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updated: 3/8/2013 9:31 PM

Big 10 has good chance of getting a team into Final Four

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  • Ohio State guard Raven Ferguson, right, drives as she looks to a pass against Penn State forward Mia Nickson during the first half of an NCAA women's college basketball game in the Big Ten Conference tournament in Hoffman Estates on Friday. Among Big 10 teams, Nickson and the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions probably have the best chance to make a Final Four run this season.

      Ohio State guard Raven Ferguson, right, drives as she looks to a pass against Penn State forward Mia Nickson during the first half of an NCAA women's college basketball game in the Big Ten Conference tournament in Hoffman Estates on Friday. Among Big 10 teams, Nickson and the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions probably have the best chance to make a Final Four run this season.
    Associated Press

 
 

Will this be the year?

The Big Ten hasn't had a women's basketball team reach the NCAA Final Four since 2005 when Michigan State was the national runner-up.

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The conference has had just one national champion since the NCAA started crowning women's basketball champions in 1982 -- Purdue in 1999. Only four other times has the Big Ten been represented in the Final Four -- Minnesota in 2004, Purdue in 2001 and Iowa and Ohio State in 1993.

But if the national RPI rankings are any indicator, that could change this year.

The Big Ten is currently No. 2 in the national RPI rankings, a system used for women's basketball since 1982 that determines rankings based on strength of schedule, among its many factors.

Only the Big 12, which boasts top-ranked defending national champion Baylor as its marquee team, has a better RPI than the Big Ten, which has six teams in the top 40, including Penn State, Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa.

The Big 12 has five teams in the top 40. The Big Ten's current No. 2 RPI ranking is the league's highest in the past several seasons.

"The league as a whole has done a good job of scheduling quality nonconference opponents the last four to five years," said Big Ten Network analyst Stephanie White on Friday during the conference tournament at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. "To make postseason runs you can't afford not to schedule quality nonconference opponents."

White was the National College Player of the Year when she led Purdue to the national championship in 1999 before going on to play in the WNBA and then serve a stint as an assistant coach with the Chicago Sky. She believes that in addition to better scheduling, the current crop of Big Ten coaches has a lot to do with the league becoming more powerful. Seven of the 12 coaches in the Big Ten have been at their schools for six years or less and three of them are in their first year at their respective schools.

"There's no question this is the deepest the Big Ten has ever been," White said. "Look at Northwestern. They're on the rise and they've had two great recruiting classes in a row. People have hired great coaches. Guys like Matt Bollant at Illinois and Curt Miller at Indiana will broaden their recruiting bases."

Nebraska coach Connie Yori, in her 11th year guiding the Cornhuskers, agrees.

"The institutions in this conference have made a commitment to women's basketball," said Yori, whose team is No. 15 in the latest RPI. "There's been some good coaches hired and that's where it starts. I wasn't in this league three years ago, but we have new blood as well as good, veteran coaches. We've got stability across the board and the Big Ten is going to continue to get better because of that."

"Every year it keeps getting tougher," said Purdue coach Sharon Versyp, who played for the Boilermakers in the late 1980s and is in her seventh year as head coach at her alma mater. "We've got new coaches with new styles and that's why you see things like an 11 seed (Wisconsin) beating a Penn State and then knocking off a 6 (Illinois) here. There's a lot of parity now and on any given day anything can happen."

White says increased TV coverage has also made a difference.

"TV exposure has helped as a whole," she said. "Kids can go away from home now and their family can watch them play on TV more now than ever."

And maybe this will be the year the Big Ten finally gets a team back to the Final Four in New Orleans to play in front of the whole country.

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