Huskers should set pace in Big Ten

Nebraska forward Jordan Hooper was an honorable mention All-American the past two seasons. Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY Sports

The roles have changed slightly, but the storyline remains the same in the Big Ten. Last year at this time, Penn State was the league favorite with Nebraska the primary threat. That is exactly how the regular season played out, the Lady Lions outpacing the Cornhuskers by two games. This time around, it's Nebraska, with four experienced starters back, that enters the season in the pole position. Penn State, with eight new players, assumes the role of chaser.

Not surprisingly, the two most highly regarded players in the conference reside on these two teams. Jordan Hooper finished in the top five in the Big Ten in both scoring and rebounding a season ago. She's also an 82 percent free throw shooter and has become a threat from 3-point range. Penn State's Maggie Lucas has made an All-American career from 3-point range, but has also developed the ball skills to confidently get her own shot. With the graduation of Alex Bentley, Lucas might be asked to do that more this season.

If neither Hooper nor Lucas end up winning conference player of the year honors, Minnesota's Rachel Banham might. The 5-foot-9 junior, not Lucas, is the top returning scorer in the conference, and Banham averaged nearly four assists per game.

The race for Big Ten player of the year might be even more fun than the conference chase.

The biggest offseason changes came at Ohio State. After last season's major disappointment and years of NCAA tournament shortcomings, Hall of Fame coach Jim Foster was fired. Under Foster, the Buckeyes won six Big Ten championships, captured four conference tournament titles, and made the NCAA tournament in 10 of his 11 seasons. For much of the last decade, Ohio State was league's measuring-stick program. The rebuild is left to Kevin McGuff, whose success at Washington and, especially, Xavier, seems to have the Buckeyes in good hands. Any turnaround, however, is unlikely to come in 2014. Foster landed at Southern Conference favorite Chattanooga, where, ironically, he is likely to get back to the NCAA tournament sooner than Ohio State.

Predicted order of finish

1. Nebraska (25-9): Lindsey Moore is tough to replace, but more than enough returns from what was probably the second-best team in school history. Jordan Hooper leads the parade of four returning starters. Emily Cady is a great No. 2 scoring option, and Rachel Theriot should be plenty ready to assume Moore's point guard spot. Winning the Big Ten and at least getting back to the Sweet 16 will be the benchmarks.

2. Penn State (26-6): Despite having Wade Trophy and Wooden Award candidate Maggie Lucas and senior Dara Taylor in the backcourt, Coquese Washington does not have much experience. Lucas, a senior, is good enough to carry the Lady Lions most nights, but to play with the elite -- and the schedule includes UConn, Notre Dame and Texas A&M before conference play begins. Some of the seven freshmen will have to be contributors.

3. Michigan State (25-9): The Spartans overcame injuries, suspensions and a lack of depth to post the third-most wins in school history. The prospects could be even better in 2014 with the return of all-conferences performers Klarissa Bell and Kiana Johnson. Overall, five of Michigan State's top six scorers are back, but defense and rebounding remain the calling cards.

4. Minnesota (18-14): If any team in the Big Ten is ready for a jump, it's the Golden Gophers. Junior guard Rachel Banham is about to become a household name. If Micaella Riche improves on her solid junior year, and 6-5 redshirt freshman Amanda Zahui B. from Sweden plays like she has in the preseason, Minnesota will reach its first NCAA tournament since 2009.

5. Purdue (25-9): The Boilermakers surprised many by winning the conference tournament last season and probably exceeded expectations. Now, with little experience in the frontcourt, they will rely heavily on a pair of 5-6 senior guards -- KK Houser and Courtney Moses.

6. Iowa (21-13): No one stuffs a stat sheet like junior guard Samantha Logic, but her scoring column might need the biggest boost as the Hawkeyes try to replace top scorers Morgan Johnson and Jaime Printy. Another healthy season from fifth-year senior Theairra Taylor will also be a key to Iowa extending its Big Ten-best streak of six straight NCAA tournament appearances.

7. Wisconsin (12-19): Taylor Wurtz had started every game of her career and led the Badgers in scoring in 2012. Then back issues forced a medical redshirt last season. As a result, the Badgers regressed in 2013. That shouldn't be the case this season with Wurtz back along with four starters, including leading scorer Morgan Paige.

8. Illinois (19-14): Matt Bollant's first season in Champaign was a success. Illinois had its best Big Ten season since 2003. The trick now is doing it without Karisma Penn, one of the best players in school history, Adrienne Godbold, the conference defensive player of the year and a 16-points-per-game scorer, while integrating eight new players.

9. Ohio State (18-13): It is officially time to hit the reset button in Columbus. Long-time and Hall of Fame coach Jim Foster is gone, replaced by Kevin McGuff. Tayler Hill and Amber Stokes, the Buckeyes' two best players a year ago, are also gone. This could be a tough season, but McGuff's history of success at Xavier and Washington bodes well for a program rebirth beyond this season.

10. Michigan (22-11): The Wolverines are coming off their best season in school history, but now Kim Barnes Arico will be virtually starting over. Junior Nicole Elmblad is the top returning scorer at just 4.3 points per game, and only four players on the current roster have ever seen any game action. Sophomore Madison Ristovski was Miss Michigan Basketball two years ago and might be the Wolverine to emerge.

11. Northwestern (13-17): The Wildcats expect big things from incoming freshman and high school All-American Nia Coffey as they try to replace two of their top three scorers.

12. Indiana (11-19): Curt Miller's first season in Bloomington was not one for the archives, but it was an improvement over 2012. The transformation of the program hits phase two with nine new players, including Kaila Hulls, who followed Miller from Bowling Green but has spent the better part of two years recovering from ACL injuries.

Players to watch

Rachel Banham, Minnesota, junior: Banham is poised to be the next Gopher superstar following in the lines of Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville. She is already well known in Big Ten circles, but if she can help elevate toward the upper division of the conference, the rest of the country will really take notice.

Klarissa Bell, Michigan State, senior: The Spartans need a scorer, someone they can rely upon to make the big shot. Last year they managed to win 25 games without anyone averaging more than 11 points per game. Bell has the most ability to elevate her offensive game, something that would give Michigan State a much better chance of challenging for the conference title.

Rachel Theriot, Nebraska, sophomore: It is always a bit of a risk putting too many expectations on a team without a proven commodity at point guard. Lindsey Moore was one of the best players in Nebraska history and shepherded the Huskers during the most successful period in school history. Theriot can put any of those apprehensions to rest with solid point guard play early. If she does, Nebraska could be looking at a special season.