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Photo Caption: Ohio State's 6-4 junior center Jantel Lavender is easily the best player in the Big Ten. The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, and 2008-09 State Farm and WBCA first-team All-American currently leads the league in scoring with 22 points per game to go with 10.2 rebounds per game for a double-double average. (Photo Credit: Courtesy The Ohio State University)

Big Ten Round-Up 2009-10: At Least at the Top, Improved Products Battle for Conference Title

Correspondent
January 10, 2010 - 5:31am

After a number of years in which the conference earned little respect, the Big Ten is beginning to show signs of resurgence and, at least at the top, has put an improved product on the court in 2009-10. A strong group of returning stars has been joined by a solid contingent of newcomers to improve the overall strength of the conference.

As 2010 dawns and conference play gets under way in earnest, only two teams in the conference are nationally ranked. Ohio State has been in the Top 10 of Full Court's national rankings -- as well as in the AP and coaches' polls -- all season. They are currently ranked No. 8 by Full Court. Michigan State's stock has fallen after several early season stumbles, but the Spartans are nonetheless ranked No. 14 by Full Court and are in the Top 25 in both other polls.

Still, only one place in the conference standings seems certain. Ohio State is easily the top team in the league and should play late into the NCAA tournament. Michigan State should finish close to Ohio State but they have been erratic to date, notching several quality wins including upsets of Top 25 teams, then promptly losing to dubious competition.

The other nine teams in the league all have major questions marks, but most have potential answers on the floor. Still, their order of finish appears even less clear at this point than usual. Some teams, such as Wisconsin and Penn State are currently exceeding preseason expectations, while elsewhere, injuries are already having a major impact on the league and only the top two teams have the depth to survive an ACL tear or two. Positions three through 11 in the final conference standings may well be determined by how many players each team has in uniform and how many it has in street clothes when the dust settles on season play.

1. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES



Last year's Record: 29-6 overall, 15-3 in-conference; Big Ten regular-season and tournament champions; NCAA Sweet 16 (Lost to Stanford)
2009-10 Record: 17-1 overall; 5-0 in-conference
National Rankings: Full Court Press - Preseason No. 8, Current No. 8; AP - Preseason No. 3, Current No. 6; USA Today/ESPN - Preseason No. 3, Current No. 6

The Buckeyes have won the last five regular-season conference championships and should add another Big Ten title this year. Jim Foster, last season's Big Ten Coach of the Year (his fourth such award in the last five years), returns most of his key players and has more than adequate replacements for graduates Star Allen and Ashlee Trebilcock.

He also brings back an established offensive system that takes full advantage of the new athleticism of his team and will allow the Buckeyes to continue to compete on an even keel with the best teams in the nation. When Foster arrived at Ohio State, his first major player was Jessica Davenport. She was a not-terribly-mobile, back-to-the-basket center and the Buckeyes ran a half-court offense that dominated the Big Ten but couldnt compete nationally. The result was a number of early exits from the NCAA tournament.

Foster set about making his team more athletic and aggressive. The arrival of last seasons Freshman of the Year, point guard Samantha Prahalis, completed his transformation to a team that not only should continue to dominate the conference but also compete with the top teams nationally. Prahalis, who possesses more basketball cleverness than any Big-Ten point guard has brought to the floor in many seasons, returns to run the Buckeyes' offense. An extra-aggressive point guard who has never met a 50-foot pass she doesn't like, Prahalis also owns a full repertoire of no-look and behind-the-back dishes. She is currently averaging 14.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, and has already dished out 140 assists this season, or 8.2 per game. At times as a freshman, her decision-making was less than stellar, but her assist-to-turnover over ratio so far this season is an impressive 2.3:1. She has an excellent mentor in assistant coach Debbie Black and her on-floor judgment should continue to improve.

Photo Caption: Samantha Prahalis, last season's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is on track for another stellar season, averaging 14.1 points, 3.9 boards and a remarkable 8.2 assists per game (and 2.3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio) in the early going. Prahalis combines with Jantel Lavender to form one of the most dominant inside-outside combos in the game.
Photo Credit: Courtesy The Ohio State University


The other key returnee is the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, junior center Jantel Lavender. Lavender is the model for post players of the future. She is an extremely athletic 6-4 player who has excellent hands and runs the floor like a guard. Lavender is an excellent defender who manages to guard her opponents without getting in foul trouble. It is not often that a post player can block a shot under the basket and still be the first player down the floor on the break, but Lavender frequently pulls it off. Her potential is unlimited and she should be even more dominant this season, as she currently leads the league with a double-double average of 22.1 points and 10.1 boards per game. If both Lavender and Prahalis remain healthy and progress at a normal rate, the Buckeyes will have one of the best inside-outside combinations in the nation.

"In close games down the stretch, we're always going to have an opportunity because we have a great point guard and we have a great center," Foster said recently. "You just have to be patient and make sure they're involved in those plays."

If the Buckeyes had only those two stars, they would be a good team, but they have plenty of talent to complement them. Senior Shavelle Little, the two-time conference Defensive Player of the Year, shared starting duties with Trebilcock last season and will again spend much time on the floor though she remains consigned to coming off bench -- this year in relief of freshman star Taylor Hill.

Hill, who averaged over 30 points a game as a high school senior and has gotten the starting nod, is a high-scoring guard who possesses the potential to keep defenses from collapsing on Lavender inside. She is currently the Buckeyes' third-leading scorer, averaging 9.7 points, 2.9 boards and 1.5 assists per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.7:1.

