There are big expectations for the Big Ten this season. This year the conference boasts some of the top teams in the nation, with four teams ranked in the top-25 preseason polls. Last season, seven Big Ten teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament and the conference is expected to send even more to the postseason this year.

Though none of the Big Ten’s representatives made it past the Sweet 16, teams such as Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue all have a chance at cracking into the fourth-round of the tournament. Many of the Big Ten’s coaches have commented about the wealth of talented players being recruited into the conference, attributing the increased competition as building the Big Ten into one of the nation’s elite leagues.

Here is a preview of some of the teams leading the Big Ten season:

Penn State
(13-3 Big Ten, 26-7 overall)

Penn State remains the team to beat in the Big Ten this season. After winning the conference last year, the Nittany Lions lost to Connecticut in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Led by the 2011-12 Big Ten coach of the year, Coquese Washington, Penn State returns four starters and nine letterwinners. The Nittany Lions are headlined by two-time first team All-Big Ten senior guard Alex Bentley, who was named Co-Big Ten preseason player of the year. The backcourt of Bentley and junior guard Maggie Lucas rivals any duo in the nation, which may help Penn State repeat as Big Ten champions and also make a run at a national title.

(10-6 Big Ten, 24-9 overall)

No. 18 Nebraska made big waves in its first season in the Big Ten, ending the year in a loss to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In her 11th season, head coach Connie Yori is poised to build off of last season’s success when the Cornhuskers were forced to start two freshmen per game and had only one senior on their roster. Junior forward Jordan Hooper, who averaged 18.9 points per game and led the Big Ten in rebounds last year, has battled injuries throughout the offseason. If Hooper can remain healthy, her talents alongside senior guard Lindsey Moore could help Nebraska return to the Big Ten Tournament title game.

(11-5 Big Ten, 25-9 overall)

Purdue won last year’s Big Ten Tournament, and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to South Carolina. The 21st-ranked Boilermakers lost four seniors from last year’s squad, but gained the leadership of sixth-year forward Drey Mingo, who tore her ACL in a scrimmage last season. Mingo, who led Purdue to the Preseason WNIT championship with 21 points and 13 rebounds in 2010, was hospitalized soon after with a life-threatening case of acute bacterial meningitis that caused permanent hearing loss. She has the potential to be one of the top players in the Big Ten this season. Purdue will also look to redshirt junior guard KK Houser to be a defensive presence alongside senior forward Sam Ostarello. Seventh-year head coach Sharon Versyp has said that the team is the most athletic it has been since she arrived in West Lafayette.

Ohio State
(11-6 Big Ten, 25-7 overall)

After an early departure in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season, No. 19 Ohio State looks to bounce back this year with an explosive, young squad. The most glaring departure the Buckeyes need to replace is 2012 Big Ten player of the year guard Samantha Prahalis. Senior guard Tayler Hill, who was named Co-Big Ten preseason player of the year, averaged a conference-best 20.4 points per game last year and should be able to fill the offensive void. Ohio State will also be strong in the paint with junior center Darryce Moore, who shot 57 percent from the field and has been praised by head coach Jim Foster as a gifted passer. If the Buckeyes can support Hill on offense and be effective with their speed in the transition, Ohio State could be a dangerous team in the Big Ten.

(11-6 Big Ten, 19-22 overall)

Iowa has the potential for major improvements this season, even though it made its fifth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance last year. In 2011, the Hawkeyes were ravaged by injuries but look to be younger and healthier going into their 13th season under head coach Lisa Bluder. Among the four returning starters is senior center Morgan Johnson, who ranked seventh in the NCAA in field goal percentage. The backcourt will be led by senior guard Jaime Printy, who is recovering from a torn ACL she suffered in February. Iowa boasts a youthful squad with just three seniors.

Michigan State
(12-5 Big Ten, 20-12 overall)

Michigan State’s season is barely underway and yet they have already been plagued by a series of injuries to key players. The Spartans are struggling to cope with injuries to freshmen guards Aerial Powers and Branndais Agee, with knee damage to redshirt sophomore center Madison Williams. After losing to Louisville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Michigan State graduated three of its starters. Sophomore guard Kiana Johnson is expected to lead the Spartans’ offensive charge after a breakout freshman season but needs support to fill the lost production. With nine freshmen and sophomores the young Spartans are stocked with talent for the future, but without their health it could be a disappointing year.

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