- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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When Michigan State reached the Final Four last season, it marked the second straight year the Big Ten sent a team to the NCAA semifinals.
The Spartans also were the fifth team in the last seven years to represent the Big Ten in the Final Four.
And as teams such as Michigan State have developed and grown, so has the Big Ten, which continues to establish itself as one of the premier women's basketball conferences in the country. The league will be as competitive this season. The conference might be a little more top-heavy than in recent seasons, but Ohio State and Michigan State are the cream of the crop in the league and the country.
A look at the league favorite and contenders:
Caity Matter meant a lot to Ohio State's success last season. She led the Big Ten, sinking 73 3-pointers and established herself as the all-time leading 3-point shooter -- both in shots made and field-goal percentage -- in Ohio State history before heading to the WNBA.
Matter was a very experienced scorer, and the Buckeyes will miss her outside shooting. But don't think for a second that OSU is in trouble. Rather, the Buckeyes bring back 80 percent of their scoring and 90 percent of their rebounding from a team that won 30 games and a share of the regular-season Big Ten title.
Junior Jessica Davenport -- who averaged 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds last season while shooting 59 percent from the field -- headlines the list of returners. She's one of the nation's top defensive players and is the top returning post in the game today. Davenport, who notched 14 double-doubles last season and is only getting better, truly anchors coach Jim Foster's team at both ends. She also has great hands and a great understanding of shot selection.
One of Ohio State's biggest strengths is its depth and experience at every position. Guards Brandie Hoskins, Ashley Allen and Kim Wilburn anchor the backcourt. Hoskins, another junior who earned all-league accolades last season, led the Buckeyes in assists (135) and was third in scoring (13.2 ppg). Allen, who dished 111 assists, was the team's second-best 3-point shooter (30 treys made) last season, and combined with Hoskins as one of the Big Ten's best tandems in assist-to-turnover ratio. Add in Wilburn's 107 assists -- an amazing number considering she started just five games and averaged only 20 minutes last season -- and it's easy to see that the Buckeyes take good care of the ball and help get their teammates good quality shots, which, of course, are two staples of a Foster-led team.
In the frontcourt, Cincinnati transfer Debbie Merrill will team up inside with Davenport.
And keep an eye on sophomore Marscilla Packer, who hit one-third of her 3-point attempts last season and is hoping to pick up some of the outside shooting slack left by Matter's departure.
More than anything, Ohio State consists of a lot of role players. Davenport and Hoskins are the proven stars, but at one point throughout the season, everyone on the roster will have to step up. That's another Foster trait; his teams are always well-coached, competitive and in the hunt.
The Michigan State Spartans are coming off of their best season in school history, one that ended with a loss in the NCAA title game. But during their 33-4 run, they shared the Big Ten regular-season title, won the Big Ten tournament championship, came back from a 16-point deficit to beat Tennessee in the national semifinals, beat 13 nationally ranked teams and, at one point, strung together 17 consecutive victories.
Michigan State's incredible balance keyed last season's success, and despite graduating point guard Kristin Haynie -- who helped Sacramento win the WNBA title two months ago -- and post Kelli Roehrig, the Spartans remain loaded with talent and experience.
Four of last season's core players are back: senior Liz Shimek, senior Lindsay Bowen, junior Rene Haynes and junior Victoria Lucas-Perry. Bowen, who averaged 13.8 points last season, broke her own school record with 83 3-pointers (which ranked 12th nationally) and shot 43 percent from downtown. Expect Bowen and Shimek -- who is one of the top five small forwards in the nation and would make my preseason All-America second team -- to raise their games to another level.
The one question is who will replace Haynie at point guard? Early reports indicate Bowen will spearhead a point guard rotation that will include Haynes, Maggie Dwyer and Courtney Davidson. Don't underestimate how important both Haynes and Lucas-Perry are. Both had similar stats last season, averaging about 7.5 points, with Haynes grabbing three rebounds per game and Lucas-Perry averaging 4.5 boards. They are explosive players who can get to the rim and also play great defense.
Speaking of which, Michigan State played its zone defense to a T last year in the postseason. That will continue to spell trouble for opponents this season.
