Is the Big Ten on the brink of breaking through to the next level?

Iowa's Megan Gustafson, a 6-foot-3 senior post player, led the nation last season with 25.7 points per game and a 67.1 field goal percentage. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

The Big Ten would like to get in on more of the Final Four fun. The league's coaches hope that's just a matter of time with the strides they think the conference is making.

And it can't hurt to have a new face in those ranks who happens to be one of the bigger names in women's basketball, as former WNBA standout Lindsay Whalen takes over at her alma mater, Minnesota.

"It's fun to now be joining and be competing against all these great programs and coaches, and be tested," Whalen said in a recent teleconference. "To be able to come in and have this opportunity to learn, as I go, from the great coaches in the conference ... I'm really looking forward to that."

As a college senior, Whalen led the Gophers to the 2004 Final Four. The next year, Michigan State reached the NCAA title game. That was it for Big Ten teams making it to the season's showcase until Maryland got to the Final Four in 2015. However, that was the Terps' first year in the conference after decades in the ACC, so it didn't feel like an accomplishment for the Big Ten.

The Big Ten has the fewest Final Four appearances of the Power 5 conferences in the last decade, with just that one from Maryland. The SEC has the next fewest with four, but that includes 2017 NCAA champion South Carolina and two-time finalist Mississippi State. The Pac-12 still has the longest championship drought among the Power 5: 26 years. But it has made noticeable progress overall, with nine Final Four appearances in the past 10 years, four in the past five. The Big Ten's lone NCAA champion is Purdue in 1999.

So there's ground to make up for the Big Ten, but plenty of positives. Iowa's Megan Gustafson, the nation's leading scorer last season, is back for her senior season. The 6-foot-3 post player averaged 25.7 points per game and also was first in the country with a 67.1 field goal percentage and fifth with 12.8 rebounds per game.

"Everyone can see her statistics and see what an efficient player she is," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "And how well she does the work before she gets the ball in her hands. But what I think is going to help her in the WNBA is her shot range. And the way she runs the floor; her agility is pretty amazing."

The Hawkeyes were picked to finish second in the Big Ten by both the league's coaches and the media. Maryland, the Big Ten preseason favorite, is expected to start the season in the nation's top 10. The Terps lost to NC State in the NCAA tournament's second round last season.

For the first time since the Terps joined the Big Ten (prior to the 2014-15 season), they didn't win the league tournament; Ohio State beat Maryland in the title game. But it was a gutsy season nonetheless for Maryland, having lost key players to graduation, transfer and injuries. It was the kind of dig-deeper effort that the Terps -- who now appear healthy, have a top recruiting class and return junior star Kaila Charles -- can build on for this season.

"I absolutely think the experience we got last year was invaluable," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "I thought the team exceeded expectations. When you look now at having five juniors and one senior, it gives us great confidence going into the season."

Rutgers, another of the Big Ten's newer members, was all over the place last season. The Scarlet Knights went from winning 11 in a row to losing 10 of their last 14 and leaving a milestone left to be accomplished this season: 1,000 victories for coach C. Vivian Stringer.

The Scarlet Knights are three away and can hit that mark as early as Nov. 13. For Stringer, it can't come soon enough, as she's eager to concentrate on the rest of the season.

"Our seniors have had an opportunity to see what it is when you don't take care of business as you should," Stringer said. "I know there is a real focus on the part of everyone. I see this sense of urgency."

Rutgers declined to play in the WNIT last season; in all, the Big Ten had 10 postseason teams. Six went to the NCAA tournament; none got past the second round. But Indiana topped Virginia Tech in front of 13,007 fans at home in Assembly Hall to win the WNIT.

That was a landmark day for the Hoosiers, who historically have taken a distant back seat in women's basketball in their state to fellow Big Ten school Purdue and Notre Dame, last's season's NCAA champion. It's fair to say that for a long time, Indiana -- the school itself and the community -- didn't seem to care much about its women's hoops program. That WNIT title and the size of the crowd both meant a lot.

Coach Teri Moren is an Indiana native, played for Purdue and knows how magical the Hoosiers' arena can be. But this time, it was like that for a women's game.

"We've seen our season-ticket sales have increased," said Moren, whose team will have to make up for the loss of seniors Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill. "It got more fans to want to come out and be a part of not just what we're doing, but watch women's basketball at a high level."

The 2017 WNIT winner also was from the Big Ten: Michigan. The Wolverines were determined to build off that title by getting back into the NCAA tournament, and they did that last season. They beat Northern Colorado before falling to Baylor.

Michigan loses one of the country's most dynamic scorers in guard Katelynn Flaherty, who was fifth in Division I at 22.9 PPG. It looks to be a more post-oriented scoring attack this season for the Wolverines, led by Hallie Thome, who at 6-5 is getting attention from WNBA scouts.

The WNBA's influence will be felt in the Big Ten from a coaching standpoint in the debut of Whalen, which has energized a Gophers program that lost in the NCAA tournament's second round to Oregon last season.

After winning four WNBA titles with the Minnesota Lynx, Whalen found the perfect post-retirement job. She has two standouts returning in guards Kenisha Bell and Destiny Pitts, and Whalen brings something more valuable than nostalgia. She played professionally for some of the best in the business -- Cheryl Reeve and Mike Thibault in the WNBA; Geno Auriemma in USA Basketball -- and carries that knowledge with her.

"In coaching, you're always thinking about the next practice and the next day," Whalen said. "It's been an adjustment, but it's been fun. The details, for me, it's just about talking through a lot of stuff with the players. And we've been watching quite a bit of video. And just having patience as well."

Patience will be required at Ohio State, too, as the Buckeyes will look totally different this season with all five starters gone (four completed their college careers and Sierra Calhoun transferred to Rutgers). They won the league tournament title for the first time since 2011 last season but were upset by Central Michigan in the NCAA second round. The Final Four was in Columbus, Ohio, but the Buckeyes had long since been eliminated.

Coach Kevin McGuff will rely on five graduate transfers who'll play one year for Ohio State.

"We have a big transition, obviously, and we went about it a little different way," he said. "We have people with experience playing, but they just don't have experience at Ohio State. But they're great kids, and I think the competitive character of this group is extremely high."