Previewing the Big Ten women's basketball season
In women’s basketball, the Big Ten is Ohio State’s territory until someone knocks the six-time defending regular season champion Buckeyes off their mountaintop.
The top contenders to pull off that feat this season seem obvious. Michigan State (12-1) and Iowa (12-1) had impressive non-conference seasons and are bunched together with Ohio State in the middle of the Associated Press and ESPN Top 25 polls.
Looking for a dark horse? Northwestern (11-2) is getting Top 25 votes in both polls, Penn State (10-3) is the conference’s best 3-point shooting team and Purdue (8-3) has lost three times to ranked opponents while working three new players into its rotation.
Michigan’s 7-5 non-conference record isn’t as sparkling as the aforementioned teams, but the Wolverines have played the 15th-strongest schedule in the nation. (Ohio State, with the fourth-strongest, is the only other conference team in the top 20.)
The Wolverines lost three games to ranked opponents (Xavier, Texas A&M and Iowa State) and handed Kansas (12-1) and No. 24 Boston College (11-1) their only losses of the season.
Michigan State has two of the conference’s other five wins over ranked teams, beating then-No. 15 Florida State and No. 17 Texas earlier this month.
Michigan gets the first shot at Ohio State when Big Ten play opens on Thursday. The Buckeyes travel to Crisler Arena for a 6:30 p.m. game.
Here’s a quick look at how all 11 Big Ten teams have performed to date, listed in order of their 2009-10 Big Ten finish with current records in parenthesis:
Ohio State (8-2): Although the title of Big Ten’s best team is up for grabs, its best player is clearly Jantel Lavender. The 6-4 senior center leads the league in scoring (25.3) and rebounds (10.3). The consensus preseason Player of the Year has reached double-figure scoring totals in every game she’s played during her career. Junior Samantha Prahalis (13.4), sophomore Taylor Hill (13.0) and senior Brittany Johnson (11.8) are also among the top 20 conference scorers for the Buckeyes, who’ll enter Big Ten play looking to shake off of a 31-point loss to No. 1 UConn last week.
Michigan State (12-1): How have the Spartans handled losing 6-9 All-American center Allyssa DeHaan to graduation? By matching the best start in program history. Michigan State allows a Big Ten-low 52.5 points per game and has a balanced offensive attack. Only senior forward Kalisha Keane (16.0) averages in double figures, but she’s had to carry less of the load recently. After Keane led the team in scoring in seven of its first eight games, that role has been shared by five different players over the last five games.
Wisconsin (5-7): The Badgers seem to be turning things around, winning their last three games after a seven-game losing streak. Wisconsin’s biggest issue has been ball-handling. The Badgers are 10th in the conference in turnover margin and 11th in assist-to-turnover ratio. Senior guard Alyssa Karel, an All-Big Ten preseason selection, missed the team’s first three games with a leg injury. She’s leading the team with 13.6 points per game since returning.
Iowa (12-1): Picked to finish second behind Ohio State in the coaches’ preseason poll after returning its entire lineup from last year’s 20-14 team. Jaime Printy, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, leads the Hawkeyes with a 15.1-point scoring average while senior All-American candidate Kachine Alexander (14.3 points, 8.8 rebounds) is one of the best defenders in the Big Ten.
Purdue (8-3): The Boilermakers missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 17 seasons last year but added some significant firepower alongside leading scorer Brittany Rayburn (15.8 ppg) to make sure it didn’t happen again. Freshman Courtney Moses, the reigning Miss Indiana, averages 12.6 points while transfers Drey Mingo (Maryland) and Antoinette Howard (Florida State) are both making significant contributions. The Boilermakers’ three losses (to No. 19 Maryland, No. 17 Notre Dame and No. 7 Texas A&M) are all respectable.
Michigan (7-5): Senior Veronica Hicks (10.3 ppg) and junior Carmen Reynolds (10.2) lead the Wolverines’ offense. The last two games of the Wolverines’ non-conference schedule summed up their strength and weakness. They excelled against Boston College with defense, holding the Eagles 35 points below their nation-best 90.6 scoring average. Four nights earlier, the Wolverines struggled offensively - shooting a season-low 30-percent from the floor - in a 19-point loss to Detroit. The 60-point mark seems to be the threshold Michigan needs to cross. They’re 7-1 when scoring at least 60, 0-4 when they don’t.
Penn State (10-3): With the Big Ten’s highest-scoring offense at 84.8 points, the Nittany Lions are dangerous from the perimeter. They’re making a league-best 45-percent of their 3-point shots this season with freshman Maggie Lucas (43) and junior Zhaque Gray (33) leading the conference in made 3-pointers. Lucas, who won four straight Freshman of the Week awards, is fourth in the league in scoring at 17.2 points. Penn State also gives up a league-high 68.7 points.
Illinois (5-7): The Illini are counting heavily on 6-2 sophomore forward Karisma Penn, who is averaging 16.8 points and 9.5 rebounds with a league-leading seven double-doubles. But Penn will get some help once the Big Ten season starts. Fellow sophomore Kersten Magrum, expected to start this season before suffering a foot injury, saw her first action of the season last week.
Northwestern (11-2): If anybody has a chance at catching Lavender for the Big Ten’s scoring title, it’s the Wildcats’ preseason All-Big Ten Amy Jaeschke. The 6-5 senior center, who has a league-high 52 blocked shots, is averaging 24.3 points and 9.2 rebounds. Junior forward Brittany Orban adds 13.5 points and 6.8 rebounds for the Wildcats, who were 7-23 last year.
Indiana (6-6): Senior Jori Davis is the conference’s third-leading scorer, averaging 17.3 points. The 5-9 guard is also the team’s best rebounder (7.3), a good reason the Hoosiers are the worst rebounding team in the Big Ten. Indiana is also the worst shooting team in the league at 39-percent.
Minnesota (8-5): The Golden Gophers, ranked No. 128 in the RPI Index, look like a good bet to finish near the Big Ten cellar again this season. The Gophers do have solid guard play from junior Kiara Buford (16.2 ppg), sophomore guard Leah Cotton (15.8 ppg) and senior China Antoine, who is second in the league with 5.0 assists per game.