big game actually gets to be played, I think it automatically has to be considered in the marquee category.

This should be a great matchup between two familiar opponents who both want to establish conference dominance before the postseason. Sure, Oregon lost a heartbreaker to UCLA over the weekend to fall out of the top 10, but the Ducks have given the Cardinal the most trouble in recent seasons and have won the last three meetings. Coming off of their first loss of the season (and in almost a year) and looking for the first win in program history over the No. 1 team in the country, the Ducks should have motivation oozing out of their pores for this, even at 11:30 in the morning.

Voepel: Indeed, we're now at a point where if teams are told to play at 6 in the morning on a Target store parking lot, they'll do it. Four other Pac-12 games scheduled for Friday already have been postponed because of COVID-19/injury issues.

So everyone who has a chance to tune into the Pac-12 Network on Friday to see the Cardinal and Ducks should do so. And I think this game could show something more about just how good Stanford's defense is.

When I asked coach Tara VanDerveer on a recent Zoom conference how this team compared defensively to her best at Stanford, she wasn't up for comparisons. Understandable, she is focused completely on what this particular squad is doing. But Stanford's defense looks pretty good. And, frankly, we always expect Stanford's offense to be good.

So far, the Cardinal have held opponents to an average of 51.8 points per game and .301 shooting percentage from the field -- better numbers than the previous 15 seasons. Admittedly, those are season-long numbers and these stats are only through nine games. But it indicates the Cardinal are definitely on the right defensive path. Last season, they allowed 60.2 PPG and .357 shooting.

Oregon had to remake its whole personality, if you will, after losing so much to graduation. But Kelly Graves feels like the Ducks have done that well. We saw some youth and inexperience impact their loss to UCLA, but that can be seen as a good learning experience against a good team. Now going against the No. 1 team in the country will be another important test for the Ducks.

What game or team has the biggest impact on Bracketology this week?

Creme: Iowa might have the most to gain this week. The Hawkeyes weren't in the field in preseason bracket projections, but behind Clark and her 27.6 PPG, they have moved up to a No. 7 seed in this week's Bracketology. That goes even higher -- perhaps much higher -- with wins over Northwestern on Saturday and Ohio State on Wednesday.

The game against the Buckeyes is particularly important. While Ohio State won't be playing in the NCAA tournament due to a self-imposed postseason ban, the Buckeyes are currently No. 7 in the NET rankings, the new NCAA evaluation tool the selection committee will use as its quantitative measure of teams. Iowa is 27th. A win for the Hawkeyes would significantly improve that ranking and their seed in subsequent bracket projections.

While Iowa wouldn't quite get to a top-four seed with a sweep this week, the Hawkeyes would be in position to challenge for one the rest of the season and would be in great shape in a competitive Big Ten race.

ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend's top games