After a devastating 67-59 loss to Eastern Michigan in the first round of the NIT last season, Michigan is back and poised to reestablish itself as a top opponent in the Big Ten Conference.

Michigan has spent its past seasons in the middle of the pack. With a 10-6 conference record last year, the team fell in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals to Illinois, 55-47, after rallying from 24 points down.

The Wolverines will compensate for the loss of star guard Veronica Hicks with the addition of four freshmen to the lineup.

Keep an eye on senior guard Carmen Reynolds, who is a mere 107 points away from obtaining 1,000 for her career to join the ranks of Michigan greats Carly Benson and Krista Phillips, who have also achieved the milestone.

Though the Wolverines will be prepared to put up a fight against its Big Ten rivals, they will still have a tough go this season, given that their competitors are reloaded for 2011.

Here’s how half of the Big Ten stacks up:

Teams are listed in predicted order of finish

Penn State

Last year: 11-5 Big Ten, 25-10 Overall

Penn State is ranked first in the Big Ten coaches’ preseason poll and will be a force to be reckoned with this season. Boasting an 11-5 Big Ten record last season, the Nittany Lions ranked first in defensive rebounds.

Junior guard Alex Bentley returns and was named Big Ten preseason Player of the Year. Junior forward Nikki Greene also returns, along with position Maggie Lucas, who nabbed Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors last season.

The Nittany Lions are already playing well, winning their exhibition game against Bloomsburg, a game in which Lucas led the offense with 35 points.

Purdue

Last Year: 9-7 Big Ten, 21-12 Overall

Purdue was ranked No. 2 in the conference preseason poll behind Penn State and has a good shot at the conference title this year. The Boilermakers lost only one senior due to academic ineligibility and have added two freshmen to the team, Liza Clemons and Torrie Thornton, both of whom made the 2011 Indiana All-Star team.

Last season, Purdue ranked first in free-throw percentage and field-goal percentage, which bodes well in the upcoming season. Purdue is also a strong 3-point shooting team.

With just one loss and the big additions, Purdue has a strong chance to win the conference if it can survive its tough early-season schedule against non-conference teams like No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 8 Duke.

Ohio State

Last year: 10-6 Big Ten, 24-10 Overall

With star center Jantel Lavender — now of the Los Angeles Sparks — out of the picture, Michigan and the rest of the Big Ten have a little room to breathe against the reigning Big Ten Champions.

Ohio State has captured the conference title each of the last three years and was the No. 1 scoring offense in the Big Ten with an average of 72.4 points per game last season. The Buckeyes also led in blocked shots, assists, turnover ratio and field goal percentage.

Since then, Ohio State added four freshmen to their lineup, along with returning starters junior guard Tayler Hill, senior guard Samantha Prahalis and sophomore center Ashley Adams. Prahalis shared the Big Ten preseason Player of the Year title with Penn State’s Buckley.

It will be interesting to see how the powerhouse stacks up after the loss of its star player, but it has the ability to claim its fourth-consecutive Big Ten Championship.

Michigan State

Last year: 13-3 Big Ten, 27-6 Overall

Michigan State lost four seniors to graduation this past season, including Big Ten Player of the Year Kalisha Keane. It makes up for the losses by adding talented freshman prospects, including Jasmine Hines — Michigan’s reigning Ms. Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year.

The Spartans have the ability to win a conference title, but only if the young team matures quickly.

Iowa

Last year: 10-6 Big Ten, 22-9 Overall

Iowa has four returning starters but will have to adjust after the loss of standout Kachine Alexander, who averaged 14.5 points per game.

Junior shooting guard Jaime Printy ranked fifth in scoring in the Big Ten. Printy and senior point guard Kamille Wahlin create a dynamic on the court that will be difficult for opponents to handle.

Wisconsin

Last year: 10-6 Big Ten, 16-15 Overall

Wisconsin finished the 2010-11 season in a tie for third place and ranked second in scoring defense, free-throw percentage and 3-point field goal percentage. Junior guard Taylor Wurtz will return as the Badgers’ top scorer and rebounder.

But the team suffers from the loss of three All-Big Ten players. Wisconsin will also have to adjust to a new coach, as Bobbie Kelsey was named the sixth head coach in Wisconsin women’s basketball history in April. If the Badgers want to be competitive, they will have to adjust very quickly to Kelsey and the three new assistant coaches.

Northwestern

Last year: 6-10 Big Ten, 19-14 Overall

Northwestern will likely be toward the lower end of the pack once again. It lost graduating senior Amy Jaesche, who was the second leading scorer in the conference last season. Even with Jaesche, the Wildcats only went 6-10 in the Big Ten this past season. The team ranked first in assists but lacks precision from three-point range.

Wrap-up

Several teams will contend for the Big Ten Title this year. Unlike last season, Ohio State has a gaping hole to fill with the loss of Lavender, and its competitors will be eager to expose that weakness.

Power is shifting within the Big Ten in what looks to be a wide-open conference.

There’s a good chance that there will be a new Big Ten Champion this year, as Ohio State may get dethroned after its three-year reign.

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