Jordan Hooper of Nebraska is on the Wade Trophy watch list. (Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska)
Jordan Hooper of Nebraska is on the Wade Trophy watch list. (Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska)

Big Ten women's basketball preview: Nebraska, Penn State lead the pack

October 22, 2013 - 5:45am

The Big Ten has struggled to gain respect in the world of women's basketball, especially since the team that usually ruled the roost in recent years, Ohio State, always seemed to crash and burn in postseason.

It would be nice to say that 2013-14 will mark the beginning of a new era for the league, but in the short run, at least, it looks like more of the same. Nonetheless, it appears at least some change may be on the horizon. The early favorite, Nebraska, is a newcomer to the Big Ten, and perennial bellwether Ohio State dumped long-time coach Jim Foster and is expected to sink back in the pack.

Penn State and Purdue should challenge the Cornhuskers, but as always, much depends on which team stays healthy. Iowa, for example, has been devastated by injuries in recent seasons, but the Hawkeyes, if healthy, are one of several teams that might mount an unexpected challenge.

1. Nebraska (25-9, 12-4, second) 

The 2012 Cornhuskers were the Big Ten’s youngest, but ultimately one of its best, teams. The squad consisted of two seniors, only one of whom played significant minutes, one junior, five sophomores and three freshmen. This year’s team adds three freshmen to make it again one of the league's youngest, but still one of the league's best.

Despite the numbers, the one senior who contributed will not be easy for coach Connie Yori to replace. Second team All-Big Ten selection Lindsey Moore started at point guard all four of her years at Nebraska and now plays for the Minnesota Lynx. She will be replaced in the lineup with a member of last season’s all-Freshman team, 6-0 Rachel Theriot, who averaged 6.2 points and three assists e for the Cornhuskers -- though of course those numbers should go up significantly this year.

The key to the team, last year and this season, is 6-2 forward Jordan Hooper, a prime candidate for league Player of the Year in 2013. Hooper is a deceptively athletic player who can score from the inside or outside and averaged 17.9 points and 8.8 rebounds a game. The third key returnee is 6-2 junior Emily Cady, who averaged 9.1 points and 7.9 rebounds a game. 

With the number of returning veterans, it is not likely that any of the freshmen will make an immediate impact, though it's possible 6-5 Allie Havers could be the first post player off the bench.

On paper, Nebraska is not overwhelming. The Huskers did not finish in the top three in any major offensive category except assist-to-turnover ratio, where they were first, but they are also a team without any major weaknesses. They consistently play hard, fundamentally sound, smart basketball, and that should be enough to win Nebraska its first Big Ten championship. 

2.  Penn State (26-6, 14-2, first) 

A season after dominating the Big Ten and becoming a top ten team, Penn State coach Coquese Washington will field a team composed mainly of freshmen and seniors, which should make for an interesting, if up and down, season for the Lady Lions.

The key losses were two players who started every game in their careers, Alex Bentley and Nikki Green. Bentley, a three-time first team All-Big Ten point guard, averaged 14.1 points, four assists and almost three steals a game. She ran the PSU offense and was a force on defense while 6-5 center Nikki Greene averaged 9.2 points and 8.5 rebounds and was a force inside on defense.

But Penn State’s cupboard is far from bare. Returning is the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas, who is an exceptional shooter and all-around player. Last season she averaged 20.1 points a game and hit 46.2% of her almost seven three-point attempts a game. She also averaged 4.5 rebounds, two assists, more than two steals a game and played strong individual defense. Lucas has the ability to get hot and carry her team and she will keep the Lady Lions in contention this year.

Six of Washington’s seven freshmen were top 100 recruits and the seventh would likely have been ranked that high had she not missed her senior season with an ACL injury. All have the potential to contribute immediately and it’s likely that several will see significant minutes.

The other key returnee is 6-6 sophomore center Candice Agee, a McDonald’s All American who got experience but not major minutes as a freshman. She also played for the USA U19 national team this past summer. If she earns the starting center job, this will again be a strong team overall and one that should push for another championship.

3. Michigan State (25-9, 10-6, tied for third) 

At the close of the 2012 season, a good case could have been made that MSU coach Suzy Merchant deserved to be league Coach of the Year. Despite her Spartans being decimated by injury, she led State to another strong season. They did this by relying on the type of grind-it-out blue collar basketball that Merchant loves.

As always, the Spartans were strong defensively, finishing first in the conference in points allowed, three-point percentage defense and rebounding margin. They also finished second in field goal percentage and third in turnover margin. With projected starters Madison Williams and Aerial Powers missing the season with injury, the Spartans played essentially with seven players throughout the season. Five of those seven return, led by 5-11 guard Klarissa Bell, who had a breakout year last season as she led the team in scoring and rebounding.

