Big Ten sees added depth in women’s basketball

CHICAGO — Coaches at Big Ten Media Day tended to agree on one thing — the Big Ten is a conference on the rise.

The coaches of all 11 Big Ten women’s basketball teams gathered Thursday at the annual event, where they addressed the media first in a press conference and then along with selected players in a round-table setting.

The general consensus was that this year’s Big Ten will be very competitive, highlighted by a mixture of youth and experience.

The upcoming season features some talented freshman classes, as well as returning standouts such as No. 10 Ohio State’s Jantel Lavender, last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year.

“I think our conference honestly is the most competitive conference in the country, top to bottom,” Penn State head coach Coquese Washington said.

Penn State is one of the teams on the rise, with a freshman class ranked No. 14 in the country by ESPN HoopGurlz.

Washington pointed out that several teams — including Penn State, Illinois, Northwestern and Ohio State — have brought in freshman classes that will increase the competitiveness of the Big Ten.

“I think we’re definitely a conference on the rise from a talent perspective,” Washington said.

Illinois boasts the No. 3 freshman class in the nation — attracting lots of attention to a team that went 10-21 last season.

Even though it has been the newcomers who have attracted the attention, Illinois head coach Jolette Law believes the freshman class will simply complement her eight returning “veterans.”

“I look at my eight returners as my leaders, and now everybody’s talking about my freshmen, but they’ve got people to look up to,” Law said.

Of the eight leaders Law spoke of, five are sophomores.

But while Illinois is a young team, those sophomores are already battle-hardened after finding playing time under a small roster last season.

Though the sophomores do bring a level of experience to the table, Illinois’ youth is representative of this year’s Big Ten.

When asked about the newcomers on her team during her press conference, Indiana head coach Felisha Legette-Jack joked, “That’s the entire team.”

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder directly followed Legette-Jack’s press conference, and mused that “(the Hawkeyes) might have to challenge her,” in reference to the youth of her own team, which features five freshmen and four sophomores.

But while many upcoming teams are developing talented underclassmen, those at the top of the conference — including Ohio State and Michigan State — are returning most of their players.

Ohio State brings back nine, including Lavender and last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Samantha Prahalis. Michigan State returns a Big Ten-leading 13 players.

Reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year Jim Foster believes his veteran Buckeyes will benefit from the increased depth that many believe the Big Ten has this season.

Foster believes that, in some recent years, the top Big Ten teams have faced a level of competition during conference play that does not prepare them for the postseason.

“I really think that with the bottom of the league improving, the middle and the top will be better prepared to play in the postseason,” Foster said.

If the Big Ten really is on the rise, Minnesota head coach Pam Borton believes it was on its way before this year.

“I think there was a lot of depth and parity last year. … Some of the teams that maybe haven’t really established a tradition, they’re getting a lot better, they’re recruiting better and so forth,” Borton said.

Legette-Jack believes as the season progresses, any questions about the Big Ten’s competitiveness will be answered.

“It’s getting better,” she said. “I mean, the Big Ten used to be way up there, and we hit a lull. We’re just on our way back, you just can’t keep the Big Ten down. … We’re alive and well, and the world’s getting ready to find out real soon.”