|Sunday, November 3
Updated: November 7, 3:16 AM ET
Big Ten comes down to three-team race
By Nancy Lieberman
Special to ESPN.com
Purdue won last season's Big Ten regular-season title, but weren't far behind. In 2002-03, it appears the same three teams will challenge for the conference crown.
The league's head coaches tabbed Penn State as the preseason favorite, while Big Ten media members predicted the Boilermakers to again bring home the regular-season title.
Only time will tell. But the league offers another exciting race: Last year, Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen was voted the Big Ten Player of the Year, but it was Penn State's Kelly Mazzante who was named to the Kodak All-America team. And Purdue's Shereka Wright is a legitimate All-American candidate, too.
Don't expect the former Boston College associate head coach to make too many changes. Junior guard Lindsay Whalen will continue to provide much of the show in Minneapolis. Last season's Big Ten Player of the Year, who averaged 22.2 points per game and exploded for a career-high 41 against then-No. 7 Purdue in league play, handles the ball very well (5.3 assists) and is a great shooter, knocking down 56.1 percent of her attempts from the field. We might see her attack the basket more this season.
The Gophers also return senior Lindsay Lieser, who shot about 40 percent from beyond the arc for her career and owns every 3-point field goal record in Gopher history, and 2002 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Janel McCarville, who pulled down 8.0 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-2 sophomore post, who averaged 17.9 points against nationally ranked opponents, is a great passer who sets up her teammates really well.
Mazzante has a lightning-quick release and a quick first step. And this season, the Lady Lions will look to play a four-guard offense that revolves around her. They'll play up-tempo.
Point guard Jess Strom helps make Mazzante and the rest of her teammates look good. Strom is small, but smart and knows how to get the ball to the right people.
But Erika Valek might be the team's biggest X-factor. The junior guard suffered a torn ACL in March 2001, and although she averaged 7.6 points and 2.7 assists last season, never seemed 100 percent recovered or in shape. She needs to be fit this season and return to the level she played as a freshman prior to the injury.
Youth is also a factor as six of Purdue's 13 players this season are freshmen. Like every coach, Kristy Curry might have some concerns about her rookies, but she's going to have to rely on them, bite the bullet and give the freshmen some playing time.
While Purdue's three returners combined for 39.7 points last season, the returning reserves haven't provided a lot of scoring. So expect Purdue, which is aiming for its third third consecutive Big Ten crown, to continue to win with its defense.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.