Photo Caption: Five-ten freshman guard Taylor Hill is having an impact already with 9.7 points, 2.9 boards and 1.5 assists per game in her 17 starts this season. Hill is averaging an impressive 50 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from beyond the arc, though her three-point accuracy has eroded slightly over the course of the early season.
Photo Credit: Courtesy The Ohio State University


The Buckeyes' other freshman prospect, 6-2 forward, Emilee Harmon, is still waiting in the wings. Harmon is a prototypical power-forward, a strong, fundamentally sound player who isn't afraid to bang in the middle. As she progresses, she should be able to join Lavender to form an excellent post combination. But post players typically take some time to develop, and Harmon, for all her potential, is no exception. She is currently averaging just 1.9 points and 1.4 boards in 6.4 minutes per game off the bench and has appeared in just 12 of the Buckeyes' 17 games to date.

Together with Hill and Prahalis, junior Brittany Johnson has nailed down the other starting spot in Foster's three-guard line-up. Johnson came on strong toward the end of last season, starting all six postseason games and eight of the last 10 and leading the Buckeyes with 44 three-pointers on 36.1 percent long-range shooting. Johnson averaged 6.6 points per game last season, but has upped her production to 9.5 points per game in the early going this year. She is well on course to exceed last year's long distance totals, with 34 treys on 52.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc so far this year.

In the front court, junior Sarah Schulze, who has steadily improved over the course of her Ohio State career, will have the first opportunity to step into Allen's starting spot. But while Schulze might have gotten the starting nod, Allen's shoes will be hard to fill. Schulze is currently averaging just 8.7 points, but 6.1 rebounds, per game.

Photo Caption: Six-one junior forward Sarah Schulze, an Ohio native, came off the bench for just 3.1 points and 1.8 rebounds in 10.5 minutes per game last season. This year, she has earned a spot in the starting line-up, where she has upped her output to 8.7 points and 6.1 boards per outing.
Photo Credit: Courtesy The Ohio State University


Good teams are, of course, more than the sum of their parts and Ohio State is certainly a good team. Despite their December upset by Duke in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, which dropped Ohio State out of the the national Top Five, the Buckeyes are a well-rounded squad who have no significant team weaknesses. In 2008-09, Ohio State finished in the top three in the league in points scored and allowed, field-goal and free-throw percentages, field goal defense, rebounding margin, assists, steals, assist-to-turnover ratio, and turnover margin in conference games. In the early going, the Buckeyes are again leading the Big Ten field in scoring (82.1 points per game), field-goal percentage (47.9 percent), three-point shooting (39.5 percent), offensive rebounding (44.4 boards per game), and assists (18.1 per game), and while their defense appears to have dropped off somewhat, they still are on top of the leaderboard in both scoring margin (+22.4 per game) and rebounding margin (+ 8.2 per game); second (to Minnesota) in turnover margin (+ 4.2 per game); and first in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.25:1).

Those who are waiting for the Buckeyes to take a step back toward the middle of the league may have to wait for quite a while. Of the key players on this seasons team, only Little is a senior. Foster has put together not just a team but a program that has become the leagues best.

2. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS



Last year's Record: 22-11 overall, 13-5 in-conference; Big Ten second-place tie; NCAA Sweet 16 (Lost to No. 4 Iowa State)
2009-10 Record: 11-5 overall; 2-3 in-conference
National Rankings: Full Court Press - Preseason No. 12, Current No. 16; AP - Preseason No. 21, Current No. 19; USA Today/ESPN - Preseason No. 10, Current No. 21

Michigan State has ranked in the Top 25 all season, marching up and down the ladder as they alternately take down nationally ranked opposition, with wins over North Carolina, Xavier, and Oklahoma State and a one-point heart-breaker of a loss to No. 4 Notre Dame, then stumble in the face of what would, on paper at least, appear to be much weaker contenders. Their talented roster would make them easily the second-best team in the conference and the most likely to challenge the Buckeyes for the title, but their frustratingly erratic performance has them tied with Indiana for seventh place in the league at 2-3, with losses to Wisconsin and Indiana, as well as Ohio State, at the moment.

Still, the Spartans took Ohio State to the limit, taking a 33-22 first-half lead before ultimately losing, 62-65, as Prahalis and Lavender came alive down the stretch in their much awaited match-up this weekend. The Spartans have dug themselves quite a hole, but their performance in key games shows they have the potential to contend with any team in the conference, and with most of the major players in the nation, if they can pull their act together as the conference season wears on. Perhaps what the Spartans need is a little of the post-Christmas break magic that head coach Suzy Merchant worked on the team last year.

It can take new coaches a number of years to make their imprint on their program and turn it into their own. In 2008, Merchant did that in just her second season at the school. Early in the season, the Spartans frequently were emotionally flat on the court. There was no passion and little emotion. At times, it came off as though the team was not playing hard, likely an unfair conclusion. Merchant recognized her problem and, over the Christmas break, made significant changes to her team.

In an attempt to get her best five players on the court, Merchant had moved sophomore Kalisha Keane to guard from her normal forward position. Keane, who had been named to the All-Freshman team the season before, was not nearly as effective at guard, and Merchant moved her back to forward, where she performed well enough to be named honorable mention All Big Ten. She also inserted Courtney Schiffauer into the starting lineup, and Schiffauer gave the team the steady guard play that it had been lacking.

With those changes, the Spartans were a much improved team in Big Ten play as compared to their non-conference performance. They were the leagues best defensive team and also had the conference's best rebounding margin. Their performance in those areas was enough to clearly stamp them as the Big Tens second-best team and allow them to come within one point of an Elite Eight berth in the NCAA tournament.