Still, balance remains the Spartans' greatest weapon and there's no reason to think Michigan State won't continue to build off of last year's record-breaking season. Sophomore center Laura Hall -- who scored six straight points during a Sweet 16 victory against Vanderbilt -- and junior center Katrina Grantham -- who averaged 6.2 points and 2.6 rebounds a game on the Big Ten's Foreign Tour team this past summer -- got some opportunity to contribute off the bench last year in the postseason and will help replace Roehrig.
Also, keep an eye on Alisa Wulff, a transfer from Virginia who sat out last season, and Tiffanie Shives, a 5-foot-10 freshman guard from Lansing who is the Spartans' first McDonald's All-American recruit. She set the Michigan high school record for career 3-pointers (311) while ranking second in career assists (653) and seventh in career scoring (2,283).
At Purdue, a lot of attention is being focused on another former McDonald's All-American, junior guard/forward Katie Gearlds. She had such a promising freshman season -- league coaches voted Gearlds the 2003-04 Big Ten freshman of the year after she tallied 10.6 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game as a reserve -- that she was one of only five sophomores on the preseason list of 2004-05 Wooden Award candidates.
Gearlds averaged 14.1 points, shot a Purdue single-season record 89 percent from the free-throw line, made 45 3-pointers, dished 90 assists and grabbed almost four rebounds per game last season. But she played much of the year (she started all 30 of Purdue's games) in pain as she battled a nagging right ankle injury. Gearlds ended up undergoing surgery on both ankles during the offseason and is looking forward to being healthy again.
The Boilermakers struggled at times in 2004-05 and were largely considered a "bubble team" when Selection Sunday rolled around (they ended up losing to Tennessee in the second round).
The struggles started at point guard. Graduating Erika Valek was a blow, and last season, Purdue didn't have a point guard who was ready to step in and lead with confidence and conviction. As a result, Purdue recorded more than 10 losses for the first time since 1997-98, and its most losses (13) since 1984-85.
But there is a lot of potential for Purdue this season. Including Gearlds -- who makes my top five list of the nation's best off-guards -- Purdue returns four starters and four of its top five scorers. The team will continue to focus around Gearlds and junior forward Erin Lawless, who averaged a team-high 14.2 points per game last season. They combined for 28.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, and must continue to play at all-league levels for Purdue to challenge Ohio State and Michigan State.
They have a talented supporting cast, though, and last season, everyone discovered that Candace Parker isn't the only talent to come out of Naperville, Ill. Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton started 21 games as a freshman last season, averaging 8.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. She shot 52 percent from the field and really bolstered the Boilermakers inside.
With 14 players on the roster, Purdue has plenty of depth and should continue to be strong defensively (the team allowed only 59 points per game last season). But the Boilers must find a way to score. Last season, they averaged just 62 points per game, and the number dipped to 58 in conference play. Purdue needs to pick those numbers back up to 65-plus.
Minnesota is expected to have a lot of depth, too, though the Golden Gophers suffered a major setback in mid-October when freshman post Ashley Ellis-Milan tore her right ACL. Ellis-Milan was expected to help shoulder the burden of replacing All-American post Janel McCarville, who was the team's leading scorer and rebounder at 16 points and 10.6 boards per game in 2004-05.
Still, Minnesota returns everyone else -- 13 players in all -- from last season's team that reached its third straight Sweet 16. And now it's time for the Gophers, who've had the benefit of playing alongside two Kodak All-Americans the past few years (McCarville and point guard Lindsay Whalen), to step up.
Though McCarville's numbers from last season stand out, Minnesota had a lot of balance behind her last season, beginning with Jamie Broback, who ranked second with 14.4 points per game. Shannon Schonrock added 9.1 ppg, followed by Kelly Roysland's 7.1, April Calhoun's 6.4, Liz Podominick's 6.3 and Shannon Bolden's 5.7. Roysland, who started just two games, was especially valuable coming off the bench, and shot 89 percent at the foul line.
Podominick, in particular, will be in the spotlight. With McCarville gone and Ellis-Milan hurt, the 6-foot-2 junior -- along with Broback and 6-3 sophomores Lauren Lacey and Natasha Williams -- must step up to fill the post spot. Broback, named to the preseason All-Big Ten team, is also the Golden Gophers' leading rebounder after grabbing 5.4 boards per game last season.
Minnesota might have its deepest roster in program history, but the Gophers' balanced rebounding is also one of its strong points. Everybody on the team can board and distribute the basketball. Defense is a plus, too; they gave up just 55 points per game a year ago.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.