The excellence on defense and in rebounding has become constants for the Spartans under Merchant and they will be fine in those areas again this year.  Just how good this team will be depends largely on three players who were not on the team in 2012.  The 6-7 Williams was Merchant’s first Parade All-American but she has been limited to three games in her first three seasons by three ACL injuries. If Williams can stay healthy and return to something close to her prior level of ability, she will be one of the dominant centers in the league. Six-foot guard Arielle Powers, an explosive offensive player, was scheduled to start at wing but missed the season with a torn Achilles' tendon. The program’s second Parade All-American, incoming freshman Tori Jankoska, averaged 24 points over her high school career and 30.9 points as a senior. These three represent the potential to be the top three scorers on the team. If the Spartans could add a strong offensive presence to their always strong defense and rebounding, they could contend for a championship. Even if they struggle offensively, they will still be a top team in the league.

4. Purdue (25-9, 10-6, tied for third) 

Coach Sharon Versyp has some definite question marks going into the 2013 season.

Last season, nearly all of the Boilermakers post game came from seniors. None of them were stars but Drey Mingo, Sam Ostarello and Chantel Poston combined to give Versyp a better than average frontcourt. The one non-senior who played post last season, Taylor Manuel, left the program this summer, leaving the post in the hands of four returnees who played a total of 237 minutes last season.

Their weakness in the middle, however, will be offset by strength at guard. Courtney Moses and KK Houser were two of the top three scorers on the team.  Moses led the team in scoring with 13.3 points a game and shot the ball well while Houser averaged 11.3 points a game but did not shoot the ball well at all. Freshman Ashley Morrisette should step in immediately and give the team offense and may well earn a starting job at the wing.

Under Versyp, the Boilermakers have not always looked good on paper, but they compete as well as anyone and they simply know how to win. Her team is unusually unbalanced and that should keep them for competing for a top spot.  Regardless, they always seem to end up in the NCAA tournament and that shouldn’t change in 2014.

Jacki Gulczynski averaged 13 points and 5.9 rebounds per game for the Badgers last season. (Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin)

5. Wisconsin (12-19, 3-13, tenth) 

In her third season at Wisconsin, coach Bobbie Kelsey has put together a solid, balanced roster that should allow her team to make a significant jump in the standings. She has steadily added talent and, more importantly, she and her coaching staff have done a good job of developing the players' individual skills.

The only loss was point guard Tiera Stephen, and without a true point guard waiting in the wings, the team may do point guard by committee this year. That isn’t ideal but the Badgers have a strong complement of guards who should be able to adequately handle the job.  Leading scorer Morgan Paige tops the returnees, as the 5-9 senior guard averaged 15.9 points a game, although she shot only 27% from three-point range. Six-foot guard Taylor Wurtz returns after missing the season with a back injury and she averaged 16 points a game as a junior and was one of the better players in the league. The main issue for the backcourt will be reducing the number of turnovers, a category the Badgers led the league in last season.

Wisconsin should be improved in the post as even though  6-4 senior Cassie Rochel only averaged seven points a game, she was third in the league with 9.1 rebounds a game and led the league with 2.7 blocks a game. She is joined in the paint by last season’s breakout player, 6-1 Jacki Gulczynski, who averaged 13 points and 5.9 boards a game and improved consistently as the season progressed. Those two will be aided by the Johnson sisters, starting with 6-3 Michala, who sat out last season after transferring to Wisconsin from Connecticut. Johnson averaged 1.4 points and 1.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44 percent from the field in 5.1 minutes per game during her two seasons with the Huskies. While that may not sound all that impressive, in many seasons the last player on the UConn bench is better than the Badgers' best player, so time alone will tell whether Johnson can do more with a bigger role and more playing time at Wisconsin.  Michala will be joined by her sister, 6-4 Malayna, who is something of a project but will contribute as the fourth player in the post rotation.

Wisconsin hardly has an illustrious history in women’s basketball and has only made one NCAA appearance in the last 11 years and just seven times overall, but if the players on this team continue to make individual improvement, they may get that elusive bid next March.

6. Iowa (21-13, 8-8, seventh)

2013 will be a year for adapting to the unusual for Lisa Bluder and her Hawkeyes. They are coming off a rare season in which they underachieved, and four-year starters and all-league players Morgan Burke and Jamie Printy graduated. 

Once she adjusts to the loss of two of the best players in program history, Bluder will have some reason for optimism. She returns a solid core of veterans and adds two freshmen who should help immediately. Under Bluder, the Hawkeyes rely on the three-point shot and can be weak on the boards. This team looks to follow that same path. Printy was one of the top three-point shooters in school history, but she will be replaced by Melissa Dixon, the leading returning scorer, who hit almost 40% of her three-point shots last year. 

