Iowa heads pack in women’s hoops

Aaron Kirscht

The conference opener is a month away, but Big Ten women’s basketball is already in full swing. Most teams enter their second week of nonconference play this weekend.
The following is a team-by-team preview of the candidates vying to unseat Iowa from the Big Ten throne, in order of projected finishes:
Iowa
When asked how her team plans to remain atop the Big Ten, Hawkeyes coach Angie Lee contemplated what keeps them from the bottom of the conference.
“Looking at a team like Minnesota,” which has been riddled with injuries, “we have to remain injury-free. A lot of things have to go right,” Lee said.
But so far, a few things have gone wrong. Junior center Malikah Willis and junior forward Tiffany Gooden — a preseason All-Big Ten pick — are struggling with recurring knee injuries. No. 10 Iowa (27-4, 15-1 last season) evened their 1996-97 record at 1-1 last week in losing 61-50 at home to No. 20 Notre Dame.
But the Hawkeyes will be bolstered by junior center Tangela Smith — another preseason All-Big Ten pick — and sophomore forward Amy Herrig and junior guard Nadine Domond. Only point guard Karen Clayton is missing from last year’s starting lineup.
“(Domond) is more of a scoring point guard, whereas (Clayton) was a ball-distributor, controlling the offense,” Lee said. “But I still expect to run more than we did last year.”
Iowa is off to a slow start, but Lee is confident that her team will return to the top of the heap.
“We’ve got a team of veterans and we need to play like veterans,” Lee said. “If we do that, we could not only win the Big Ten again, we could also stay at home for much of the NCAA tournament.”
The Midwest Regional games of the NCAA tournament will be held at Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
Penn State
The Lions have reached the NCAA tournament in 14 of the last 15 years and are the two-time defending Big Ten tournament champions. There’s little reason to believe No. 15 Penn State (27-7, 13-3) plans on halting either streak — even with the loss of three starters.
Coach Rene Portland has added six new players to a still-strong roster. Senior forward Angie Potthoff — a third-team All-American last season — is back, along with three-point shooting specialist senior Tiffany Longworth and junior Jamie Parsons in the backcourt.
Freshman guard Helen Darling will see a lot of minutes, and Australian player Emma Clements will share time with junior Julie Jarosz (the conference’s tallest player at 6-foot-6) at center. That adds up to a lot of changes for Portland’s squad, but she doesn’t seem overly concerned.
“I think this new group of kids gives us a new opportunity,” Portland said. “Whether it happens today or next year, it is going to happen just because of the tradition and hard work this program has always done.”
Wisconsin
Coach Jane Albright-Dieterle has the enviable task of building a lineup around one of the premier point guards in the Big Ten — if not the nation — in Keisha Anderson.
Anderson, a two-time second-team All-Big Ten player, led the conference in steals (4.28 per game) last season and was voted to the preseason first team.
Still, Albright-Dieterle said No. 23 Wisconsin (21-8, 12-4) — picked to finish second in the conference by the coaches — may not be ready to challenge Iowa for the Big Ten title.
The Badgers lost leading scorers Katie Voigt to injury and Barb Franke to graduation, and Albright-Dieterle says the team is just now recovering from those losses and trying to remain optimistic.
“Every team wants to win a Big Ten title,” Albright-Dieterle said, “but I don’t know how realistic that would be right now. I want to have a few games under our belt.”
With their two leading scorers out of the lineup, the Badgers will have to rely on defense, perhaps more than they would like.
“We’ve got a lot of speed, size and strength, so I think we’ll be tough to score against,” Albright-Dieterle said. “I don’t think we’ll be able to score as well as we did last year, at least early in the season, but by February we should have it figured out.”
Mich. State
The Spartans were picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten coaches’ preseason poll, but some say they could be the surprise team of the year.
Michigan State returns its entire starting lineup from a team that finished 18-11 overall, 9-7 in the Big Ten and advanced into the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. Only one senior, forward Zareth Gray, is missing.
Coach Karen Langeland runs an up-tempo offense without a center. That offense will revolve around senior point guard Tamika Matlock, who finished third in the league in assists (6.0 per game) last season.
Michigan coach Sue Guevara spent ten years at Michigan State before taking over the Wolverines, and considers Michigan State the dark horse team in the conference.
“I would watch out for them,” Guevara said. “They’ve got some outstanding players in Nicole Cushing (the 1996 Freshman of the Year) and (Matlock), who’s a very, very good play-making point guard.”
Northwestern
Basketball programs often acquire a reputation, and Northwestern’s is well-deserved. This is a team full of shooters, no doubt about it.
And this year, most of those shooters — sophomore Megan Chawansky, senior Michele Ratay, sophomore Kristina Divjak and senior Katrina Hannaford — will be back. Only center Christina Braden is missing from last year’s roster.
The Wildcats began last season on a serious roll, going to 15-1 and a No. 12 ranking before slumping to 21-10, 8-8 in the Big Ten. Northwestern missed out on the NCAA tournament because of its slow finish, but recovered to reach the finals of the women’s NIT.
With the almost-full slate of returning players, several coaches mentioned Northwestern as another potential successor to Iowa’s conference crown. The preseason coaches’ poll picked the Cats to finish in the middle of the conference, but another strong start — this time minus the slump — could place Northwestern among the Big Ten elite.
“That team is always, always banging at the door,” Iowa coach Angie Lee said. “They have some real gunners in that lineup.”
