The additions of Final Four participant Maryland and WNIT champion Rutgers make the Big Ten even deeper, and as many as half of the league's teams could make this season's NCAA tournament. Much like 2013-14, the scramble at the top of the conference should stay interesting all season long.
Big Ten predicted order of finish
1. Maryland (28-7 in 2013-14): The Terrapins left the ACC in grand fashion by reaching the Final Four, and now it's time for the new Big Ten era. Maryland isn't only the new kid in town, but it is the favorite. The other big transition in College Park is the turn to a trio of sophomores as the core of the program after the graduation of all-everything superstar Alyssa Thomas. Lexie Brown, Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough will shape the next phase for coach Brenda Frese. Having veterans Laurin Mincy and Brene Moseley -- now each two years removed from ACL surgeries -- back only helps.
2. Michigan State (23-10): The Spartans had the top freshmen duo in the Big Ten last season in Aerial Powers and Tori Jankoska, and they are the program's cornerstones for the near future. Powers became the first Michigan State freshman to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors. Those two will team with 6-foot-4 senior Becca Mills to provide the bulk of the offense for Suzy Merchant. Replacing the defense and leadership of Klarissa Bell won't be easy. If reliable production can be found at the point during a difficult nonconference schedule, then Michigan State will be ready to challenge for a Big Ten championship.
3. Nebraska (26-7): The talents that netted Jordan Hooper more than 2,300 career points and 1,100 rebounds have moved to the WNBA, yet Connie Yori still has the pieces in place for a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance. The other four starters return. Senior forward Emily Cady tied Hooper with 14 double-doubles a season ago. This year she will be the primary target of Rachel Theriot, one the country's best point guards. Tear'a Laudermill provides the sizzle with her aggressiveness and 3-point shooting ability, and Hallie Sample will look to step into the role that Cady played last season as the No. 2 inside option.
4. Iowa (27-9): The Big Ten's most prolific offense has its top four scorers returning and more depth than it had a year ago. Samantha Logic makes it all go. She remains a unique combination of distributor and rebounder from her point guard spot. Bethany Doolittle, Melissa Dixon and Ally Disterhoft all averaged double figures in 2013-14, and now Whitney Jennings, who averaged 32 points per game as Indiana's top high school player, joins the mix. Coach Lisa Bluder also added some size with the incoming freshman class; interior defense and rebounding are what prevented the Hawkeyes from being a top-three finisher in the conference a year ago.
5. Rutgers (28-9): The one-year stay in the American Athletic Conference produced a gaudy record and a WNIT championship, but getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012 gets even tougher in the Scarlet Knights' inaugural Big Ten season. Led by AAC Freshman of the Year Tyler Scaife and WNIT MVP Kahleah Copper, Rutgers returns its top six scorers. C. Vivian Stringer also has an experienced group to tackle the new conference challenge, with 10 juniors and seniors on the roster.
6. Minnesota (22-13): Rachel Banham had another terrific season, leading the conference in scoring, and center Amanda Zahui B. was a force at times in the middle, earning the league's freshman of the year honor, but something didn't quite click in Minnesota. The Gophers missed the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight year, and after 12 seasons on the bench, coach Pam Borton was fired. Enter Marlene Stollings, who comes to the Twin Cities following two years at VCU. Stollings inherits four of the top five scorers from 2014, including Banham for her senior year that comes with high expectations.
7. Purdue (22-9): Coach Sharon Versyp was given a contract extension in the offseason, coming in part because of her ability to reshape the Boilermakers as needed during her eight years in West Lafayette. It is needed again this season. Guards Courtney Moses and KK Houser are gone, and the emphasis will shift to the interior. Redshirt senior Whitney Bays, who has started just one game her entire college career but was the Big Ten's Sixth Player of the Year, is the top returning scorer. Her veteran help comes from point guard April Wilson and Liza Clemons, who led Purdue in rebounding a year ago. Versyp has to hope her five-player recruiting class is ready to help. It now represents nearly half the roster.
8. Michigan (20-14): Once last January arrived, the Wolverines were not able to put together anything more than a two-game winning streak. For every win at Purdue, there was a home loss to Ohio State. In fact, Michigan was just 2-6 at Crisler Arena against Big Ten foes. The experience of seniors Shannon Smith, Cyesha Goree and Nicole Elmblad, all double-figure scorers, should help reverse that. A big jump from 3-point shooter Madison Ristovski and immediate contributions from a solid recruiting class would also help the Wolverines get out of the second division.
9. Ohio State (17-18): The offseason was not kind to coach Kevin McGuff. Two players in his top-10 rated recruiting class -- forward Makayla Waterman and guard Chelsea Mitchell -- are out for the season after knee surgeries. McGuff also had to dismiss All-Big Ten honorable mention guard Raven Ferguson from the program for a violation of team rules, leaving him with just seven scholarship players to start the season. Despite the losses, the backcourt still will be the Buckeyes' strength. Mitchell's twin sister, Kelsey, is the fifth-rated incoming freshman in the country. Junior Ameryst Alston averaged more than 20 points per game in Big Ten play.
10. Penn State (24-8): The Lady Lions have won or shared the last two Big Ten regular-season titles. Unfortunately, all the players that made that happen are gone. Coquese Washington must replace her top four scorers, including the school's second all-time leading point producer, Maggie Lucas, a player as identified with Penn State basketball as anyone in program history. Tori Waldner, a 6-5 senior, is the top returning scorer at just 4.8 PPG. Duke transfer Sierra Moore, a one-time Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year, will step into a leadership role immediately. Someone from a deep sophomore class that saw limited action a year ago -- perhaps Kaliyah Mitchell or Peyton Whitted -- will have to emerge for Penn State not to finish in the back half of the conference.
11. Northwestern (17-16): Coach Joe McKeown relied heavily on freshman and sophomores a year ago. Fortunately, he had one of the best rookies in the country in Nia Coffey, who finished in the Big Ten's top 10 in scoring, rebounding and blocks, and was first-team all-conference. Coffey's classmate, Ashley Deary, was also a pleasant surprise at the point. The future has some promise, but the key to any immediate leap in the standings will be finding an inside presence. Northwestern was outrebounded by nearly 10 boards a game in Big Ten play a year ago.
12. Indiana (21-13): The rebuild in Bloomington took a major step forward a year ago but now must resume without the man most responsible for it. Citing personal health and family reasons, Curt Miller resigned as coach this summer. He had taken the Hoosiers from six wins the year before he was hired to 21 by his second season. Teri Moren moves over from Indiana State and inherits a team dominated by youth. Three of the top four Hoosier scorers in 2013-14 were freshmen, led by guard Larryn Brooks, who produced the best rookie campaign in Indiana history.
13. Wisconsin (10-19): Another long Big Ten season awaits in Madison if no one from a relatively inexperienced backcourt does not emerge as a reliable replacement to Morgan Paige and Taylor Wurtz. Junior Nicole Bauman might be the most prepared to make the leap. The Badgers' strength is on the inside. All-Big Ten post Michala Johnson returns for her final season and should get help from the return of fellow fifth-year senior Cassie Rochel, the conference's leader in blocked shots in 2012-13 who missed last season due to a back injury.
14. Illinois (9-21): The momentum Matt Bollant created in his first season at Illinois did not make it into 2013-14. Illinois lost its final 11 games and now for the second straight season Bollant must replace his best player. Amber Moore and her 15.3 PPG are gone. Moore's backcourt mate, Ivory Crawford (14.4 PPG), is back for her senior year, and Bollant's recruiting class looks promising, but the Fighting Illini won't be ready to compete with the conference's best this season.