For years, the Big Ten has struggled to gain respect.
The league’s coaches have reasons (excuses?) why they do not get this respect, but one fact cannot be challenged: The Big 10 has not performed well in the NCAA tournament and nothing will change until it does.
Seven teams received 2012 NCAA bids, but six of them failed to make the Sweet 16 – this year, though, there appear to be five teams that, health permitting, have the ability to make the third round of the Big Dance. In addition, three and possibly four others look to be good enough to get invites.
Of course, it’s one thing to get there – it’s another to win there, as teams like Ohio State have discovered to their chagrin in recent years.
But between now and the tournament, a most interesting and competitive regular season will play out. Ten of the 15 players named to the coach’s all league teams return and defending champion Penn State returns virtually intact. While the Lions should repeat, Nebraska also returns almost everyone and should be close at PSU’s heels, while Ohio State, Iowa and Purdue also have the potential to be very good basketball teams.
1. Penn State (26-7, 13-3, first place, NCAA Sweet 16): A season after Penn State proved most prognosticators right by winning Coquese Washington’s first Big Ten title, the Nittany Lions are overwhelming favorites to repeat. The Lions return two of the league’s top three individual players in guards Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas, plus a surrounding cast that should put them in the nation’s top ten to begin the season. In conference games last year, the Lions led the league in points scored, scoring margin and rebounding margin, finished second in field goal percentage defense and field goal percentage offense. Obviously, this was a well-rounded team without major weaknesses.
With only guard Zhaque Gray (10.6 points a game) not returning, the team should pick up where it left off. At point guard, Bentley returns and will again be Washington’s coach on the floor. Last season she averaged 14.1 points and 4.7 assists a game, but did turn the ball over over three times a game and shot only 68.4% from the free throw line. She’s a solid defender who will be a contender for Player of the Year if she turns the ball over less and shoots better from the line. She also had times last season when she disappeared on the court, so she has to be more consistent. Lucas, meanwhile, improved enormously from her freshman to sophomore season and it’s hard to find areas to criticize her. She finished third in the league in scoring at 19.5 points a game., and her 4.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists a game along with some solid defense, showed that she has developed into an excellent basketball player instead of just a shooter. If she continues improving, she could be the Lions’ best player be season’s end.
There are areas of concern for Washington., and chief among them is center Nikki Greene. Greene has the skills and the body to be one of the top centers in the nation, but she simply cannot keep herself on the floor. She blocked about a shot and a half a game, but she constantly reaches on defense and limited herself to only 20 minutes a game of playing time by committing an average of 3.5 personal fouls a game. There is no question that Penn State is at its best when Greene is on the court. If they are to reach their potential in the post season, Greene will have to be on the floor more.
2. Nebraska (24-9, 10-6, sixth): Nebraska’s first season in the Big Ten Conference was more impressive than a sixth-place regular season finish would suggest. Coach Connie Yori and her squad spent much of the season vying for the league title before an injury-driven slump saw the Huskers lose four of five late-season games and fall out of contention. And the Huskers did this despite having the league’s second youngest roste, which leads them to be the near unanimous choice to finish second this season.
Nebraska had a strong season despite no real statistical strengths. The Big Red finished in the bottom half of the conference in scoring and rebounding margin, offensive and defensive field goal margin, and free-throw and three-point shooting. Their only top three finishes statistically were in offensive rebounds, offensive rebounding percentage and three-point field goals made. The Huskers succeeded by riding the shoulders of several outstanding players and making clutch plays when games were on the line.
Two players who regularly put their team on their shoulders were then-sophomore Jordon Hooper and then-junior Lindsay Moore. Hooper, a 6-2 post, finished fourth in the league in scoring (18.9 ppg) and first in rebounding (9.3 rpg). Hooper is much more athletic than she appears and is a matchup nightmare for almost everyone in the league. She can step outside and hit the three as well as play a strong post-up game. Moore is a 5-9 point guard who has started every game in her career and was the starting point guard on the best team in Nebraska history, the 2009-10 team that won the Big 12 title and was a top seed in the NCAA tournament. She finished seventh in the league in scoring with 15.7 points a game and her 5.1 assists a game were the conference’s second best mark. Those two return and will again lead Nebraska.