Illinois
All discussion of Illinois’ chances for success must begin and end with one name: Ashley Berggren.
As a sophomore, Berggren made her mark as perhaps the best player in the Big Ten. She led the league in scoring (24.6 points per game) and finished second in rebounding (9.4 per game). This year, Berggren is one of 20 preseason candidates for the 1997 Naismith College Player of the Year award.
But will Berggren be enough? If Coach Theresa Grentz has her way, she won’t have to be. The Illini are 18 players strong, including three true freshmen, rated among the best recruiting classes this season.
That huge roster will provide Illinois (13-15, 6-10) with some much-needed depth — and may well have Gophers coach Linda Hill-MacDonald on the phone pushing for a trade. A pair of 6-foot-3-inch transfer players will also see playing time after sitting out last season.
Illinois’ 13 wins last season were the most in nearly 10 years. If nothing else, the Illini are a team on the rise.
Ohio State
The Buckeyes will be in the same uncharted territory as several other Big Ten teams this season, trying to work through the loss of a “franchise” player.
At Ohio State, that player was Katie Smith, the all-time leading scorer in the Big Ten. She finished second in the Big Ten in scoring last season, averaging 22 points, and was among the league leaders in three-point shooting, assists and free-throw percentage.
The mantle of leadership will now be passed to senior guard Marcie Alberts and sophomore forward Marrita Porter, the top returning scorer.
In the meantime, Ohio State (21-13, 8-8) can be expected to play the same style of basketball coached by Nancy Darsch for the last 11 years: a quick offense fueled by an aggressive man-to-man defense.
The loss of Smith, however, will likely make it difficult for the Buckeyes to better last season’s sixth-place finish (tied with Northwestern) in the Big Ten.
Purdue
Purdue lost seven players from last year’s fourth-place team (20-11, 11-5), including All-Big Ten selection and leading scorer (15.8 ppg) Stacey Lovelace. That leaves the Boilermakers with the youngest team — three seniors, two sophomores and five freshmen — in the conference.
But one of those seniors, Corissa Yasen, was a nine-time All-American and 10-time Big Ten champ in track and field for Purdue. Yasen also won the 1996 NCAA heptathlon championship. She’s been no less impressive at forward for the basketball team, averaging 14 points and 7.5 rebounds through two games this year.
Senior forward Jannon Roland, an All-Big Ten second-teamer last season, is Purdue’s top returning scorer (13.6 ppg), and sophomore guards Ukari Figgs and Stephanie White will also return.
Still, the Boilermakers will struggle with the challenges of depth and lack of experience, but Fortner hopes to counter those shortcomings with fast-paced offense and a high-pressure defense.
Indiana
Coach Jim Izard concedes that Iowa is the team to beat in the Big Ten, “but from there, everything’s up for grabs from No. 2 to No. 11,” he said.
That optimism is befitting of Indiana’s (14-13, 5-11) predicted ninth-place finish. The Hoosiers, like most of the lower division of the Big Ten, will need some serious help to climb out of the cellar.
“It’s a long season,” Izard said. “It all depends on who stays injury-free, and what teams you play on the road and who you play at home.”
The Hoosiers lost their prime go-to player in Lisa Furlin — a third-team All-Big Ten player who finished 10th in the league in scoring at 14.6 points per game — and will have to rely on a collection of players to pick up the slack.
Junior center Quacy Barnes is Indiana’s top returning scorer (11.6 ppg) and rebounder (5.7 per game), and senior guard Tatjana Vesel, who averaged 10.3 points per game, will try to improve on the Hoosiers’ ninth-place finish last season.
Michigan
Michigan was on par with the Gophers in terms of who had a more difficult 1995-96 season. But like Hill-MacDonald, Coach Guevara sees some reasons to be optimistic.
“I feel really good about where the team is right now,” Guevara said. “We’ve had a couple of scrimmages and have really established our inside game, which struggled at times last season.”
Guevara hopes the Wolverines (7-20, 1-15) can move up to the middle of the Big Ten standings this season. But it won’t be easy, she said, with the number of teams in the race for the Big Ten title.
Polyanna Johns, a 6-foot-3 junior who led the conference in rebounds last season, will return for the Wolverines. Sophomore Ann Lemire — with whom the team was 6-3 before and 1-15 after she injured her knee — will also be back.
“This team is having a lot more fun on the court,” Guevara said. “Basketball is much more positive in their lives than it has been in the past. They love coming to practice and they’re giving me all they’ve got.”
Minnesota
The story for the Gophers all season long will be injuries — how many they have already, how many more they can sustain and how they respond to a dilapidated bench.
Hill-MacDonald, going through the roughest stretch of her seven-year stint at Minnesota, remains confident.
“This team is going to have to grow up fast,” Hill-MacDonald said. “A lack of experience is a big problem for us right now, but by the end of the season I think we’ll have a pretty good team.”
The Gophers (4-23, 0-16) will have to be creative in dealing with a bench that includes two (for the time being) walk-ons and only seven active scholarship players.
Lynda Hass is the latest Gopher to fall off the roster, undergoing an emergency appendectomy last week, but she is expected back soon. She joined Cheri Stafford, Sarah Schieber and Swantreca Taylor, all of whom are gone for the season, on the injured list.
Junior guard Jaime Ellis, junior forward Angie Iverson and sophomore guard Mindy Hansen will have to shoulder the burden of what promises to be another trying season for the Gophers.