It’s Reigning Buckeyes

Paul Cordes

The Big Ten women’s basketball tournament is set to kick off tonight in Indianapolis as Ohio State prepares to defend its tournament title at the Conseco Fieldhouse.

The first round of action features the No. 6 through No. 11 seeds before the quarterfinals begin Friday. The championship game is scheduled for Monday, March 5, at 7 p.m. and will air on ESPN2.

For the second straight season, Ohio State has wrapped up the regular season conference championship, and it’s in good shape to win its second straight tournament championship.

But the Buckeyes have their eyes on a bigger prize, as they are in serious contention to make a run for a National Championship.

Two other teams have separated themselves from the pack and will be in fast pursuit of Ohio State. Purdue and Michigan State have been two of the top teams in the conference all year, and the Spartans are the only Big Ten team to beat the Buckeyes this season.

The four teams in the middle of the pack shouldn’t be counted out either. Illinois, Penn State, Minnesota and Wisconsin have been competitive all year and have the potential to take on the big dogs.

1 – Ohio State

Overall: 26-2 Big 10: 14-1

The Buckeyes are an obvious favorite to take home their second straight Big Ten Championship.

Ohio State clinched the regular season championship with a pair of wins to close the season, but the tournament is all the more important to the Buckeyes as they battle for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The loss of senior guard Brandie Hoskins to an ACL injury against Minnesota in early February will force All-American, and the 2006 Big Ten Player of the Year, Jessica Davenport to carry the majority of the load in the Buckeyes’ final push.

But if the load has to be put on someone’s shoulders, it helps that those shoulders belong to the 6-foot-5 conference scoring leader, who also broke the record for career blocks this season in the Big Ten.

2 – Purdue

Overall: 25-5 Big 10: 14-2

Led by a junior-senior one-two punch, the Boilermakers are one of the most well-rounded teams in the country.

Beating opponents by an average of 17 points per game, Purdue is a very tough No. 2 seed.

Senior Katie Gearlds is third in scoring in the conference, averaging 18 points per game, and junior Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton is not far behind with 14.3 points per game.

Those two make Purdue the only team in the league with two players among the top seven scoring leaders.

Senior forward Erin Lawless plays a big part down low, averaging 10.5 points and nearly six rebounds per game, helping give the Boilermakers a legitimate chance at taking down Ohio State in the finals.

3 – Michigan State

Overall: 10-19 Big 10: 3-13

Probably the hottest team in the conference right now, the Spartans are rolling over every team in their path.

Michigan State enters the tournament winning seven of its last eight games, which included upsets over No. 15 Purdue and No. 5 Ohio State. The Spartans were the only Big Ten team to beat the Buckeyes this season.

With four players scoring in double figures, the Spartans are able to strike from any angle at any time.

Michigan State’s nearly 16 assists per game is a big reason for the balanced offensive success.

Experience will be a strong suit for the Spartans as seniors Victoria Lucas-Perry and Rene Haynes both played significant roles in the 2004-05 season, when Michigan State found itself in the NCAA championship game.

If Minnesota can manage to get past Northwestern on Thursday, though, the Spartans could run into a difficult first game as the Gophers played close against them in the regular-season finale.

4 – Illinois

Overall: 18-10 Big 10: 8-8

It’s been a season of ups and downs for the Illini this season, but they find themselves on a downward slope heading into the tournament.

Illinois has lost six of its last seven games, including two tough losses to Michigan State and Purdue to close out the season.

So the Illini will depend on star sophomore guard Lori Bjork, who is averaging nearly 15 points per game. And with 28 starts last season, she is one of the most experienced players on the team in just her second year.

Rebounding is another strong area for the Illini as they lead the Big Ten in defensive rebounds, averaging over 29 per game. Michigan State is the next-closest at 25.

Three Illinois players are ranked in the top 10 for defensive rebounding in the conference.

And Illinois’ big win over Michigan State in its second-to-last game allowed the Illini to grab the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye.

5 – Penn State

Overall: 14-15 Big 10: 7-9

The Nittany Lions were one of three teams in the middle of the pack this season and secured a first-round bye thanks to a combined 2-1 record against Minnesota and Wisconsin.

At home in State College, Pa, Penn State has been unstoppable. The Nittany Lions are 7-1 in Big Ten play on their home court – Ohio State was the only team to get the win at the Bryce Jordan Center, barely escaping with 63-61 victory.

But away from home, Penn State couldn’t be more lost.

The Nittany Lions haven’t won a conference game on the road and are 2-15 away from home on the season, including a pair of losses at neutral sites.