With the overall return of four starters and nine of ten players who averaged at least ten minutes a game, Nebraska should show across-the-board improvement. With Moore and Meghin Williams the only two seniors on this season’s roster, Nebraska should be in a position to sit at or near the top of the standings for the foreseeable future. But, and isn’t there always a but, the Cornhuskers will have to stay healthy, and injuries have played havoc with early practices for Yori.
To date, Hooper has missed about half of the practices with a stress fracture, Halie Sample, another returning starter, has missed virtually all the practices with a knee injury suffered last season, and Moore has missed about a third of the reps with several injuries. In addition, several players who have been counted on to contribute have missed large chunks of practice with a variety of nicks. While no one is likely to miss the season, Yori will need to get her players healthy while getting her team ready for the season. That will not be easy, but the reward could be a special season in Nebraska.
3. Ohio State (25-7, 11-5, tied for second): A funny thing happened in the Big Ten last season: For the first time since the 2003-04 season, the Ohio State Buckeyes did not win either the regular season or postseason conference title. In his ten seasons at OSU, coach Jim Foster has won 78% of his league games and dominated the conference, and while he had, for him, a subpar 2011-12 season, he also had the conference’s youngest team and lacked a dominant post player for the first time in eight seasons.
While the graduation of senior all-everything Sam Prahalis would seem to leave a huge hole in the team, Ohio State appears to have the players to fill any void she leaves. Chief among them will be senior guard Taylor Hill, this writer’s pick as the top player in the Big Ten. Despite sharing point guard with Prahalis, Hill led the Big Ten in scoring with 20.3 points a game and added 4.2 rebounds and more than two steals and assists a game. Hill is a deadly shooter who makes 47% of her shots, despite taking more than 40% of her shots from three-point range. This year, she will handle the point guard duties almost exclusively but should still prove to be a potent scorer.
If there was a surprise for the 2011 Buckeyes, it was their post game. Despite the loss of four-time Big Ten Player of the Year Jantel Lavender to the WNBA, Ohio State continued to be strong inside and led the conference in blocks with 6.3 a game. But injuries have already struck – 6-1 Kalpana Beach who started every game at power forward last season, will miss the year with a torn ACL suffered in October. Six-five Ashley Adams, last year’s leading rebounder, does returns in the middle and should add more points and rebounds this year. Martina Ellerbe and Emilee Harmon are both experienced posts who will contribute again this year.
Under Foster, Ohio State has developed a tradition of having at least one guard who is simply a shut-down defender and that should continue with the return of Amber Stokes, last season’s Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
On paper, this is a good but not great Ohio State team. Several times in the past, such OSU teams have ended the season on top of the league’s standings. That doesn’t look likely this year, but the Buckeyes have earned the right to never be counted out.
4. Iowa (19-12, 11-5, tied for second): Iowa coach Lisa Bluder can be forgiven if she feels that the basketball gods have something in for her and her program as Iowa has been hit by more injuries than any team in the Big Ten, and more than most in the nation. Despite that, her Hawkeyes have never blinked and annually finish higher than expected. Last year, they were struggling when leading scorer and top player Jaime Printy went down with a torn ACL. The squad responded by going on a six-game winning streak to finish tied for second in the conference, and advance to the NCAA tournament for the ninth time in her 12 years at the school.
Printy is back but the injuries continue for the Hawkeyes. Virginia Johnson, a top 100 recruit entering the program last season who was expected to start at power forward this year, saw her career ended by multiple concussions. Melissa Dixon, who started and played well in Printy’s place, tore her ACL and will miss the season. In addition, three of her four incoming freshmen are coming off ACL surgery.
Despite all that, Bluder has what she calls a healthy roster. She is currently practicing with 12 scholarship players and has a two-deep roster she can count on. Should that continue, the Hawkeyes may have a truly special year.
Printy is close to 100% from her injury and at her best, she is one of the top five or six players in the Big Ten. She will again provide the Hawks with excellent outside shooting as well as strong all-around play. She will be joined by sister senior 6-5 Morgan Johnson, who is the conference’s top center. Last season she finished ninth in the Big Ten in scoring (14.9 ppg), led the league in field goal percentage and finished second in blocks. Being a true Hawkeye, she battles chronically sore knees and has her minutes somewhat limited by that. Johnson, who may be the league’s guttiest player, provides an excellent inside complement to Printy and Iowa’s always strong outside shooting.
