Wednesday, January 9, 2008

This time, parity is for real

The Big Ten women basketball coaches in past years would boast of parity but their teams' results belied them.

However, in the midst of their first full week of 2007-08 conference play, the coaches' balance claims can't be disputed.

Each club has at least one loss, with winless Northwestern leading the way with three defeats. There are six teams all bunched up at the top, each with only a blemish on their conference ledger thus far, with Minnesota currently atop with a 3-1 mark; the other five: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Indiana and Purdue, all having 2-1 records.

"There are no dominant teams (in the Big Ten)," Minnesota's Pam Borton points out. Speaking during its first weekly teleconference of the season January 8th, the Gophers' head coach continued, "Anybody can beat anybody, whether home or on the road."

"It is a balanced conference," concurs Purdue's Sharon Versyp. "You have to be extremely competitive."

"The strength of our league is outstanding," adds Lisa Stone, the Wisconsin head coach, whose Badgers suffered its third league defeat at home Monday against Minnesota.

"It is an interesting race thus far," says Michigan State's first-year coach Suzy Merchant, whose Spartans have been battling injuries to key players.

Along with balance, almost each Big Ten coach also cries out about their respective club's struggling to be consistent for 40 minutes.

"It has been a hard part for us," confirms Merchant.

"I am pleased in some areas, but there still is some things need to be done (better)," admits Jolette Law of her Illinois squad (10-5, 2-2). Although the Illini is 38th in the nation in scoring defense. allowing 56.5 ppg a contest this season, Law wants more on-ball pressure.

"We are more talented than we were last year," says Indiana's Felisha Legette-Jack, now in her second year with the Hoosiers, "but they still don't know the system that well."

"We are a Jekyll and Hyde team," Lisa Bluder points out of her Iowa club (9-2, 2-2). "We (coaches) don't know which one will show up. One day we are good at one thing, and (another) day we are good at another thing. It is a mystery to me."

Ohio State's Jim Foster also attribute to the fact that many teams this season are young, including his own Buckeyes. "Not too many seniors," he says.

But the young are doing it so far.

Such as Ohio State freshman Jantel Lavender, who has scored in double digits in each of her 14 contests this season. It is the longest for a Big Ten freshman since Iowa's Megan Skouby strung together a 16-game streak to finish the 2005-06 season. Her play is making Ohio State one tough squad, says Legette-Jack.

MSU sophomore center Allyssa DeHaan had two 8-blocks games this season, which ties her fifth in this category among top 50 NCAA leaders. She leads the Big Ten, and is second in the nation, in blocked shots (4.8 a game).

"Her length and height is most obvious," Merchant says of the 6-7 DeHaan, who adds that she still is getting pushed around down low, which means DeHaan must get stronger. "I think the time for her to gain weight is in the off-season," the Spartan coach notes. "It is hard to do that during the season."

Finally, if there is a sophomore jink or slump, don't tell Illinois second-year center Jenna Smith. Her 18.3 points per game, 10 rebounds a game and .574 field goal percentage has Smith among the nation's leaders.

"I challenged her a lot early on," admits Law, Smith's second college coach in as many seasons, "and she responded." Especially in hitting the glass, the coach concludes. "(Smith) puts herself in good position to get the ball."

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