But junior guard Kamela Gissendanner and freshman guard Tyra Grant are both averaging over 15 points a game during conference play and senior center Amanda Brown is adding 14.5 points per game.

If Penn State manages to get over its homesickness, it has the talent to go deep into the tournament.

6 – Minnesota

Overall: 15-14 Big 10: 7-9

The Gophers have struggled to be a complete team this season and finished below .500 in the conference for the first time since 2000-01.

The youthful Minnesota team had to mature quickly with senior guard Kelly Roysland’s stint on the bench with a broken collarbone.

But the seven freshmen will be facing a new and foreign situation when they head for Indianapolis, and will rely on Roysland for leadership and production.

The Gophers have proven they are able to hang with top teams in the country, however, fighting to the end against Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State

But inconsistency in the post and an inability to put games away after seizing big leads could plague Minnesota if it gets through the first round of play for another shot at Michigan State.

7 – Wisconsin

Overall: 18-11 Big 10: 7-9

Minnesota brought some good luck to the Badgers, as they caught fire after they thumped the Gophers in January.

Unfortunately for coach Lisa Stone, two of Wisconsin’s last three games came against Ohio State and Purdue, and the Badgers didn’t have an answer for either the Buckeyes or the Boilermakers.

Junior guard Jolene Anderson has the ability to carry Wisconsin deep into the tournament, however.

Anderson’s 18.2 points per game is second in the Big Ten behind Ohio State’s Jessica Davenport.

Junior guard Janese Banks’ 13.9 points per game will bring some added offensive production to the Badgers lineup.

With this duo on the court, Wisconsin will have some of the best potential to come away with an upset.

8 – Indiana

Overall: 17-12 Big 10: 6-10

In her first year at Indiana, coach Felisha Legette-Jack has seen her team make significant improvements from the first half of conference play.

The Hoosiers lost seven of their first nine games after adjusting to a new style of play from their third coach in three years. But the conference season came to a close with Indiana winning four of its last seven.

Despite the solid finish, the Hoosiers have had plenty of trouble. Indiana is allowing 65 points per game, which is ninth in the Big Ten, and has kept just one opponent under 60 points in the last two months.

Nikki Smith is the only Hoosiers player to break the Big Ten’s top 20 scorers list with 12.2 points per game.

The Hoosiers might have a home-court advantage of sorts playing in the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, as it’s just an hour north of the Indiana campus in Bloomington.

9 – Iowa

Overall: 14-15 Big 10: 6-10

The Hawkeyes started the conference season strong with three wins and two close losses to nationally ranked teams.

But Iowa fell into a deep funk and hit a five-game skid and lost eight of its last 11 to close out the season.

In order for the Hawkeyes to be competitive this weekend, their three-point shooters will have to be zeroed in.

Iowa is first in the Big Ten in three-point shooting percentage. Leading the way is sophomore guard Kristi Smith, whose 51 percent shooting from downtown leads the league.

Sophomore forward Wendy Ausdemore’s 56 three-pointers this season is third in the conference, and her 41 percent shooting from beyond the arc is second behind Smith.

Sophomore center Megan Skouby will put a 6-foot-6 body in the paint and add 13.8 points per game, making Iowa a potentially dangerous team.

10 – Michigan

Overall: 10-19 Big 10: 3-13

The Wolverines are enjoying an improvement from last season, but, unfortunately for them, improving from a 0-16 season isn’t much to brag about.

Michigan, along with Northwestern, served as a practice team for the rest of the conference this year as they rank 10th in the conference in scoring margin.

The Wolverines did win three conference games, but two of those wins came against the ninth- and 11th-place finishers in Big Ten.

Offensive production has been almost nonexistent for the Wolverines this season as they fill up the bottom spot in the conference in scoring and field- goal and free-throw percentage.

They’ll take a five-game losing streak into the tournament and have to play Wisconsin in the first round.

The Badgers have already beaten Michigan twice this season.

11 – Northwestern

Overall: 8-21 Big 10: 2-14

The struggling Wildcats have been circling the drain since the beginning of the season, and will likely be flushed out of the tournament by the Gophers tonight.

Northwestern went through all of December and January without a win, but finally found a victory in a close game with Penn State in mid-February.

Statistically, the Wildcats are just as bad as their record indicates.

They rank last in scoring margin, rebounding margin and are 10th in offensive rebounds, field-goal percentage, and scoring offense and defense.

However, the Wildcats managed to win two of their final three games and could possibly slip through the first round riding a little momentum.

But it is more than likely going to be a long opening day and a short tournament for Northwestern.