The Spartans returned virtually intact this season and have added a freshman guard, Jasmine Thomas, who has the potential to be stronger than the only player lost to graduation, Mia Johnson. However, Michigan State has fallen to an injury bug that is threatening to run wild through the Big Ten this season. Schiffauer, who was showing promise of being an impact player and whose 16.5 points per game still leads the team in scoring, tore her ACL after the teams second game and will miss the remainder of the year.

Schiffauers injury has hurt all the more because she was showing signs of developing into the three-point scorer that the Spartans desperately need. Last season, Michigan State scored only 58 points per game in conference play. They finished a respectable fourth in field-goal percentage but were last by a comfortable margin in three-point percentage, hitting only 23 percent of their long range shots. Merchant really needs to find a three-point shooter. Given that they were already the the best defensive and rebounding teams in the league last season, any improvement will have to come from offense. The Spartans currently rank second in the league in that department, averaging 72.1 points per game

The Spartans balanced scoring can be both a strength and a weakness. Michigan State has at least seven players capable of putting up double figures on any given evening. That makes them hard to defend. The weakness is that in the past, none of those players appears capable of consistently putting up more than 12 or 13 points. That means that they have no go-to player.

When Michigan State takes the court, the easy assumption is that 6-9 center Allyssa DeHaan wil be the dominant scorer. That does not always prove to be accurate. DeHaan is an excellent defender, whose shot-blocking ability can control a game. There are certainly times when she can take over a game, as, for example, when she put up what is still her career-high of 28 points as a freshman against Michigan, or, the same year, pulled down 18 boards against Cal State Northridge. But despite adding strength, DeHaan is rail thin and adverse to physical play. When she gets the ball close to the basket, she routinely takes fade-away jump shots instead of going strong to the hole. She is the team's top scorer only by virtue of Schiffauer's misfortune, and despite her size is not the team's top rebounder. Last season, DeHaan averaged 10.8 points and 6.3 boards per game. So far this season, DeHaan is averaging 12.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game -- good, but not great for a 6-9 center in the women's game.

Photo Caption: At 6-9, Allyssa DeHaan is the tallest player in Michigan State women's basketball history. She is the Spartans' all-time leading shot blocker and ranks eighth all-time in the NCAA in that category, a record she may break if she swats down more than 78 blocks this season. But she is not always the most dominant player on the court from an offensive perspective. This season she is averaging 12.8 points, a third-best 6.9 boards and a team-best 3.1 blocks per game.
Photo Credit: Michigan State Media Relations


With Schiffauer out for the year and DeHaan not likely to become a different player, there does not appear to be anyone who will step into the go-to role. The exception may be 6-1 sophomore Lykendra Johnson. As a freshman, Johnson established herself as one of the top individual defenders on the team, and also showed potential to score. Not only is Johnson is a strong player who shoots the ball well, she is also by far the teams top offensive rebounder. She is leading the team again this year in both offensive (3.5 offensive boards per game) and total (8.1 rebounds per game) rebounding, giving her the opportunity for easy put-backs.

Photo Caption: With no one else besides DeHaan likely to average in double figures, Johnson is the team's only wildcard in the equation. So far Johnson is leading the team in rebounding with 8.1 boards per game, and is one of just two Spartans averaging double figures, with 10.2 points per game in the early going. If she can reach her full potential she could add six to eight points to last seasons 6.5 a game. And if she does, she could elevate Michigan State's offense from average to good.
Photo Credit: Courtesy MSU Athletic Communications/Matthew Mitchell


The one freshman who is having a significant impact is Jasmine Thomas. Merchant says she values speed above almost anything on the court, and Thomas is the fastest player she has ever coached. She will also provide defensive help and back up Brittany Thomas (no relation), an All-Big Ten honorable mention in her first two seasons, who is returning from an ACL injury, at point guard. Thus far, the freshman has been coming off the bench for a little less than 20 minutes per game, averaging 6.0 points and 2.1 assists (to 1.8 turnovers) per game in her time on the floor. In the starting role, Brittney Thomas is averaging 6.3 points and 3.1 assists (to 2.3 turnovers) in 27.7 minutes per game. Merchant has also experimented with putting them both on the court at the same time, which would provide tough match-ups for every team in the league except Ohio State.

Photo Caption: Jasmine Thomas is already showing the potential to make a positive impact on the Spartan program. Sharing minutes with starting point guard Brittany Thomas, the freshman is already averaging nearly as many points (six per game, to Brittany Thomas's 6.3, and nearly as good an assist-to-turnover ratio (1.2:1 to the starter's 1.3:1) in nine fewer minutes per game on the floor.
Photo Credit: Courtesy MSU Athletic Communications/Matthew Mitchell


Last year's Spartan team showed that they can play emotional, passionate basketball or show up lethargic and unfocused on the court. This season is already showing signs of similar inconsistency. If this team is to reach its potential this year, Merchant needs to have them in high gear for the remainder of the season.

3. MINNESOTA



Last year's Record: 20-12 overall, 11-7 in-conference; Big Ten fifth-place tie; NCAA second round (Lost to Texas A&M)
2009-10 Record: 10-6 overall; 3-2 in-conference
National Rankings: Full Court Press - Preseason Not Ranked, Current Not Ranked; AP - Preseason Not Ranked (received three votes), Current Not Ranked; USA Today/ESPN - Preseason Not Ranked (received one vote), Current Not Ranked

Since the graduation of Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville, Coach Pam Bortons team has existed in a kind of netherland. They have never quite been really good, but they are never bad either. Minnesota returned almost the entire squad that finished tied for fifth last season and this season, the Gophers get our third spot in the predicted conference rankings almost by default. They're currently tied with four other teams in the No. 2 position with conference wins over Penn State, Iowa, and Northwestern, and losses to Purdue and Michigan, though the Gophers have yet to hit the toughest stretch of their conference schedule.

