On a few occasions in recent months Amy Williams has been welcomed back to the Big Ten Conference, which while polite, is not exactly accurate. She’s never been a part of the Big Ten Conference.
The first-year Nebraska women’s basketball coach was a player at Nebraska, but that was back when the Huskers were in the Big 8 Conference, and later the Big 12.
Williams will be making her first trek through the Big Ten when Nebraska opens the 16-game league schedule by hosting Northwestern on Wednesday at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
She’ll find a conference much different from the Big 8, with the Big Ten having 14 teams and stretching all the way to the East Coast.
There are some traditionally strong women’s basketball programs, but from top-to-bottom the Big Ten does not look to be great this year, with only Maryland and Ohio State ranked in the Top 25. The Big Ten is ranked fifth in conference RPI, behind the SEC, Pac 12, ACC and Big 12.
Nebraska was one of four Big Ten teams that had a losing record during the nonconference season.
There are seven Big Ten schools in the top 50 of the RPI, with Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Northwestern and Iowa joining Maryland. With a 4-8 record, Nebraska is ranked 136th in the RPI.
Last year, five Big Ten teams reached the NCAA Tournament.
Williams was a player at Nebraska from 1995 to ’98, back when Nebraska had a conference rivalry with Oklahoma in football that carried over to other sports.
“I’m embarrassed to admit, and this tells you how old I am, but I was two years in the Big 8 and two years in the Big 12,” Williams said. “When I had my first meeting with this team the night before my (introductory) press conference and we were talking about that they looked at me like, ‘Man, you’re old.'”
While knowing that Nebraska is in for a big challenge, Williams said she’s excited to experience a Big Ten season.
“One thing I do know is that it’s an extremely competitive league with very good coaching, and we have a lot respect for that aspect,” she said.
While Williams was the head coach at South Dakota last season, the Coyotes played two Big Ten teams, winning both games. South Dakota beat Illinois 85-76. Then in the second round of the WNIT, South Dakota beat Minnesota and Big Ten player of the year Rachel Banham 101-89. When South Dakota prepared for Minnesota, it looked back at several of the Gophers’ games, giving the coaching staff a chance to watch a few Big Ten teams.
This season, Nebraska got to watch a little of Maryland when both teams played at a tournament in Las Vegas.
“We’re constantly keeping an eye on what the rest of our league is doing, and obviously when Penn State knocked off Tennessee earlier in the year, being able to drop them a congratulations,” Williams said. “It’s good for our conference when those types of wins happen. You’re always taking note and watching a little bit of film on what other teams in our league are doing. But when you have the type of nonconference schedule that we have, we had to each and every game just kind of focus on that game and that task at hand.”
In previous seasons Big Ten teams played 18 league games, packed into one fewer week than Big Ten men’s teams to accommodate the conference women's basketball tournament taking place one week earlier than the men's.
So now each school will face three Big Ten opponents twice, while playing the other 10 schools once.
This year Nebraska has to play Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State twice. Each of those teams was in the top half of the league standings during nonconference play.
As the Huskers set out to begin the league season, Williams says how much success the Huskers have may depend on whether Nebraska can consistently play complete games.
“We’ve had some flashes where we do some good things, but the good teams are the ones that do that consistently and can put it together and not lose focus on a certain possession here or there, or a certain stretch of the game,” Williams said. “So that’s going to be a focus for us as we move throughout this season.”