Big Ten teams off to big start

Updated: January 4, 2004, 11:45 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Minnesota guard Lindsay Whalen took home a shell from her time at the beach over Thanksgiving. OK, it was not your common conch, but rather a mounted one given as the MVP award for the Gophers' bracket of the Junkanoo Jam tournament on Grand Bahama Island.

Jess Strom
Jess Strom and Penn State have one of the toughest roads of the bracket, writes Nancy Lieberman.
"I'm not sure you can hear the ocean,'' Whalen said of her trophy, "but it's very cool. It will go great in my grandma's house.''

Meanwhile, Penn State guard Tanisha Wright won the MVP award in her team's Junkanoo bracket. But then neither she nor Whalen got Big Ten player of the week honors following the tournament; that went to Minnesota center Janel McCarville.

This week, Whalen shared player of the week with Penn State's Kelly Mazzante. And none of the above are leading the league in scoring; that's Michigan's Jennifer Smith.

Which means ... there's a lot of good basketball being played by a lot of people in the Big Ten.

Penn State has beaten four top-25 teams: LSU, George Washington, Kansas State and Texas. Penn State's only slip was 75-68 at Old Dominion, where almost anybody can lose just about any year. Minnesota and Ohio State are both unbeaten; Minnesota's closest margin of victory is 11 points, vs. Creighton.

Michigan State is 5-1; it lost by two points at Oklahoma State, which is often a very tough place to play even if the Cowgirls' overall record doesn't show it. In each of the last three seasons, Oklahoma State has beaten at least one ranked opponent in Stillwater.

Purdue is 6-1. The Boilermakers got off to a great start with their victory over Kansas State, but then took it on the chin from Duke. Their three-point win at Houston on Sunday says something about Houston, which beat Iowa on Nov. 22.

Speaking of the Hawkeyes, they're 4-2 and will have a chance to avenge a 43-point loss last season to Kansas State on Friday when the Wildcats visit Iowa City. Iowa already has played one of the more entertaining games of the season, falling 101-94 in double overtime at Iowa State before 10,164 fans on Dec. 3. Wisconsin took Big Ten revenge on the Cyclones four days later, winning 76-73.

And then there's Michigan, which is 5-5 -- but you can see things already starting to percolate under new coach Cheryl Burnett. The Wolverines had a very respectable seven-point loss to Texas Tech, a game in which Smith had 30 points and eight rebounds.

Smith, a 6-4 center, is leading the league in scoring at 23.9 and is third in rebounding at 7.9. Smith is part of the group of Big Ten star seniors, which includes Whalen, Mazzante and Purdue's Shereka Wright.

But perhaps the two most intriguing players in the Big Ten at the moment are juniors: McCarville and Penn State's Jess Strom.

J-Mac is averaging 17.9 points, a league-best 10.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots. She has lost the snarling attitude and blonde hair that for much of last season reminded you of a taller version of Jim Croce's "Roller Derby Queen.''

McCarville acknowledges that she was not in great shape nor frame of mind when last season started, but in a lot of ways that's understandable. After the coaching changes at Minnesota -- Cheryl Littlejohn was there when McCarville was recruited, Brenda Frese for her freshman year and then Pam Borton took over last season -- you can see where McCarville likely was more than a little cynical.

Some personality types adjust to any change in climate; they could go from a hurricane to a blizzard to a heat wave to a monsoon and just say, "Oh, goodness,'' and keep motoring on.

Janel McCarville
Minnesota junior Janel McCarville averages 17.9 points, a Big Ten-best 10.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.
Others, though, want to know "why?'' and "why not?'' and "says who?'' and "when did that become the big plan?'' Their trust and loyalty don't come easily, especially when they feel those things were just tossed out the window by someone else.

It seems like Borton dealt with this the right way: She established herself as the boss while letting McCarville work through things.

"I think it took the full year for everyone to believe in what we were doing,'' Borton said.

She probably sensed right off that McCarville was not a bad kid. You almost have to have a little vinegar in you to play in the paint with the kind of fearless "you can't make me back down'' mindset that McCarville does. But you have to balance that with maturing as a team player, and that's something McCarville has made great strides in doing.

Then there's Strom, a prototypical point guard. Those seem to be a rare breed, at least right now, in women's college hoops. So far, she's been as big a factor as anyone in Penn State's success.

Strom dropped weight in the summer and worked to become a better scorer. Both of those things have been obvious benefits to her play. She is averaging 14.2 points and is third in the league at 5.7 assists and 2.7 steals. She's second in assist-to-turnover ratio, 2.83.

At her best, Strom has that "magician's element'' to being a point guard -- that is, she'll make opponents so concerned with watching one thing, they'll miss something else. If they're being especially vigilant about her penetrating and dishing, she's now more capable than ever of scoring herself. And if they try to clamp down on her shooting, she's always able to find Penn State's many other threats.

Penn State seems to have the toughest nonconference schedule of any of the Big Ten teams; there are still games at home against Louisiana Tech and at North Carolina. Then the Big Ten season gets off to a bang right away with Penn State at Purdue on Jan. 2.

"I think this year in the Big Ten we have so many quality players returning that a lot of people thought this might be one of the best seasons ever in the league,'' Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "So far, we're living up to expectations. I think it will be a fabulous year. You kind of dread the conference season starting because it's so hard, but what's fun about that is that hopefully more teams go to the NCAA Tournament.''

Penn State, Minnesota and Purdue currently are ranked seventh, eighth and 10th in the coaches poll; this year is the first time the league has had three teams in the top 10 since the 1993-94 season. The Big Ten sent Purdue to the Final Four that year, and the conference certainly has a great shot of getting one of its teams to New Orleans this season.

Or maybe more than one.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.