Ask Borton almost any question about her team and she will talk about defense. She calls herself a defensive coach and says everything about her team revolves around its defense. To a point, Borton is right: The Gophers are an undersized Big Ten team and given their failure to install a dominant offense over the last several seasons, the Gophers have to have a strong defense. But Minnesota is going to have to do a better job of it this season.

Unfortunately, the Gophers have not been a good defensive team in years. Their interior defense is the area where Borton most needs to concentrate. Last season they finished second in three point-percentage defense but tenth in field-goal defense.

This year, the Gophers are somewhat improved -- though far from stellar -- defensively. Against the middle of the Big Ten pack, the Gophers currently tie for third-best in the league (with Purdue) in points yielded (58.3 per game) and fourth in field-goal percentage allowed (37.8 percent). They rank second (to Wisconsin) in opponents' rebounding (37.3 boards per game). Of the perimeter players, starting point guard Brittany McCoy and 5-11 senior guard Katie Ohm are decent individual defenders but neither is outstanding. Their play was a big reason why the Gophers did a very good of defending the three-point line last season, but both can be beaten off the dribble and Minnesota does not rotate well on defense.

Last year, Minnesota was no better offensively than they were on defense. They were seventh in both three-point and free-throw percentages and tenth in field-gold percentages. To round out the stats, they finished eighth in rebounding margin.

This year, the Gophers have not improved nearly as much in offense as they have in defense, and, need we say it again, they have yet to hit the toughest part of their conference schedule. Minnesota is sixth in the league in scoring, at 68.3 points per game, sixth in field-goal percentage at 42.5 percent from the field, fifth in rebounding at 45.4 percent, and fourth in three-point shooting at 34.1 percent from beyond the arc. Their one bright spot is at the line, where they average a Big Ten second-best 75.5 percent conversion rate.

So why do we pick them to finish in third place this year? Numbers like the ones the Gophers put up in 2008-09 do not indicate a team that would finish with an 11-7 conference record, but Minnesota managed a record better than its stats would indicate. This year, the raw numbers are at least marginally better, and we think the Gophers just might be able to do it again.

In terms of personnel, Borton started the same five players in every game for the Gophers last season. Four of those starters return. However, the only player on last years team who was consistently able to get her own shots was Emily Fox, who has since graduated.

Key among the returnees are point guard Brittany McCoy and post player Ashley Ellis-Milan. McCoy is back for her fourth season as the Gophers' starting point guard. Shes a heady player with a good understanding of Bortons offensive system, although that system is frequently not apparent to observers. (Too often the ball will be passed around the perimeter with the player receiving the fourth pass in no better position to take a shot than was the first passer.) However, McCoy is not a good shooter at all and has hurt her team with missed layups. This season, she is averaging just 36.8 percent from the field for 6.7 points per game. She is, however, dishing out a team-high 4.5 assists per game, to just 2.1 turnovers, for an impressive 2.1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Ellis-Milan is only 6-2 and she will be the only true post on the floor much of the time. She was the leading scorer among those returning from last year's squad; she also led the team in rebounds last season. A nice, physical player who gets the most out of her ability and outhustles most players on the court, Ellis-Milan has again been solid, if not sensational, so far this year, averaging a team second-best 11 points and a team-high 5.4 boards per game.

Ellis-Milan has been joined down low by sophomore Jackie Voigt. Voigt was one of two freshmen who started last year and both need to step up and contribute more this season. Voigt averaged 5.8 points and 5.4 rebounds a game. This year, she has improved her scoring to 8.8 points per game, though her rebounding has dipped to 4.4 boards per outing.

The other sophomore who started last season is Kiara Buford, who averaged 6.9 points and 2.3 rebounds a game. Buford has the potential to contribute more and will need to step up if the Gophers are to finish third. Thus far, she has done so in a big way. She currently leads the team with 15.1 points per game, and is second only to Ellis-Milan in rebounding with 4.7 boards per contest.

Among newcomers, junior college transfer China Antoine, a 5-3 guard, should contribute the most. Antoine is a strong defender who should allow Borton to take a more aggressive approach to the defensive. She has started in four of the Gophers' 15 contests this season, and averages 25.5 minutes per game, putting up 8.7 points, dishing out 2.7 assists, and snaring 2.1 steals per game.

The other newcomer who is making an immediate contribution is freshman guard Leah Cotton who is coming off the bench for 5.3 points per game. However, the hope was that she would help the teams three-point shooting; so far, she has netted just two of her 19 long-ball attempts for an average of 10.5 percent from beyond the arc.

Though there are areas where the offense looks stronger, that alone wont be enough to allow this team to make significant progress. If the Gophers are going to be the team Borton wants, they will have to be the defensive squad she says they are. The defense needs to continue to improve, and improve greatly, and they need to show that they can maintain their progress against the league's best teams. If not, they are likely to be sitting in the middle of the standings again at the end of the year. But if they can do an adequate job in that area, Minnesota should have its highest finish in years.

(Note: No photos provided.)

