If preseason picks hold any value, be prepared to witness an end of a women’s basketball monopoly in the Big Ten Conference.
Technically, Ohio State’s six-year reign as regular season conference champions ended last season, when Michigan State finished first. However, the Buckeyes rebounded in the Big Ten Tournament to win the tournament championship and an automatic NCAA tournament bid, where they reached the Sweet Sixteen.
At the annual Big Ten Conference media day in Chicago Thursday afternoon, Ohio State was nowhere to be found among preseason favorites. Penn State was the favorite selected in both the coaches’ and media polls, with Purdue coming in at second. Iowa was third in the coaches’ poll, with Michigan State assuming that spot in the media poll.
Penn State’s early buzz may be influenced by junior guard Alex Bentley. She was picked as preseason player of the year by media while sharing the honor with Ohio State’s Samantha Prahalis among coaches. Bentley had 14.4 points per game and 5.0 assists per game last season with Penn State, finishing second in the Big Ten for overall assists.
The Big Ten does not release team rankings beyond third place. For Pam Borton and her Minnesota Golden Gophers, that may be a welcome policy for a program that is 25-35 in the last two years, with the team failing to qualify to any post-season tournament in that span. None of Borton’s Gophers were selected to either preseason first team, underscoring the lack of offensive power in the last two seasons.
“We lost a lot of games last year at the end. This game is a guard game and who’s got better guard play and better decision-making,” Borton said about the Big Ten’s plethora of guards this season.
Borton displayed a confident vibe at her press conference, noting how ball control has already improved in practice as a result of senior Kiara Buford returning to her primary position as shooting guard. Freshman Rachel Banham is expected to assume most point guard duties.
“She’s got a pull-up, she can get to the rim, she’s got a three-point shot,” Borton said about Banham. “She wants the responsibility, she wants the accountability, she wants the pressure.”
Banham is already experiencing collegiate pressure, with fans and local media comparing her to Lindsay Whalen, leader of Minnesota’s 2004 Final Four run and a WNBA champion with the Minnesota Lynx this year.
“I’m trying to shake Rachel in practice. I’m trying to get under her skin, but I can’t do it. I think she welcomes that,” Borton said.
With heavy attention on guard match-ups, post players could surprise observers for the first time in years with no marquis player to speak of. Borton believes the situation presents an opening for her starting center, junior Katie Loberg.
“We want to get some easier points in transition. Katie is one of our more improved players and she’s a great runner,” Borton said.
Two additional changes that will affect the Big Ten and the rest of the country are shifting the three-point line to the current distance for men’s games and adding a “no-charge” zone under the basket.