Minnesota in the middle of wide open Big Ten race

Five-time defending champion Ohio State is the odds-on conference favorite.

Aleutian Calabay

The womenâÄôs basketball Big Ten season is already underway, with the conference more competitive this season than any in recent years. HereâÄôs a breakdown of where each team falls. The frontrunners Ohio State (9-1) The No. 3 Buckeyes continue to be a perennial powerhouse in the Big Ten. They have won five consecutive Big Ten titles under head coach Jim Foster. Ohio State fully expects to repeat once again this season. They are returning four starters this season, including last seasonâÄôs Big Ten player of the year, junior Jantel Lavender. Lavender currently leads the Big Ten in scoring with 23.7 points per game. Her team is also at or near the top of the Big Ten in most statistical categories, including the No. 1 offense that averages 85.2 points per game, which is 10 points more than any other team in the conference. Michigan State (5-3) The No. 22 Spartans look to continue their success after a 22-win season last year, including a run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. Michigan State returns all five starters this season. The Spartans are led by sophomore Courtney Schiffauer who averages 16.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and senior Allyssa DeHaan who is only 49 blocks shy of setting a new NCAA record for career blocks . The Spartans have hit a few snags already this season, including a home loss to Indiana in their conference opener. But this veteran group stands as poised as any to try to dethrone Ohio State. Illinois (7-1) The Illini have come out of the gate strong in the 2009 season. TheyâÄôve recorded wins over Alabama and Wake Forest, and their only loss was in overtime to Temple. Illinois holds the second-best scoring margin in the Big Ten at plus-14 per game. Illinois had only dressed eight or nine players in the past couple of seasons, but now, under third-year head coach Jolette Law , the Illini bring in the third-best freshman class in the nation, giving them a deeper bench and allowing them to run a more up-tempo offense. Illinois also features one of the top players in the conference in senior Jenna Smith out of Bloomington, Minn . Smith is second in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 21 points, and leads the conference with 11.5 rebounds per game. Middle of the pack Minnesota (6-3) The Gophers, like many of the teams in the Big Ten, are tough to dissect. Minnesota is returning four starters from last season, and the one newcomer to the starting rotation, sophomore Kiara Buford, is the teamâÄôs leading scorer at 13.1 points per game. The Gophers defense has been the reason for their solid start, as they lead the Big Ten in turnover margin with plus 4.33 per game. But Minnesota will have to overcome early shooting woes âÄî a conference-low .371 from the field âÄî if they hope to remain competitive. Purdue (4-5) The Boilermakers are coming off one of their most successful seasons in team history, as they finished second in the Big Ten at 25-11 and made an impressive run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. This season, however, has been a different story for a Purdue team that is returning only two starters. After winning their first three games, the Boilermakers have dropped five of their last six games, including a 60-58 loss to Northwestern. Purdue continues to look for a more consistent mix of offense and defense as it leads the Big Ten with just 52.4 points allowed per game, but is last in the conference in scoring, averaging 57.8 points per game. Wisconsin (7-2) The Badgers have a very optimistic outlook for the 2009-10 season, with more than 80 percent of their scoring returning this season with a low player turnover. Despite some scoring struggles under head coach Lisa StoneâÄôs new offense , Wisconsin has consistently found ways to win games this season. The Badgers began the season 7-1, including a thrilling 58-57 win at Oregon . Wisconsin gave Ohio State an early conference challenge, holding a 28-20 halftime lead over the Buckeyes before falling 70-55. Iowa (5-4) The Hawkeyes are another team coming off a solid 2008-09 campaign in which they finished fourth in the Big Ten at 21-11 and made it to the NCAA Tournament. This seasonâÄôs Iowa team is still learning how to play together, featuring only three players with two or more years experience and a total of nine players who are either freshman or sophomores. Iowa got off to a solid 4-1 start, but has since lost three of its last four games. It may be a streaky season for the young but talented Hawkeyes. Indiana (5-3) The Hoosiers have consistently improved over the past few seasons under head coach Felisha Legette-Jack after being in the bottom half of the Big Ten for much of the decade. Indiana is led by junior Jori Davis, who is third in the Big Ten in scoring with 18 points per game. Indiana is fourth in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 72.6 points per game and has already proved it can hold its own in the conference with a 68-63 upset win over Michigan State. Room for improvement Michigan (6-2) The Wolverines are coming off a disappointing 10-20 season, but things have been looking up so far this season. Michigan runs the third- highest scoring offense in the Big Ten at 73.5 points per game. The Wolverines had several big early season wins, including a 20 point victory over Virginia Tech. But it is going to take numerous conference victories for the Wolverines to be taken more seriously in the Big Ten. Penn State (5-3) The Nittany Lions are another talented team looking to find their identity in the Big Ten. Penn State features one of the premier scoring guards in the conference in senior Tyra Grant, who is fourth in the Big Ten with 17.3 points per game . Grant led the Nittany Loins to a 6-1 start against nonconference teams, but they have dropped their past two games to Georgia Tech and Minnesota. This is another team that needs to add to its win column to get more respect in the Big Ten. Northwestern (6-2) The Wildcats have already almost matched their win total for all of last season. That remains a testament both to how bad Northwestern has been in previous seasons and how it is starting to turn the program around. Northwestern is led by junior Amy Jaeschke, who is in the top 10 in the Big Ten in both points (averaging 15.1 per game) and rebounds (averaging nine per game) . Despite being a work in progress, the Wildcats have made some solid steps forward, including opening the Big Ten season with a 60-58 upset over Purdue.