4. PURDUE BOILERMAKERS



Last year's Record: 25-11 overall, 13-5 in-conference; Big Ten second-place tie; NCAA Elite Eight (lost to Oklahoma)
2009-10 Record: 8-8 overall, 3-2 in-conference
National Rankings: Full Court Press - Preseason Not Ranked, Current Not Ranked; AP - Preseason Not Ranked (received 14 votes), Current Not Ranked; USA Today/ESPN - Preseason No. 23, Current Not Ranked

Fans who are used to seeing the Purdue Boilermakers at or near the top of the standings will likely have to do a double take this season. Coach Sharon Versyp is in a major rebuilding mode and, though they are currently part of the four-team pack tied for second place in the conference at 3-2, her team is likely to reflect this reality with at least a small drop in the standings. Of course, Purdue has surprised before and may again, but it would be a huge surprise if they finish higher than third.

The Boilers graduated seven players including their entire front line, which included three of the four leading scorers, and the top backup at forward. In addition, they have been hit by the injury bug as they lost guard Chantel Poston to a torn Achilles Tendon before the season and their top returning post player, 6-3 sophomore forward Alex Guyton, injured her leg and missed much of the non-conference season.

The injury to Guyton is especially damaging because she is one of only two post players on the roster that have any real game experience although neither was a major contributor. Guyton has been back for the Boilermakers' last five games, but she is still in rehab mode, coming off the bench for an average of just three points and one board in 7.6 minutes per game.

Photo Caption: Six-three sophomore center Alex Guyton finally returned to action in late December after suffering a stress fracture in her shin that led Coach Sharon Versyp to consider redshirting her for the season. Though she has played in the last five games, Coach Sharon Versyp has warned fans not to expect her to be the "cure-all" for the Boilermakers' upside-down season. She is still getting back up to speed, averaging just three points and one board per game in limited minutes on the floor.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Purdue Sports Information (file photo 2008-09)


The other returning posts are 6-3 sophomore Samantha Woods and 6-4 sophomore center Chelsea Jones. Woods sat out last season to concentrate on her academics after changing to a much more challenging major, chemical engineering, and realizing she needed to spend more time on the books. As a freshman, she averaged 10 points per game while playing as a backup. This season, Woods has started in all of Purdue's 13 appearances, but has averaged a disappointig 6.5 points and 4.3 boards in 28 minutes per game.

Photo Caption: Six-three redshirt sophomore Samantha Woods also returns to the post at the forward position after sitting out last year to concentrate on our studies. Though Woods has started in all 13 of the Boilermakers' appearances this season, she has yet to return to the double-digit scoring form of her freshman season.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Purdue Sports Information


Jones has emerged as an important piece of Purdue's young post picture, starting in 14 of the Boilermakers' 15 games this season. She averages 7.3 points and 5.1 boards per game, but has been showing considerable improvement as the season has progressed.

Between the losses to graduation and the inexperience of Guyton, Woods and Jones, Versyp is essentially building an entirely new front line. The key to that new look will be the performance of sophomore small forward Brittany Rayburn. Rayburn, last seasons Sixth Player of the Year in the Big Ten and now a starter, is considered to be the next great Boilermaker. She is a wing much in the mold of Stephanie White and Katie Douglas and the Boilermakers need her to make them her team, much as they did. The first thing Rayburn will have to do is shoot the ball better. She shot only 39 percent from the field last season and and is doing little better this year at 39.9 percent -- that is not good enough for someone who is being counted on to lead her team in scoring.

Rayburn averages 3.6 boards per game, and dishes out an average of 2.2 assists. She either needs to get better at shooting the ball, or more generous in distributing it and more active in pursuing missed shots -- preferably all three!

Photo Caption: Six-foot sophomore wing Brittany Rayburn is Purdue's primary scoring threat, the only Black-and-Gold player to average double figures, at 15.2 points per game. But Rayburn needs to improve her accuracy if she is to make defenses take her seriously. This year, Rayburn is shooting 39.9 percent from the floor. She has hoisted the ball 168 times this season (40 times more than anyone else on the team), while netting just 67 of those shots. That's a lot of lost possessions. Despite this drawback, Rayburn is the team's second-most prolific three-point shooter, having netted 25 of her 76 attempts (32.9 percent) from downtown this season, and is a strong free-throw shooter, averaging 83.1 percent from the line.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Purdue Sports Information


In a recent bit of good news for the inexperienced Purdue post, the Boilermakers announced this week that former Black-and-Gold standout Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton will be returning to her alma mater as an interim coaching assistant, standing in for Assistant Coach Martin Clapp, who has taken an indefinite medical leave of absence. It remains to be seen what kind of coach Wisdom-Hylton will make, but it cannot hurt that the 6-2 All-Big-Ten forward, who averaged 13.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game in her senior season and left Purdue as the team's all-time leader in rebounds and blocked shots, and second in career double-doubles with 25, has spent the last year learning from post legends Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson, Olympian power forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, and women's hoops sensation Candace Parker in the frontcourt of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks. If nothing else, she should serve to inspire.

If the Purdue frontcourt is young and unproven, the backcourt is in much better shape, having returned both of last year's starters. Both will continue to be key players. FahKara Malone is back for her fourth year as the teams starting point guard. Malone is a strong defender who is Versyps coach on the floor. She is currently averaging 7.1 points and a team-high 4.5 assists (to 2.7 turnovers) per game. But perhaps more important, her experience and poise are vital to helping the youngsters in the front line maintain their poise.