By the end of last season then freshman Samantha Logic was the league’s top freshman and was named Co-Player of the Week two of the least three weeks. She will run the point for the Hawks and should be one of the best in a league full of strong point guards.
If there is one player in the conference who may surprise and make a huge jump it is Iowa junior Theairra Taylor, an extremely athletic 5-11 redshirt junior. Last year, Taylor was coming off three ACL injuries in 20 months and consistently improved as the year went on. In Iowa’s last game, an NCAA contest against Cal, she was clearly the best player on the floor and she has continued to improve over the summer. She has added a much improved jump shot to her almost unstoppable drives to the basket and her potential is virtually unlimited. Of course, like the other Hawkeyes, she has to stay healthy.
It is a testament to the strength of the Big Ten that Iowa is picked fourth instead of higher. If the gods smile on Bluder for a change, they may again beat expectations.
Senior Drey Mingo is healthy and hoping to help Purdue finish strong this season. (photo courtesy Purdue Athletics)
5. Purdue (25-9, 11-5, tied for second): If Purdue does finish fifth, the Boilermakers will likely be the best team ever to finish that low in the league. Coach Sharon Versyp returns a solid core of players to a program that is always at or near the top of the standings.
Granted, the Boilers lost high-scoring Brittany Rayburn, but they return guards Courtney Moses and KK Hauser, who will be counted on to provide much of the team’s scoring. Of course, classic Purdue basketball is based on a strong defense and playing harder than the opposition, and that will continue this season.
That competitiveness will be keyed by the return of Drey Mingo. Two seasons ago, Mingo was limited by a bout of meningitis which came scarily close to ending her life. Last season, she tore her ACL and missed the entire year. The NCAA showed that it did have a heart and did, somewhat surprisingly, grant her a sixth year of eligibility, which hopefully will allow her to play an entire season with the Boilers.
Mingo is a strong, extremely talented 6-2 forward who, if healthy, is one of the league’s top players. Mingo would turn a Purdue post game that is rather pedestrian into one that is a strength.
This will not be a typical Purdue team in some ways. With 14 scholarship players available, it will be a longer bench than Versyp has had in her time at Purdue -- that will give her more options and she may well use them to force some veterans to improve their play or sit. Chief among them is starting point guard KK Hauser. Hauser was taken out of the starting lineup for two games last season because of her poor play, especially her many turnovers. Her play improved somewhat when she returned to the lineup but she still ended the year with more turnovers than assists and she shot only 35% from the field despite taking more shots than anyone but Rayburn. Parade all-American guard Hayden Hamby joins the team this year. Hamby averaged over 34 points a game in her senior season in high school and the Boilers are a team that could use more scorers on the floor. If Hauser does not improve her play, she could lose significant minutes to Hamby.
6. Michigan (20-12, 8-8, seventh): After a season in which they received their first NCAA bid since 2001, Michigan coach Kevin Borseth left the BCS school to return to a Green Bay program he had built into a mid-major power. Michigan, which has little tradition of success in the women’s game, may have signaled that it is willing to do what is necessary to succeed when administrators approached St John’s Kim Barnes Arico about becoming the Wolverines new coach.
Barnes Arico, who admits that she was not looking to leave the Red Storm, said she felt it was in her best interests to listen to Michigan and she surprised many, including even herself, by taking over the Wolverines. She brings a strong history of program-building that ended with St. John’s reaching the Sweet 16 in 2012. She takes over a program that lost a lot but that still returns a solid core of players, led by senior guard Jenny Ryan.
Ryan is a coach’s dream, a player who is not overly talented but who works extremely hard and does all the little things that coaches love. Her intangibles are off the charts and her leadership will make it easier for Barnes Arico to ease into the job.
Barnes Arico takes over a team that played decent defense, rebounded poorly and shot the ball decently. The key returnee other than Ryan is her fellow senior Rachel Sheffer, last season’s top scorer. At 6-1, Sheffer is an undersized post player but she has decent three-point range as well as strong post-up skills. That combination makes her a matchup problem for many other post players in the league, but her size hurts her on the boards where she only averaged 4.6 rebounds a game. In fact, the 5-9 Ryan hustled her way to a team leading 6.4 rebounds a game.
Barnes Arico want to play a more uptempo game than the Wolverines did under Borseth, but the lack of rebounding will make that difficult. Her incoming freshman class does not bring any size to the team, so any improvement in this area will have to come from returning players.
