2001 NCW Preview

Nancy Lieberman

NCAA Tournament
Message Board
ESPN Auctions
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.

The Golden Gophers have everybody back from a year ago -- except their coach as Brenda Frese left after one season to take over at Maryland. But Minnesota, which probably opens 2002-03 with its highest expectations in the program's 29-year history after a breakthrough season last year, should have no problem adapting to Pam Borton's style.

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.

Penn State
Like Minnesota, expect Penn State to keep riding its superstar, junior off-guard Kelly Mazzante, who averaged 24.9 points last season. Mazzante, the first Big Ten woman to lead the nation in scoring since 1984-85, broke 31 conference, school and facility records as a sophomore. In 2001-02, she broke the Big Ten single-season scoring record with 872 points and set the conference's single-game scoring record with a 49-point effort against Minnesota on Dec. 28, 2001.

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.

Again, this Big Ten team will rely heavily on its big-time player, Shereka Wright, who as a freshman helped lead the Boilermakers to the NCAA title game. The All-Big Ten unanimous first-team pick averaged 6.6 rebounds and a team-high 19.0 points and 1.3 blocks. Wright scored school-record 40 points at Michigan on Feb. 17, 2002.

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.

 More from ESPN...
Lieberman: Big 12 preview
Texas Tech won or shared ...
Lieberman: Big East preview
UConn beat everybody up in ...

Lieberman: SEC preview
Tennessee is favored to take ...

Lieberman: Pac-10 preview
Washington and Oregon will ...

Lieberman: ACC preview
Duke is a cut above the ACC ...

Lieberman: Rise and shine
They might not be the most ...

League-by-league look at preseason coaches polls
Wondering how your favorite ...

Nancy Lieberman Archive

 ESPN Tools
Email story
Most sent
Print story
Daily email