Spartans' effort could lead league

Favorite: Michigan State

Michigan State compiled many milestones last season. The Spartans earned their highest ranking in program history (No. 15 in the Feb. 10 coaches' poll), tied the mark for most wins in a season (22) and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997.

This season, Michigan State could do all that and more. Yes, there's a power shift going on in the Big Ten, and the Spartans lead the way. They return all five starters from a team that held 11 opponents -- the most since the 1973-74 season -- to fewer than 50 points and ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense (56.1) and field-goal percentage defense (.379).

Lindsay Bowen is the Spartans' most-heralded player, and the junior guard led them in scoring (13.5, 66 3-pointers) last season while also averaging 2.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists.

But balance is a bonus as five players averaged at least 8.2 points. Inside, junior forward Liz Shimek (10.8 ppg, team-high 8.1 rpg) and senior center Kelli Roehrig (9.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 54.5 percent from field) are back. Senior Kristin Haynie (8.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.0 apg) is another strength in the backcourt.

I loved watching the Spartans in the tournament last season. They are very fundamental, and that starts with excellent coach Joanne P. McCallie. And now, the team will also benefit from savvy assistant Al Brown, who's in his first season on the Spartan bench.

The big thing that Michigan State struggled with last season was ballhandling and turnovers (15.1). The Spartans committed 74 more turnovers than assists, and that puts your team in a tough position. They must improve that area to live up to their potential this season.

Contenders: Ohio State, Minnesota, Purdue, Penn State

Ohio State was young and undersized a year ago, but found a way to win behind a great coaching staff. The Buckeyes are excellent passers and good defenders, and really could make a run at the league title.

Caity Matter leads the way. Last season, she was overshadowed by the conference's many great seniors, but those who follow the Big Ten know how talented she is. The 5-foot-9 senior guard led the Buckeyes in scoring (14.8 ppg) and nailed 73 3-pointers. Those numbers will be even better this season.

While Matter likes the long-range bomb, 6-5 center Jessica Davenport prefers the paint, and had a wonderful freshman season in 2003-04 with very respectable numbers (12.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg).

In the backcourt, 5-9 sophomore guard Brandie Hoskins (9.4 ppg, 4.1 apg, 3.1 rpg) teams with 5-6 junior guard Kim Wilburn (6.4 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.1 rpg, 2.9 spg). They both can push tempo and are great playmakers. The Buckeyes need even more production from Hoskins this season; expect her to be an important focal point.

Minnesota faces a lot of question marks. Who will step up to shoulder the bulk of the playmaking skills now that Lindsay Whalen is gone? Will Janel McCarville come back on time from her broken hand? Can she be effective right away?

By all accounts, the Golden Gophers should be fine. McCarville, of course, is the high-profile player on the team. She was simply unstoppable last season, helping to lead Minnesota to its first Final Four and finishing the season averaging a double-double (16.1 ppg, 10.8 rpg). In 79 career starts, she has notched 33 double-doubles and boasts a 61.7 career field goal percentage. McCarville also set the NCAA Tournament record for rebounds (75, five games), and ranked first on the team in steals (98) and blocks (65) and third in assists (99).

However, Minnesota has a lot of other weapons, with a couple players who just aren't getting as much credit as they deserve. Juniors Shannon Schonrock -- a great outside shooter who hit 72 3-pointers to average 8.9 ppg while dishing out 2.9 apg -- and Shannon Bolden (6.0 ppg, 45.2 percent from downtown) each started all 34 games last season. They are experienced and ready to become major contributors.

Having two key reserves back from a year ago also helps. Sophomores Kelly Roysland (5.7 ppg in only 20.8 mpg) and Jamie Broback (4.8 ppg, 14.3 mpg) really made the most of their minutes last season. Players like this wait for their opportunity, and Minnesota will be in good shape if each of them can rise to the occasion.

Wright? Valek? Jones? Hicks? That's right, Purdue lost four starters -- the Big Ten's all-time winningest class with 113 games in four years -- and will no doubt undergo some sort of transition period.

But don't expect the Boilermakers to completely fall from the Big Ten's upper echelon. As freshmen a year ago, 6-1 guard/forward Katie Gearlds and 6-2 forward Erin Lawless quickly took their games to new levels. Both players were fearless and came off the bench to combine for almost 18 points, each shooting about 48 percent from the field. Gearlds, in particular, won me over, hitting 45.7 percent of her 3-point attempts. Her 10.6 points per game and 42 3-pointers ranked second on the team in both categories.

Gearlds and Lawless should be the bulk of the team this season, along with 6-0 senior center Emily Heikes, the only returning starter. She's undersized but chipped in 6.2 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds. Now just sit back and wait for Kristy Curry's second top-10 recruiting class in as many years to begin making its mark in West Lafayette.

Yes, Kelly Mazzante -- the Big Ten's all-time leading scorer for men and women -- is gone. But Penn State might actually have a more varied offense. There will be more shots to go around on this very talented team, and more people will be involved in the Lady Lions' offense.

Plus, Penn State has the luxury of returning two of the conference's top returners in Tanisha Wright and Jess Strom. Wright, the only player in conference history to twice win league defensive player of the year honors, can score without hesitation. Wright (16.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.5 spg, 50.7 percent from field) has always been a slasher, but last season she really improved her outside shot. Strom (9.8 ppg, 6.3 apg, 2.4 rpg, 46 3-pointers) is a solid point guard who dished out 222 assists last season.

Perhaps the big question mark for Penn State is its inside game. Reicina Russell, a 6-6 forward who ranked eighth in the Big Ten in rebounding last season (6.7 per game), transferred to Georgia. Russell's promising freshman season included 87 blocked shots, which was two short of the single-season school record. She also led the Big Ten and ranked No. 17 nationally in blocks per game (2.5). With Russell gone, seniors Ashli Schwab and Hazel Joseph should get more playing time inside, and it's time for both to step up their games.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.