Barnes Arico is a proven coach taking over a roster with many question marks. The Wolverines are coming off a successful season, though, and that taste should lead to a hunger for more success. If they buy into Barnes Arico’s program, this version of the Wolverines could be another solid team and could well return to the NCAA tournament.
7. Minnesota (19-17, 6-10, eighth): When coaches are asked what team they think may surprise, the answers are always interesting. This year, it was Minnesota that was mentioned, which is a testament to the much improved recruiting coach Pam Borton has managed in the past several years. This season, the Gopher team that takes the floor will have its most talent since Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville led them to their only Final Four berth.
Leading the way is last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, point guard Rachel Banham. Banham is a truly special player and one with the ability to carry her team. Last season she scored 16.1 points a game on 42% shooting, grabbed 5.2 rebounds a game and handed out almost three assists a game. She could well improve all those numbers this season. She will be joined in the starting lineup by 6-2 redshirt freshman Kayla Hirt, who also has the potential to be special. Hirt was scheduled to start last season before she tore her ACL and missed the entire season.
Borton adds a solid freshman class, at least two and possibly three of which will either start or play significant minutes. The key veteran will be 6-4 senior Katie Loberg, who led the team in rebounding last season.
Anyone who talks basketball with Borton will hear about defense early in the conversation. Borton considers herself a defense-first coach and wants to build her team around its defense. Unfortunately, her team has not been good on that end of the court for some time. They were somewhat better defensively last season when they were not good but adequate. A team relying on young players as much as this Gopher team will is not usually strong on defense, but they continue to emphasize it.
Three coaches have been fired in the Big Ten after the past two seasons and on paper, Borton is the next coach on the hot seat. She has taken care of the first job of any coach by improving the talent level of players she brings into the program -- now she has to coach them on the court. This team has the potential to return to the NCAA tournament and move Borton away from that hot seat. If the Gophers underachieve, things may get hotter for the league’s third longest tenured coach.
8. Michigan State (20-12, 11-5, tied for second): Spartan coach Suzy Merchant received tough news this week, six-seven Madison Williams, a redshirt sophomore, tore her right ACL for the second time, and will miss the entire 2012-13 season. She missed almost all of last season after tearing her left ACL, and two years ago, the former star for Detroit Country Day had to sit out with a torn ACL in her right knee.
Williams, an elite recruit, was expected to be the offensive and defensive focus of the team this season, thanks to her size and skill. The Spartans learned about Williams just after losing another Detroit Country Day grad, freshman Aerial Powers, to an Achilles' tendon tear. Powers was counted on to play a key role in Suzy Merchant's team this year, but she too will miss the season.
On top of that, the young Spartans have only two seniors on their roster and one has rarely played in her first three seasons. Juniors Analise Pickrel and Klarissa Bell have played regularly but neither has ever averaged more than four points a game. Sophomores Kianna Johnson and Becca Mills both had solid freshman seasons and will now be counted on to play major roles on the team.
Under Merchant, Michigan State has always played solid defense, which is not likely to change, but how the team will score remains to be seen. It's fair to assume, this could be Merchant’s first team that does not earn an NCAA bid.
9. Illinois (11-19, 5-11, tied for ninth): When Jolette Law was hired to coach the Illini, she said her goal was to win a national championship. When she was fired after last season, she left without coming close to winning a league title, much less a national one. Matt Bollant takes over a team that Law built but was not able to coach effectively.
There is some talent, and it’s possible Bollant could sneak up a spot or two in the standings and be in the mix for an NCAA bid. Chief among the talents is 6-2 senior forward Karisma Penn, but there is a caveat. After being named to the league’s All-Freshman team in 2010 and to the second team All-Big Ten squad in 2011, Penn disappeared in a disappointing junior season that saw her scoring average drop from 17.5 to 13.4, and her rebounds from 10 to 7.3. Job 1A for Bollant will be to do whatever is necessary to help her return to form. If that doesn’t happen, the Illini will not improve.
Job 1B is to improve the team’s fundamentals. Despite Law’s achievements as a player and an assistant at Rutgers, her Illinois teams rarely progressed past playground ball. The Illini did very little well and much of their ineffectiveness was due to poor fundamental play. In short, Law recruited excellent athletes but failed to harness that athleticism into a disciplined team.