Photo Caption: Senior FahKara Malone provides a veteran's judgment and experience at the point, where she averages a team-high 4.5 assists per game with a 1.7:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Purdue Sports Information


The other returning starter is three-point specialist Jodi Howell. She was the leading three-point shooter in the Big Ten last season and has continued to be a dependable source of offense this year. She is the second highest scorer on the team, averaging 9.4 points per game, on 46.5 percent field-goal shooting, and she has landed 28 of her 68 three-point attempts this season for 41.2 percent marksmanship beyond the arc. That's nowhere near the top of the Big Ten pile, but once you account for the pristine percentages of those who rarely shoot from long, it's still an average very much in the mix.

Photo Caption: Redshirt senior guard Jodi Howell (5-11) was the Big Ten's best three-point markswoman last season. She's not quite at that form so far this season, but still provides Purdue's strongest perimeter threat, having netted 28 of her 68 long-ball attempts (41.2 percent) so far this season.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Purdue Sports Information


The two veterans will be backed up by freshman KK Houser, who, the Boilermakers hope, will bring both athleticism and scoring to the team. So far, Houser is on course for a freshman, but no standout. For the most part, she comes off the bench (she started in two of Purdue's 15 contests this season), averaging 4.3 points and 1.1 assists (to 2.5 turnovers) in an average of just over 16 minutes per game.

The other key Purdue newcomer is 6-2 freshman wing Sam Ostarello, 2009's Miss South Dakota Basketball and a WBCA/Nike All American in her senior high school campaign. Ostarello, too, has been coming off the bench for the Boilermakers, averaging 5.1 points and a team-high 6.2 rebounds per game in 17.6 minutes per game.

Photo Caption: The two key newcomers for Purdue this season have been freshman guard/forward Sam Ostarello (left), who is leading the team in rebounding (6.2 boards per game) despite coming off the bench, and freshman guard KK Houser, another reliever who, though averaging 4.3 points per game, is showing promise as a three-point specialist, averaging 33.3 percent from beyond the arc.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Purdue Sports Information


In past seasons Versyp has built her team around defense and has built the defense around her post players. Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton and Danielle Campbell patrolled the paint and made life unpleasant for opponents. With them dominating the middle, opponents were forced to take jump shots. Purdues perimeter defense was also strong and they held opponents to 36 percent shooting from the field. Purdue outrebounded opponents by 2.5 last year but Wisdom-Hylton and Campbell grabbed 21 of the teams 35 boards a game.

With its inexperienced front court, it would seem that there would be no way that this team could be as strong defensively or as good a rebounding team as they were in 2008. But so far, Purdue is doing better than what might have expected. They rank second in the league in points yielded (55.5 per game overall) and fourth-best in that department in league play (58.3 points per game in-conference.) They rank third when it comes to defending the field, holding their opponents to just 35.1 percent field-goal shooting. They're doing an even better job on the perimeter, holding their opponents to just 26.2 percent from beyond the arc (second-best in the league in this category).

And amazingly, given their losses in the front line, they are giving up just 39 rebounds per game overall (third best in the league) and 45.3 boards per game to conference opponents. The problem, however, is that they are pulling down only 40 boards per game (36 per game to conference opponents) -- second-worst in the league in that category -- for a rebounding margin of just +0.2 (eighth in the conference).

If Purdue is not to fall far in the standings, they will have to find a way to score more than the 61 points a game they put up last season. So far, the Boilermakers are not there yet. They're averaging just 60.9 points per game overall, and 59 points per game against conference opponents.

This is the most uncertain outlook Purdue has had in many years. They will likely lose some games to teams they would normally beat handily. But they are also likely to improve significantly as the season goes on. They will be much better in February and March than they were in November and December. Purdue has frequently played better in the Big Ten tournament than they did during the regular season. It will not be a surprise if that happens again.

5. PENN STATE



Last year's Record: 11-18 overall, 6-12 in-conference; Big Ten seventh-place tie; No post-season play
2009-10 Record: 11-4 overall, 3-2 in-conference
National Rankings: Not Nationally Ranked

Every new coach wants to leave his or her mark on the program, and Penn State coach Coquese Washington is no different. She wants to install a style of play that is aggressive both offensively and defensively. She wants to run as much as possible and press all over the court. And she has begun to bring in the players she needs to do just that.

Washington may well feel that it is sometimes good to fly under the radar. While Jolette Law and Joe McKeown have garnered both attention and praise for their early work at Illinois and Northwestern respectively, Washington has quietly put together several recruiting classes that have upgraded the talent to the point that Washington now has a solid starting lineup. Washington has added both height in the post and athleticism on the perimeter of her team. In doing so, she has put together the players she needs to begin to remark the style of the Penn State team she inherited to the more aggressive full-court game she prefers.

Washingtons first job was to replace four-year starting point guard Brianne ORouke. Predecessor Rene Portland would recruit a starting point guard every four years and make her a starter for the next four. ORouke was Portlands last point guard, but she did not come close to the standards set by those who came before her.

Even though Washington will not adopt Portlands on-court system, she seems to have taken a page from her predecessor's strategic plan. Five-seven freshman Alex Bentley has started in 13 of the Lady Lions' appearances to date, running the team from the point. The third-team Parade All American possesses excellent court sense and as well as more scoring ability than ORouke. Bentley has been the team's second-leading scorer in the early going, averaging 10.1 points per game, to go with 3.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists (to 3.5 turnovers) per game. And she will likely only get better over the course of both the season and her time at Penn State career. Washington, of course, is a former WNBA point guard who will personally oversee Bentleys career.