The 2012 Hawks were an average rebounding team but the 6-5 Johnson averaged 7.5. Replacing her will be much more difficult than replacing Printy.  Johnson not only led the team in scoring and rebounding, she was an excellent post defender who finished as the leading shot blocker in the school’s history. Six-four Nicole Smith will likely take her spot in the starting lineup, but the returning starter at power forward, 6-4 Bethany Doolittle, will have to improve across the board.

Leading the Hawkeyes this season will be 5-7 junior point guard Samantha Logic, who has become a prototypical floor general and leads the team with her hustle and grit.  Despite her size, Logic finished second on the team in rebounding and averaged 9.4 points and six assists a game. Look for her to do more this season.

It is impossible to talk about Iowa without mentioning injuries. Over the years, the Hawks have been hit harder by injuries than about any team in the league, but if they can stay healthy this season, they should be a difficult team to face and could earn their seventh straight NCAA bid.

7. Minnesota (18-14, 7-9, tie for eighth) 

Minnesota's Pam Borton considers herself a defensive coach and strives to build her team around defensive principles. Unfortunately for her, it has been a number of years since the Gophers were even an average defensive team. In 2012 the team finished 11th in all the major defensive categories in the league.

On the flip side, the Gophers were a strong offensive team. They were second in the league in points scored and field goal percentage, and third in three-point and free-throw percentages. The offense was driven by sophomore guard Rachel Banham, who averaged 20.7 points and almost four assists a game.  After her first two seasons, her 1,243 points put her in line to become Minnesota’s all-time leading scorer, and now she's on the Wade Trophy watch list.  Six-two Micaella Riche complemented her inside with 13.2 points and a team-leading 7.7 rebounds a game. 

With all five starters and the top reserve returning this season, the Gophers do have the potential to improve, but they must follow through with Borton’s promise of an improved defense if they want to move into the first division. 

As she enters her 13th season at the Minnesota helm, Borton, the league’s second longest tenured coach, is finding that her coaching seat is getting warmer and warmer. Her team has not received an NCAA bid after the last four seasons and the fans are getting restless, with attendance dropping each year. Borton has her team poised to make a step up this year, but if they don't, Borton’s seat will get much, much hotter.

8.  Northwestern (13-17, 5-11, tenth) 

As he enters his sixth season at Northwestern, Joe McKeown has put together a group of young players around whom he should be able to build. 2012 seniors Kendall Hackney and Danielle Diamont finished first and third on the team in scoring and were the squad’s top two rebounders, but it was the other three starters that left McKeown with hope after a disappointing year.

Six-one guard Maggie Lyon, named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, averaged 12.6 points and four rebounds a game and showed the promise of being a much better than average player. She was joined on the perimeter by then sophomore point guard Karly Roser (9.4 points, 4.9 rebounds  and 6.1 assists per game) and her fellow frosh, 6-2 Lauren Douglas (9.2 points and 4.6 rebounds a game.) Those three will be joined in the starting lineup by the early choice for 2014 Freshman of the Year; 6-1 Nia Coffey, who was a WBCA and a McDonalds All-American and played on the FIBA U19 World Championship gold medal-winning USA team. 

Those four will look to 6-5 Alex Cohen, who will have to make a significant jump over her average of 3.3 points and 2.8 rebounds a game, to complete the starting lineup. Cohen, though, will likely be needed more for her defense than her offense. In 2012, the Wildcats were a very good defensive team as they led the league in field goal percentage defense and they will need to continue to play good defense to go with what should be a fairly strong offense. 

In his first five seasons, McKeown has slowly improved his program. There have been no major jumps, just consistent progress. This year’s team should continue that progress and a major jump in performance could put them in NCAA contention for the first time in many years.

9. Ohio State (18-13, 7-9, tied for eighth) 

Following the 2012 season, Ohio State surprised many by firing coach Jim Foster after his only losing season at the school.  The school then hired Kevin McGuff from Washington and gave him a contract that, with incentives, potentially makes him the highest paid coach in the league.

While it is tempting to blame Foster’s firing on the bad season and prior NCAA failings, and those things definitely contributed, an equally major reason was his recent fall off in recruiting.  2013 graduate Tayler Hill was his last high profile recruit and, worse, he failed to sign any players in the fall of 2012.  The result is that McGuff inherits a roster lacking both in youth and talent.

Six-five senior center Ashley Adams is the only proven scorer among the returnees, as her 9.9 points a game were second on the team and she led the team with 7.0 rebounds a game. Point guard Ameryst Alston, a member of the league’s All-Freshman team, will run the point by herself after sharing the duties with Hill last year. Guard Raven Ferguson, with her 6.3 ppg average, is the only other returnee who scored significant points.