At Green Bay, Bollant turned his team into a national power by playing hard fundamentally sound basketball and by running an offense that featured three-point shooting. At Illinois, however, he takes over a squad that is not only fundamentally unsound but that shot fewer threes and shot them more poorly than about anyone in the Big Ten. Bollant will have to make adjustments in his style of play and get his players to be able competently play whatever offense he does install. Of the league’s three new coaches, Bollant’s team played to most beneath its potential in 2011-12, which makes the Illini the most interesting and unpredictable story in the league this season.
If Senior Taylor Wurtz has a banner season, the Badgers can expect to finish better than 10th in the Big 10 (photo courtesy Wisconsin Athletics).
10. Wisconsin (3-20, 5-11, tied for ninth): When Bobbie Kelsey took over the Badgers in May 2011, she inherited a team that was short on talent and poorly coached as well. In her first season, Kelsey and her staff showed that they have the ability to develop players as guard Morgan Paige and center Anya Covington, neither of whom had previously looked like even average Big Ten players, both developed into solid contributors who definitely belong in the conference. Guard Taylor Wurtz, who had shown promise but had disappeared during her sophomore season, developed into one of the league’s better players.
It is that type of player development that gives Wisconsin fans legitimate hope that their program can again play in the NCAA tournament – but just not after this season.
In her first recruiting class, Kelsey added six players who will be eligible this year and all will have a chance to immediately contribute. Wurtz and Paige will handle the two and three spots but every other position is open. Six-four Cassie Rochel should improve in the post while 5-10 sophomore Lindsay Smith may be poised to have a breakthrough season.
The Badgers did have one area of strength last season and it was an important one, and one that will allow them to build. They shot the ball very well. Wisconsin finished second in free-throw percentage, third in field-goal percentage and fourth in three-point percentage. That contrasted with a defense that finished last in the league in opponents’ field-goal percentage and ninth in rebounding margin. The Badgers will again be one of the league’s smallest teams so it’s hard to see much improvement in rebounding, but their defense has to be better. Wisconsin should be a better team, but one that will still finish near the bottom of the Big Ten.
11. Northwestern (14-16, 4-12, 11th): The list of people who don’t admire and respect Northwestern coach Joe McKeown is composed mainly of those who are not familiar with him. The veteran coach has built a career of success on the court and contributions to the game off of it. In his first four seasons at Northwestern, he has elevated the talent on the squad, but that has yet to pay off in a jump in the standings and it looks like that expected jump will not come this season.
Last season, the Wildcats finished in the bottom four in the conference in virtually all significant statistical categories. The only one in which they excelled was in assists, and that can be attributed to their best player, then-freshman Karly Roser. Roser returns and will be at the center of the Wildcats offense. She will again be passing to front court players Kendall Hackney (15 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Danielle Diamant (13.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg), who are the strength of the team.
McKeown also welcomes five freshmen to his team and he will have to count on them to make an immediate impact. While it appears that they will help his team improve, it doesn’t appear likely that that improvement will result in a jump in the standings in a strong Big Ten.
12. Indiana (6-24, 1-15, 12th): When Curt Miller moved from Bowling Green to Indiana, he went from a program he had built into one of the top mid-majors in the nation to one even he admits is the obvious pick for last in the Big Ten. There is a reason for the low expectations. Former coach Felisha Legette-Jack deserved to be fired not because she is a bad teacher (she isn’t), but because she failed to bring Big Ten-caliber talent into her program. The squad Miller inherits is simply operating at a different, and much lower, talent level than its competition.
Miller built his BGSU squad into a top one by running an offense built around the pick-and-roll and he will attempt to implement that into his Hoosier team. He will have to establish some kind of an offense that gets his players shots because he his team is composed of players who simply do not shoot the ball well. Indiana returns its two leading scorers from a season ago in Jasmine McGhee (12.6 ppg) and Aulani Sinclair (12.4 ppg), both seniors who will be counted on to step up and lead the team. However, neither shot close to 40% from the field and neither really shows the potential to be much better.
Miller is an excellent young coach and was an excellent hire for Indiana. He says one of his first goals is to have his team annoy their opponents. The first thing he will have to do, though, is learn patience, because it will take a while for him to build a team that can be more than an annoyance.
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