Photo Caption: Though still a freshman, Alex Bentley has already shown more scoring potential than the four-year starter, Brianne O'Rourke, whom she replaces. Bentley is Penn State's second-highest scorer, averaging 10.1 points per game while dishing out nearly four assists per game. She needs to develop a better handle on the ball, however.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Penn State Sports Information/Mark Selders


Bentleys job will be made easier by the presence of one of the Big Tens best offensive players, Tyra Grant. The 5-11 senior guard, a preseason Wooden Award candidate, was named first-team All Big Ten last season after averaging just under 20 points a game. Grant is an extremely emotional player and, under Washington, has matured and gotten her emotions under control. Grant has grown into her role as the teams leader and become an outstanding all-around player, leading the team in scoring this season with 18.9 points per game; she also averages 4.9 boards, 2.1 assists (to 2.6 turnovers) and 1.5 steals per game.

Sophomore Zhaque Gray will step into the other wing spot. Gray averaged only three points a game as a freshman, but she has more importance to the team than that. Last season, Grant and ORouke took more than 75 percent of the teams three-point shots. Gray is really the only candidate to join Grant as a long-range gunner. The team needs Gray to shoot threes and shoot them accurately. She has the "accurately" half of that equation down pat -- she has matched Grant trey for trey with each of them netting 17 three-balls so far this season. But while Grant has netted only 29.3 percent of her 58 attempts from long distance, Gray has drained 41.5 percent of her 41 shots from beyond the arc.

Photo Caption: Five-eight sophomore Zhaque Gray has assumed the role of Penn State's long-range sharpshooter, tying Tyra Grant for the team's lead with 17 long balls this season. Gray is actually more accurate from long range (41.5 percent) than she is from the floor (36 percent). If anything, the Lady Lions need her to pull the trigger a bit more often from downtown.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Penn State Sports Information/Mark Selders


Nikki Greene, Washingtons second blue-chip recruit, has stepped in to make an immediate contribution in the post. The 6-4 forward-center, a WBCA All American as a high school senior, has unlimited potential. She is very strong, moves well and has excellent instincts. Greene has already joined the starting line-up, providing much needed scoring (6.8 points per game) and is second to reliable junior guard/forward Julia Trogele in rebounding with 5.7 boards per game to Trogele's 6.5. Greene is also a defensive stopper and the team's leading shot blocker, with 1.8 swats per game.

Photo Caption: The one-two punch of 6-4 freshman forward-center Nikki Greene (left) and 6-2 junior wing Julia Trogele (right) combines to give the Lady Lions a better than average post game.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Penn State Sports Information/Mark Selders


One area where Washington must see continued improvement is in free-throw shooting. Last season Penn State made only a league-worst 66.9 percent of their freebies. While they have better offensive players, this season Penn State will not be an overpowering offensive machine and they cant afford to not take full advantage of every scoring opportunity. So far this season, they have improved to 72.1 percent from the charity stripe, ranking fifth in the league in that category. They also get to the line less often than other top teams in the conference, ranking fifth in free-throw attempts. Obviously, there is still room to go in this area.

The Lady Lions are also making much needed improvement on defense. They were not a good defensive squad last season, finishing seventh in field-goal defense and eighth in three-point defense. The addition of the more athletic Bentley, a shot blocking defender who has the potential to immediately make Penn State strong in the middle if she can avoid the normal freshman foul problems, was expected to help improve the perimeter defense. The defense has indeed improved, though there is still some distance to cover. Penn State currently ranks seventh in the league in points yielded, giving up an average of 61.8 points per game (58.3 points per game in conference play), but has held its opponents to just 34.1 percent field-goal shooting (second-best in the conference in that category) and 27.7 percent from beyond the arc (placing them third in perimeter defense).

This will be the first season in which Washington has the resources needed to really begin to execute her style on the floor. Her talent is definitely better than it was last season and the early returns point to a much better team. Penn State is currently atop the four-team pack vying for second place with a 3-2 conference record. The Lady Lions are not the only team in the league that has improved, however, and their final place in the standings will depend largely on how quickly Washingtons little ones develop. We think they'll drop a little, but not very far.

6. IOWA HAWKEYES



Last year's Record: 21-11 overall, 13-5 in-conference; Big Ten second-place tie; NCAA first round (Lost to Georgia Tech)
2009-10 Record: 8-8 overall, 1-4 in-conference
National Rankings: Not Nationally Ranked

We're really stepping out on a limb on this one. The Iowa Hawkeyes are currently under-performing their preseason expectations, with an overall record of 8-8 and are in last place in the league right now with a 1-4 record in conference play. The reasons are fairly obvious.

Iowa is one of the conferences youngest teams. The Hawkeyes took one of the biggest graduations hits among the Big Ten and things have not gotten better for Lisa Bluders squad. Since the opening of practice, both of her returning starters have gone down to injury. Center JoAnn Hamlin, the team's only senior and its only returning post player with any real experience, put Bluder in a situation that no college coach should have to go through. After ignoring pain in her leg for several days, Hamlin decided to mention it to the teams medical staff. She ended up in the intensive care unit with a blood clot extending from the top of her leg to her calf and forcing Bluder to answer Yes when asked if the situation could be life threatening. Hamlin is recovering but is her season is over. There has been talk of redshirting, but since Hamlin sat out a year after transferring from Kansas State, her career may be done as well. "Its too early to tell if her health conditions will allow her to play basketball again," said a team spokesman updating the situation last month.

