Women’s hoops team already gearing up for Big Ten season

Dan Miller

Lindsay Whalen and the Minnesota women’s basketball team have something in mind: a Big Ten championship.

However, the Gophers will have to prove the media and coaches wrong, as they predicted Minnesota to finish third in the conference last weekend at the annual media day in Chicago.

But no one said winning a Big Ten title was going to be easy this year with a solid conference top to bottom.

“It is going to be a grind this year,” Whalen said. “The winner of the Big Ten might have four or five losses in the conference.”

Young teams such as Michigan State and Iowa are making the Big Ten a much stronger overall conference.

Michigan State tied for fourth in the conference last year and returns co-Big Ten Freshman of the Year winners Lindsay Bowen and Liz Shimek.

Iowa returns Jennie Lillis and Kristi Faulkner as seniors and is poised to make a run at the conference’s upper tier. Lillis was picked to the preseason all-conference team by the media.

“Both of those teams (Michigan State and Iowa) were very young last year, and they can only get better,” Gophers coach Pam Borton said.

The strong Big Ten conference will make it key for the Gophers not to overlook anyone.

With predictions and speculation flying through the air, Whalen feels the down-to-earth results will come from seeing the amount of work the conference teams did in the off-season.

Both Whalen and junior Janel McCarville played on the U.S. national team over the summer and the experience gave them a new perspective.

“Janel and Whalen got a lot of experience playing this summer,” Borton said. “Both have come back with a new focus and attitude.

“Being around elite athletes for that period of time puts you in a different zone,” she said.

Another X-factor will be the unpredictable contributions of the freshman classes in the Big Ten.

The top two preseason picks in the conference bring in solid

recruiting classes. Penn State has a talented freshman group, and Purdue has the top-five recruiting class in the nation.

But the Gophers have a strong recruiting class of their own with Minnesota’s 2003 Miss Basketball selection Liz Podominick and two finalists in Kelly Roysland and Jamie Broback.

Like Whalen and McCarville, this group has also put in their time over the summer by winning a national Amateur Athletic Union tournament.

“All around I think everyone had a great off-season,” Borton said.

But now, as preseason predictions and pressures are thrown into the equation, the Gophers know building on a second-place Big Ten finish and NCAA Sweet 16 bid will be a grind.

But don’t try to deter Borton.

“We are just going to have the mentality that every game is a must-win,” she said. “Because every win is one step closer to the NCAA tournament and that is what this is all about – winning a Big Ten championship and NCAA tournament.”