Lady Lions lead way in Big Ten

Maggie Lucas, left, and Alex Bentley helped Penn State reach the 2012 NCAA second round. Crystal LoGiudice/US Presswire

Despite winning the Big Ten regular-season title a year ago, this is the season Penn State has been pointing to since coach Coquese Washington began nabbing top recruiting classes three years ago.

Alex Bentley, the recruit who started it all, is now a senior and one of the best players in the nation. Her ability to pressure the opponent with the ball and without it makes everything around her better.

That class also includes Nikki Greene, who is the kind of shot-blocking and interior defender any champion needs. When Mia Nickson decided to transfer from Boston College three years ago and Maggie Lucas, just the second McDonald's All-American to attend Penn State, elected to stay close to home, Washington had the nucleus that now makes up the best team in the Big Ten -- and Penn State's best chance to get to a Final Four since 2000, the only visit in school history.

Last year, this group carried the mantle of preseason favorite well, losing just three games. One of the teams that knocked off the Lady Lions was Nebraska, which should be Penn State's primary threat in 2012-13. The Huskers weren't even supposed to contend in their first season in the Big Ten but were solidly in the race until a three-game losing streak in mid-February. In one calendar year, Nebraska has gone from "young" to "experienced."

At Penn State, the "new coach taking over a struggling program and turning it into a winner" storyline has played out successfully, and three other coaches, all with substantial résumés, are hoping to follow suit. How the first-year coaches at Illinois, Indiana and Michigan do will be one of the more intriguing stories of the season. Matt Bollant brings a whole new approach from Green Bay to Champagne, and this move in particular is interesting: Five years ago, Kevin Borseth left Green Bay for Michigan, while Bollant took over the Phoenix. Bollant was able to continue the winning at Green Bay, but Borseth's move from the Horizon to the Big Ten was unsuccessful. Illinois is desperate for a turnaround and is banking that Bollant will have more impact on the league than his mentor did.

With Borseth leaving Michigan to go back to the Phoenix, the door was open for another success story to take over the Wolverines. Kim Barnes Arico taking St. John's program from irrelevant to beating UConn in Storrs and to the Sweet 16 was just short of miraculous. The job at Michigan isn't as daunting to begin, but Barnes Arico will have a relatively young team in a fairly experienced upper crust of the Big Ten.

Curt Miller produced perennial winners in his 11 seasons at Bowling Green. In his final eight seasons there, the Falcons were either the regular-season or MAC tournament champion. In those same eight seasons, Indiana had a winning Big Ten record three times and finished above sixth place just once.

Predicted order of finish

1. Penn State (26-7 in 2011-12): The defending champs return four starters, including two -- Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas -- who could make a case as the two best players in the Big Ten. They make up the best backcourt in the league, and perhaps the country.

2. Nebraska (24-9): The Cornhuskers probably offer the biggest challenge to Penn State because they have two players in forward Jordan Hooper and point guard Lindsey Moore to match the production of Bentley and Lucas. Nebraska also returns four starters from a team that exceeded expectations a year ago.

3. Purdue (25-9): While Lucas gets most of the attention when debating Big Ten shooters, Courtney Moses can be just as deadly from deep. Getting the junior as many open looks as possible will be a key to the Boilermakers' season.

4. Ohio State (25-7): Program mainstay Samantha Prahalis is gone, and finding a suitable replacement at the point will be newly elected Hall of Fame coach Jim Foster's biggest challenge prior to the start of conference play. Sophomore Raven Ferguson seems a likely candidate, but Big Ten leading scorer Tayler Hill and league defensive player of the year Amber Stokes are the backcourt players Foster will rely on most.

5. Michigan (20-12): Kim Barnes Arico inherits a fairly young team in Ann Arbor without any proven scorers. Miss Michigan Basketball Madison Ristovski will have to contribute for a program and coach that always seem to do the little things well.

6. Iowa (19-12): Size might be the Hawkeyes' biggest advantage, with 6-foot-4 sophomore Bethany Doolittle sliding into the starting lineup alongside 6-5 Morgan Johnson. Yet, 5-11 senior guard Jaime Printy is still the one who makes Iowa go.

7. Michigan State (20-12): The loss of three starters to graduation, season-ending injuries to potential starters Madison Williams and Aerial Powers, and nine-game suspensions to Akyah Taylor and Kiana Johnson for receiving extra benefits, makes a 10th consecutive 20-win season far from automatic. Senior Jasmine Thomas, who moves back to the point at least until Johnson returns, will need a big year.

8. Illinois (11-19): The Fighting Illini's season will hinge on the ability of senior post Karisma Penn to bounce back from a discouraging junior season and ability of the entire team to adapt to the style of new coach Matt Bollant, formerly of Green Bay.

9. Minnesota (19-17): Reigning Big Ten freshman of the year Rachel Banham will be asked to do even more if the Gophers are going to build on their WBI championship of a year ago.

10. Northwestern (14-16): Coach Joe McKeown has three starters back but must endure the loss of former McDonald's All-American and second-leading scorer Morgan Jones (transfer to Florida State) from a team that registered just one significant league win last season.

11. Indiana (6-24):
In 11 seasons at Bowling Green, Curt Miller racked up the 16th-best winning percentage in NCAA history. That résumé and Miller's pick-and-roll system are now in Bloomington.

12. Wisconsin (9-20): Second-year coach Bobbie Kelsey has seven new players and just two returning starters. She will rely heavily on senior guard Taylor Wurtz, who has a chance to make all-conference honors.

Players to watch

Emily Cady, sophomore, F, Nebraska: Cady quickly became the Cornhuskers' No. 3 option last season behind Hooper and Moore. Her emergence was a key to Nebraska's earning a No. 6 NCAA tournament seed in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. If Cady can improve on her 9.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, Nebraska should be even better.

Drey Mingo, senior, F, Purdue: Granted a sixth year of eligibility, Mingo and her presence on the baseline will be a huge key for the Boilermakers. A knee injury in exhibition play ended her 2011-12 season before it even started. But in 2010-11, Mingo was the team's second-leading scorer and its top rebounder and field goal shooter despite a near-fatal bout of bacterial meningitis early in the season.

Jenny Ryan, senior, G, Michigan: Ryan is not a big scorer (6.8 ppg in 2011-12), but she does just about everything else on the floor at just 5 feet, 9 inches. The Big Ten steals leader a year ago is also the senior leader on a team transitioning to a new coach.