— It looks like coach Coquese Washington is building her Penn State program to last.
The backcourt of Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas carried the Nittany Lions to their first Big Ten championship since 2004, and conference coaches have picked them to do it again this year. The Lions are No. 8 in the preseason poll after going 26-7 and reaching the NCAA regional semifinals last season.
Washington wants to see how far the Lions can go when Big Ten coaches' preseason co-player of the year Bentley and fellow all-conference pick Lucas are complemented by a cast of improved veterans and heralded newcomers.
"This year we want to be a team that has more balance," the 2012 Big Ten coach of the year said. "I think with our post crew having more experience, I definitely think that that's going to be something that's important for our development if we're going to continue to get better."
Bentley averaged 14.1 points and 4.7 assists, and Lucas was the third-leading scorer in the Big Ten with 19.5 points a game.
Washington is looking for more consistent scoring from the 6-foot-4 Nikki Greene and 6-2 Mia Nickson, who combined for 18 points and 16 rebounds a game.
The frontcourt should be strengthened with the addition of 6-6 high school All-American Candice Agee of Victorville, Calif. Agee was a member of the USA Basketball national team that won the FIBA Americas U18 championship in Puerto Rico. The Lions also have a deeper backcourt with transfer Dara Taylor, who set Maryland's freshman assist record in 2010-11.
Taylor will take some of Bentley's minutes at the point, allowing Bentley and Lucas to split time at off-guard or give Washington the option of playing a three-guard lineup. Bentley has a knack for driving to the basket, and Lucas is a 41-percent 3-point shooter.
No matter who's doing the scoring, Washington plans on employing an up-tempo offense again. The Lions led the conference and were eighth nationally in scoring at 75.7 points a game.
THE REST OF THE BIG TEN
NEBRASKA: All-Big Ten forward Jordan Hooper (18.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and guard Lindsey Moore (15.7 ppg) are among four returning starters for the team that made a surprising run to the Big Ten tournament championship game and finished 24-9.
Emily Cady and Hailie Sample were the first freshman teammates in program history to start every game. The Cornhuskers, who open the season ranked No. 18, return 91 percent of their scoring and 94 percent of their rebounding. The Huskers' strong inaugural season in the Big Ten earned coach Connie Yori a new five-year contract.
OHIO STATE: Point guard Tayler Hill, preseason co-player of the year by the coaches and the solo pick by the media, scored a Big Ten-leading 20.4 points a game and led the Buckeyes to a 25-7 record. Big Ten defensive player of the year Amber Stokes, conference shot-blocking leader Ashley Adams and Kalpana Beach join Hill as returning starters. The 19th-ranked Buckeyes' biggest challenge will be replacing Big Ten career assists leader and 2,000-point scorer Samantha Prahalis.
PURDUE: Courtney Moses averaged 10.8 points, shot a conference-leading 90.7 percent from the free-throw line and set an NCAA tournament record with nine 3-pointers against South Dakota State. She made 47 free throws in a row, the longest streak in the nation last season. The No. 21 Boilermakers, 25-9 last season, welcome back Drey Mingo, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility. Mingo overcame acute bacterial meningitis that resulted in partial hearing loss two years ago. Last year she missed the season after tearing her ACL in a preseason scrimmage.
MICHIGAN: Kim Barnes Arico takes over for Kevin Borseth after leading St. John's to three straight NCAA tournament appearances, including a regional semifinal last year, and being named 2012 Big East coach of the year. Rachel Sheffer (12.8 ppg), Jenny Ryan (Big Ten-leading 98 steals) and Kate Thompson (8.2 ppg) are among five seniors back from the team that went 20-12. Big things are expected from freshman guard Madison Ristovski, who was a Parade All-American.
IOWA: Coach Lisa Bluder is excited about the depth of her team, which has four returning starters from a 19-11 team. Jaime Printy (16.9 ppg) is back after missing the last seven games with a torn ACL. Morgan Johnson (14.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg) gives the Hawkeyes a strong inside presence. But Bluder says Samantha Logic (9.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.4 apg), though only a sophomore, is the undisputed leader on the floor.
MICHIGAN STATE: The Spartans, with nine freshmen and sophomores, are in rebuilding mode after finishing second in the Big Ten and going 20-12. The 6-4 Becca Mills is the top returning scorer (7.2 ppg). The Spartans suffered a blow last week when they lost freshman Aerial Powers for the season. The projected starting guard tore the Achilles tendon in her left ankle.
MINNESOTA: Rachel Banham was the Big Ten's freshman of the year after averaging 16.7 points for the team that won the WBI championship. Katie Loberg, Leah Cotton and Kionna Kellogg are steady contributors, and Micaella Riche came on strong at the end of the season with 10.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in six postseason games.
ILLINOIS: First-year coach Matt Bollant won five straight Horizon League titles and made four trips in a row to the NCAA tournament with Green Bay. Now he tries to rebuild a program that has won a combined 20 games the past two years and hasn't won a Big Ten title since 1997. The Illini return to their top four players. Among them are Karisma Penn (13.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Kersten Magrum (11.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg).
WISCONSIN: Bobbie Kelsey looks for improvement as the Badgers go into the second year running her triangle offense. Taylor Wurtz (16.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Morgan Paige (10.0 ppg) are the only starters back from a 9-20 team. Freshman Nicole Bauman was the top high school player in Wisconsin last year and is expected to be a major contributor.
NORTHWESTERN: The Wildcats like their mix of returning talent and newcomers, which blended during a four-game exhibition tour of Italy in September. Kendall Hackney (15 ppg) was the leading scorer last season, Dannielle Diamant had 20 or more points five times and Karly Roser (4.7 ppg) was one of the league's top young point guards. Lauren Douglas, who had a team-high 15 points in an exhibition Monday, is among five freshmen.
INDIANA: Curt Miller begins his first year with the Hoosiers after 11 seasons at Bowling Green. Jasmine McGhee (12.6 ppg) and Aulani Sinclair (12.4 ppg) were the top scorers on last season's 6-20 team that lost all but one Big Ten game. Two other starters are back in Sasha Chaplin and Andrea Newbauer.