In the early going, the race to the top of the Big Ten women’s basketball standings looks to play out just like it did last season. The difference, though, is that the number of middle-of-the-pack teams that separate the contenders from the rest of the conference might shrink drastically, if any remain at all.

Three of the usual suspects — Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State — find themselves popular picks to contend for a conference championship, while 2012-13 regular-season runner-up Nebraska and Purdue, winner of the last two Big Ten Tournaments, are receiving preseason attention as well.

The conference’s preseason coaches and media poll anointed Nebraska as the favorite to win the conference, much to the surprise of someone who knows better than anyone else exactly how good the Cornhuskers are.

“I didn’t pick us to win the Big Ten,” said Nebraska coach Connie Yori. “I don’t know why anyone else did.”

But Yori’s modesty doesn’t take away from the fact that the Cornhuskers have many of the necessary pieces in place to build on their second-place finish last year. Leading scorer Jordan Hooper is back, as is forward Emily Cady, who averaged 7.9 rebounds per game. Gone is guard Lyndsey Moore, who now plays for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, but despite the loss, Nebraska still comes into the season as one of the conference’s most experienced squads.

But the Cornhuskers aren’t the only team returning the backbone of their offense. Penn State’s Maggie Lucas, the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, will be back for her senior season after averaging 20.1 points and leading the conference in 3-point accuracy, converting on 46.2 percent of her attempts.

But Lucas will have to adapt to life without Alex Bentley, a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, meaning that she’ll have to play the point more often. Penn State has some adjustments to make, but the Lady Lions are in fantastic shape compared to many of the conference’s better teams from last year that have been decimated by graduation, particularly Michigan and Ohio State.

After missing out on the NCAA Tournament last year — which cost then-coach Jim Foster his job — the Buckeyes also look to play a role in the Big Ten race. They handed the reigns to Kevin McGuff, who compiled a 213-73 record in nine years at Xavier before spending two years at Washington.

Ohio State has talent and a new coach trying to right the ship, but its success will be contingent upon the Buckeyes’ ability to fill Tayler Hill’s shoes on the offensive end — she averaged 21.1 points per game and accounted for almost one-third of the team’s total scoring in 2012-13.

“(She was) one of the most prolific scorers in the history of our program,” McGuff said. “We’re still evolving.”

As a native Ohioan, McGuff is well aware of the significance of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, but the Buckeyes could struggle without Hill, and the Wolverines have a lot of work to do in order to be as successful as they were last year, when Michigan entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed.

The Wolverines are looking to make the NCAA Tournament field for the third year in a row but will need to fill the void left by Jenny Ryan, who averaged 10.2 points and 5.2 assists last year and was a consistent force on both sides of the ball. The Wolverines return less than 10 percent of their scoring, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t talent. Already, three guards — sophomore Madison Ristovski, freshman Siera Thompson and junior Shannon Smith — have shown that they can put up big scoring numbers for the Wolverines. Size and defense will be concerns, but Michigan is certainly capable of pulling off a few upsets.

Barnes Arico expects to rotate her starting lineup frequently based on how players have been performing recently, an opportunity afforded to her thanks to the lack of established starters from last season.

“With a young team, it’s important for us to reward who is practicing well,” Barnes Arico said. “We’re trying to develop a culture of consistency. … If that means we’re going to switch it up every game this year, I think that’s something we should do.”

Besides, having such a young and largely inexperienced team has its silver lining — as of now, there isn’t much to go on when it comes to preparing for Michigan. Despite that, some coaches still feel that they know what to expect.

“One of the things that Kim (Barnes Arico) does well is that she has a specific style of play,” McGuff said. “Even though the players will be different, the style will be the same. They’ll be up-tempo, press. … We’ll still have to be extremely well-prepared.”

Michigan State is looking to make waves as well behind senior guard Klarissa Bell, an East Lansing native who did it all last year, averaging 10.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game. But the Spartans, too, lost a key contributor in Jasmine Thomas, who averaged 10.3 points and 5.3 boards per game. But Thomas’s absence might open the door for Bell to take more shots, and with the Spartans’ balanced offensive attack (last year, five players averaged between 9.1 and 10.5 points per game) it’s entirely possible that the scoring gap will be replaced and then some in the aggregate.

The media and coaches’ prediction of Nebraska at the top is a reasonable one, but whether there’s any substantial separation between the Cornhuskers and the rest of the league’s upper-echelon teams remains to be seen. Michigan State and Penn State are both more than capable of winning the conference, while Purdue, despite mediocre regular-season performances in the last two years, is still the back-to-back Big Ten Tournament champion. Wisconsin is viewed as a sleeper, and a new coach might be all it takes to push a talented Ohio State team into the tournament.

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