To mark the Big Ten tipping off league play Thursday night, News-Gazette beat writer Jeff Huth takes a stab at ranking the 12 teams.
Reason to be optimistic: Coach Connie Yori returns four starters from a 25-win, Sweet 16 qualifier.
Reason to be wary: Rachel Theriot is filling some mighty big point-guard shoes for departed senior Lindsey Moore. So far, however, the sophomore has been up to the task.
Player to watch: Senior forward Jordan Hooper, a two-time All-Big Ten first-teamer, last summer helped Team USA win the World University Games gold medal.
2. Penn State
Reason to be optimistic: The defending conference champions didn’t emerge from their preconference schedule with the flashiest record (9-3), but consider the competition (No. 1 Connecticut; No. 2 Notre Dame).
Reason to be wary: Coach Coquese Washington is leaning on a small core of veterans on a revamped roster (seven freshmen); they need to stay injury-free.
Player to watch: Who else but senior guard Maggie Lucas? The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year is an offensive dynamo.
Reason to be optimistic: Any backcourt with seniors KK Houser and Courtney Moses is going to be a handful for opponents.
Reason to be wary: An inexperienced frontcourt could leave Boilermakers vulnerable in the paint and on the glass.
Player to watch: Flipped a coin and it came up Houser, who thrives on big stages. Last March, she was named to the Big Ten all-tournament team for second consecutive year,
Reason to be optimistic: Lisa Bluder has built a program with high expectations. Hawkeyes will be vying for a sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Reason to be wary: Took a hit from graduation, losing Nos. 1 and 2 scorers Morgan Johnson and Jaime Printy.
Player to watch: Samantha Logic led Big Ten in assists last season, but this junior guard is much more than just a distributor.
5. Michigan State
Reason to be optimistic: No Big Ten team returned more experienced talent, with two all-conference picks and five of top six scorers back.
Reason to be wary: With an 8-5 nonconference record, the Spartans haven’t met preseason expectations, dropping out of the AP Top 25 after Week 3.
Player to watch: After missing last season with an Achilles tendon tear, two-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week Aerial Powers is tearing it up (13.5 points, 7.5 rebounds).
Reason to be optimistic: There’s far more to this team than point machine Rachel Banham, particularly with a certain addition to the roster (see Player to watch).
Reason to be wary: The Gophers need to shore up their ball security. They were minus-3.14 in turnover margin in 14 nonconference games, none of which were against a Top 25 opponent.
Player to watch: Expect to see Amanda Zahui B.’s name when the Big Ten announces postseason awards. The 6-5 redshirt freshman from Sweden already is a two-time Big Ten Player of the Week and four-time Freshman of the Week.
Reason to be optimistic: Depleted by injuries last season, the Badgers are back to full strength and have added an exciting talent in Connecticut transfer Michala Johnson.
Reason to be wary: The Badgers were an inconsistent 7-5 in the preconference, with four losses to unranked teams.
Player to watch: The 6-3 Johnson has quickly made a major impact, ranking among the Big Ten’s top 10 in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage.
Reason to be optimistic: No Big Ten defense applies more pressure than the Illini. One season after setting league records for steals in all games and in Big Ten-only contests, Illinois again leads in steals and turnover margin.
Reason to be wary: The 7-6 Illini have taken their lumps against top-tier teams, with five of their losses coming by an average of 25.8 points.
Player to watch: Leading scorer Amber Moore always could shoot the three. Now the fifth-year senior has taken other areas of her game to new heights, leading the UI in rebounds and steals (tied).
Reason to be optimistic: One season after going 2-14 in the Big Ten and losing 19 of 30 games overall, the Hoosiers rolled through their preconference schedule undefeated.
Reason to be wary: Indiana has done its damage against modestly difficult competition. Hard to get a gauge on how meaningful that 13-0 start is; we’re about to find out.
Player to watch: Speaking of surprises, Larryn Brooks has been a pleasant one for the Hoosiers. The freshman guard from Richmond, Ky., ranked fifth in the Big Ten in preconference scoring (18.7) and had gotten to the foul line 80 times, sinking 70 shots.
10. Ohio State
Reason to be optimistic: Coach Kevin McGuff, who won 72 percent of his games in 11 seasons at Xavier and Washington, guided his new team to a promising 10-6 record in the preconference. Four losses were to Top 25 foes.
Reason to be wary: So far, the Buckeyes haven’t scared too many defenses. Entering Thursday’s game against Purdue, Ohio State ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring offense and 11th in field goal percentage.
Player to watch: Ameryst Alston is doing her best to cushion the graduation losses of the decorated backcourt duo of Tayler Hill and Amber Stokes. Entering conference play, the 2013 Big Ten All-Freshman Team pick ranked sixth in the league in scoring.
Reason to be optimistic: Considering the heavy toll graduation took on the Wolverines after a 22-win season, their 9-4 preconference record must be considered encouraging.
Reason to be wary: This has to be the least experienced roster in the conference. The top returning scorer, junior Nicole Elmblad, averaged 4.3 points last season.
Player to watch: Elmblad has been Michigan’s best all-around player so far, ranking first in rebounds and steals, second in assists and fourth in scoring.
Reason to be optimistic: Entering Thursday night’s Big Ten opener, a 10-3 Wildcats team already is within three victories last season’s win total. Among the victims: then-No. 25 DePaul.
Reason to be wary: The Wildcats are fighting history. In the last 16 seasons, Northwestern has never finished higher than eighth in the Big Ten.
Player to watch: Nia Coffey is another in a line of current Big Ten freshmen making their presence felt quickly. In the preconference, the forward from Minneapolis ranked among the top eight in Big Ten scoring and rebounding.