Last season, the Buckeyes were nothing special defensively and below average on the boards, which leaves McGuff with as many question marks as any team in the league. Whether it’s earned or not, and I think not, McGuff brings a reputation of a top coach with him. He will be well paid, but Ohio State has established that its expectations are as high as that salary. This is in no way a make-or-break season for him, but he must have a strong recruiting class and he must begin to put his brand on this program.

10. Illinois (19-14, 9-7, tied for fifth) 

In his first season as the Illini head coach, Matt Bollant achieved two major successes: He got his team to buy into his system and he got his players to play hard. Neither had been the case with former coach Jollette Law. 

But Bollant still has a way to go if he hopes to move the Illini into Big Ten title contention. To cite just one example, while he was at Green Bay, Bollant’s teams always had considerable success with the three-point shot and took quite a few of them. He took over an Illinois team that was one of the poorest three-point shooting programs in the league and made the three-pointer a significant part of the offense with the number of makes going from 3.6 to 5.6 a game. Unfortunately, however, the Illini actually shot the ball worse than the had in the past, hitting only 29% of their shots as opposed to 31.2% the year before.

The Illini will depend even more on the three-point shot this year because they are extremely thin in the post. The squad only has two true post players and both are freshmen:  6-2 Sarah Livingston and 6-3 Jacqui Grant, who will have to contribute immediately. Livingston in particular has the potential to be a better than average power forward in the league. 

Those two, possibly along with freshman guard Taylor Gleason, will be the newcomers who get the first opportunity to earn minutes. They will join top returnees, guards Ivory Crawford and Amber Moore, as key players this season. Their arrival will not be enough however, as there must be significant improvement among the returnees. Last season the Illini finished last in the league in points allowed, field goal percentage and rebounding margin and lost their top two scorers and rebounders, all league performers Karisma Penn and Adrienne Godbold. 

Bollant had a strong start to his career at Illinois, but his team is likely to have a poorer record this season  Right now he doesn’t have the pure talent, especially in the post, to compete in the league. The most important time for him will come in November when he signs his first recruiting class as he will have to build for the future because the present doesn’t look good.

11. Michigan (22-11, 9-7, tied for fifth) 

When Kim Barnes-Arico took over the Wolverines after the 2011-12 season, she inherited a team with a very strong senior class. Barnes-Arico got her team to buy into her system early and led them to a strong season and a rare for Michigan NCAA bid.

But those seniors have graduated. They comprised the top five scorers on the team and they played 80% of the team’s minutes, which leaves Barnes-Arico with only two players who were in her regular rotation last year: guards Nicole Emblad (4.3 points, 5.4 rebounds) and Madison Ristovski (2.3 points and 0.9 rebounds) and one player, Cyesha Goree, who played a total of 27 minutes. (They will also return three players who missed the season with knee injuries but they have played only minimally in their careers.)

Obviously Barnes-Arico will depend on newcomers for much of her team’s production. Guards Siera Thompson and Paige Rakers are both quality recruits who should help immediately. 

The Wolverines will be a team of guards due to their lack of talent and depth at the post. That’s going to make their life in the Big Ten a very difficult one.  Barnes-Arico had a strong first season at Michigan and her experience in the Big East give her the credentials to be a strong coach at Michigan, but this will be a year of rebuilding and development for the Wolverines. It will not be one of many wins.

12. Indiana (11-19, 2-14, 12th) 

When Curt Miller was at Bowling Green, he used one key recruiting class to build his program, and now he is trying to do the same at Indiana. Despite only being on the job for a few months, Miller signed seven high school seniors to letters of intent last year. Those seven will largely determine the success of his team, as only four players return who contributed in a major way last year. Still, those four -- Sasha Chaplin, Nicole Bell, Simone Deloach and Andrea Newbauer -- combined to average only 16.3 points and 7.9 rebounds a game. 

The 2012 Hoosier squad had few real strengths and the best player, Honorable Mention All-Big Ten Aulani Sinclair (15.5 points and 4.3 rebounds) graduated. While the team has many potential areas of improvement, Miller may want to start with the team’s shooting. Last season they finished 11th in field goal percentage and 12th in free throw percentage. Three freshmen -- guard Larryn Brooks, guard Taylor Agler and post player Jenn Anderson -- look to be able to step in immediately and contribute, and they may well end up as the team’s top three scorers this year.

2013 will be a season whose success or failure will be determined by improvement. There don’t appear to be many wins in the Hoosier’s immediate future, but if Miller can begin develop several solid Big 10 players from among his freshmen, the year will have to be considered a success.