Photo Caption: The discovery that what JoAnn Hamlin, the team's captain and its only senior, thought was a simple pain in her leg was in fact a life-threatening blood clot, was the first in a series of injuries that has decimated the Hawkeyes' squad. Hamlin had averaged 7.6 points and six boards per game as a junior and would have been the veteran in the Iowa post.
Photo Credit: Courtesy The University of Iowa


The other returning starter, second-team All Big Ten selection Kachine Alexander was on course for another great year, having racked up a Big Ten co-Player of the Week selection in the early going before suffering a stress factor in her leg that caused her to miss most of the teams non-conference games. Alexander appeared in only nine of the team's 16 games this season and started in only seven. Alexander is the heart of this team and one of the leagues most versatile players. In a breakout stretch last season, Alexander amassed two triple doubles in four games to establish herself as one of the Big Tens very best players.

The good news is that Alexander is now back in action, averaging a double-double of 15.2 points and 11.2 boards per game. In her return to the court, Alexander led the team against Wisconsin (in a game that would prove to be Iowa's only conference win thus far) with 21 points and 10 rebounds.

But no sooner was Alexander back than Bluder lost two more players. Sophomore reserve Hannah Draxten will miss the remainder of the season with a herniated disc in her back, and freshman Theirra Taylor is also gone for the rest of the year with a torn ACL in her right knee. Taylor's loss was particularly hard-hitting. She is an aggressive defender and an offensive player capable of getting to the rim against almost anyone, and may well be the best athlete on the Hawkeye squad. With Taylor and Alexander on the court at the same time, Iowa would have a unit capable of pressing full court or running a fast-break offense.

The recent spate of injuries left Bluder with only eight players dressing until she added sophomore Megan Considine to the squad as a walk-on. (See Iowa Injuries Turn into Opportunity for Walk-On as Hawkeyes Add Considine to Roster.)

So why do we think the Hawkeyes may yet be able to pull themselves out of the Big Ten basement? Though Alexander and little used Kelsey Cermak are the team's only juniors, Bluder has put together two consecutive strong recruiting classes and the freshmen and sophomores provide much talent, if not much experience.

The key among the youngsters is sophomore Kamille Wahlin, who has been charged with replacing two-time All Big Ten selection Kristie Smith at point guard. Wahlin was named to the Big Ten's All Freshman team after starting at shooting guard for Iowa last season. This year she will move to her natural point guard spot and the year she spent on the court with Smith should provide her with both experience and knowledge. Bluder likes her point guards to score, and Wahlin has the ability to do just that. She is a good three-point shooter and can also hit her shot off the dribble.

Photo Caption: Sophomore Kamille Wahlin has moved to her natural point guard position and is leading the Hawkeyes this season with 15.3 points per game. She also has also dished out 3.2 assists per game, but her four turnovers per outing leave her with an upside-down assist-to-turnover ratio.
Photo Credit: Courtesy The University of Iowa


Wahlin has been joined in the backcourt by two freshman, Jamie Printy and, until she went down with the torn ACL, Thierra Taylor. Printy, who committed to Iowa as a freshman in high school and can play both guard spots, is an excellent three-point shooter who has brought needed offense to the squad.

Photo Caption: Five-eleven freshman guard Jamie Printy has added a third scoring threat to the Iowa backcourt. She is currently averaging a third-best 13.9 points per game, while hauling down 4.9 boards and passing out 3.4 assists (to 3.2 turnovers) per game.
Photo Credit: Courtesy The University of Iowa


Alexander's relatively recent return to action is a big reason why we still see light at the end of the Hawkeyes' tunnel this season. Together (and remember they have not as yet had much opportunity to play together), Alexander, Wahlin and Printy give Iowa three players averaging in double figures.

The post, however, will continue to be an Achilles' heel for the Hawkeyes. Though 6-5 freshman center Morgan Johnson and 6-0 freshman forward Gabby Machado both have potential to be good post players, Iowa lacks an experienced frontcourt anchor and its success this season will depend in large part in house soon the rookies can translate their potential into productivity. Thus far, Johnson has been coming along fairly quickly, winning a spot in the starting line-up, where she has averaged 9.4 points and a team-second 6.9 rebounds per game. Johnson also leads the team in blocks, with 2.3 swats per outing.

Photo Caption: Last year's high school Miss Show Me Basketball Award winner Morgan Johnson has proved to be a quick study. The 6-5 freshman center has won the starting job in the deep post and is doing a good job of it, averaging 9.4 points, 6.9 boards and a team-high 2.3 blocks per game in a post that is largely devoid of experience.
Photo Credit: Courtesy The University of Iowa


Machado is progressing more slowly, coming off the bench for just 3.8 points and 2.9 boards in 10.5 minutes per game. Sophomore Hannah Draxton can play power forward in the manner of the graduated Wendy Audesmore, but she is one of the many Hawks on the bench in street clothes with a bulging disk in her back. Though she appeared in first four games of the season, she was playing in pain, and it would be unfair to use her minimal production in those games as a measure of her talent. Cermak, the team's second junior, will join in the post rotation but she does not have the potential of the freshman. Despite her seniority, she come off the bench in all but two games this season for just 1.5 points and 1.6 rebounds in 13.3 minutes per game.

The other reason why we think that Iowa will improve out of its current place in the Big Ten's cellar? In her nine previous years at Iowa, Bluder has never had a bad Big Ten team. They are not always at or near the top, but they are never terribly bad. Her teams do not usually run a lot and they depend heavily on the three-point shot in the half court. They have steadily improved on defense in recent years, though they have not been a strong rebounding squad.

With Alexander back, Bluder still has the players to continue to play that style, perhaps with more running and better rebounding, but they have to stay healthy first. They won't be anywhere close to full strength this season, but they are a team that will get better and better as the season goes on and could pose a threat in the Big Ten Tournament. But if the injuries continue, Iowa will remain at the bottom of the standings.