Samantha Prahalis should continue streak

For the past seven years, Ohio State centers have claimed at least a share of the Big Ten Player of the Year Award -- the first three by Jessica Davenport and the last four by Jantel Lavender, who is the only player of either gender to win one four times.

Though the Buckeyes lack a dominating post presence this season, they could land an eighth consecutive winner anyway, someone with zero resemblance to Davenport and Lavender. If you haven't seen flashy point guard Samantha Prahalis dish and deal, here's a sampling of why she has been compared to Pete Maravich in a ponytail, from a commercial produced by the school.

Penn State's Kelly Mazzante was the last guard to win Player of the Year outright, in 2004. This season, in a conference loaded with outstanding guards -- especially point guards -- Prahalis figures to rise above the rest.

Last year Prahalis averaged 14.5 points while leading the Big Ten in assists at 6.9 per game, third-best in the nation. Those numbers were down from her sophomore year, however, and Prahalis fell from all-conference first team to second team. That decline may have kept her off the 25-player preseason watch list for the Wade Trophy, a list she made last year. She did make the 30-player list for the women's John Wooden Award.

The Buckeyes may struggle at times without Lavender inside.

But look for the 5-foot-7 Prahalis, Ohio State's only senior and already the school's career assists leader, to contribute more offensively. She showed some of that in last season's Dayton Regional against top- seeded Tennessee, scoring a game-high 22 points in the 85-75 loss.

Prahalis is the only player in school history to surpass 1,000 points and 700 assists in her career.

"I think she is playing harder on a more consistent basis," Buckeyes coach Jim Foster said recently at Big Ten media day. "Her defense has improved, and she's very cognizant of the fact that she has to lead this team, and she's done that through the summer and into the fall. I'm very confident that she is going to have a great senior year. "

She must for the Buckeyes to get back to the NCAA tournament; Ohio State has made it nine straight seasons since Foster arrived from Vanderbilt in 2002.

After winning six consecutive conference regular-season titles between 2005-10, plus the last three conference tournaments, the Buckeyes are no longer top dog.

Neither the Big Ten coaches nor media listed Ohio State among the top three projected finishers in their preseason polls.

"I think adapting will be more on the post players because we're not looking for the low block as much as in the past," Prahalis said at Ohio State's media day in mid-October. "We just have to keep reminding them to stay a little up in the elbow area so they can get the jump shot. It's more of an adjustment for them, but for guards it won't be much different. For guards it's what we're looking for to create."

Team to beat

That's Penn State, where point guard and Big Ten tournament sensation Alex Bentley is among four starters and 10 letter winners returning from last year's 25-10 team that lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament final. Coach Coquese Washington earned a two-year contract extension for getting the Lions into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.

Strong recruiting classes in 2009 and 2010 left the Lions poised for a big jump. The first class brought Bentley, who finished 12th in the conference in scoring at 14.4 points per game, and 6-4 Nikki Greene, a premier shot-blocker and defender.

Also back: Power forward Mia Nickson and perimeter threats Zhaque Gray and Maggie Lucas. Penn State led Division I in 3-point shooting behind Lucas, the conference freshman and sixth player of the year who set a Big Ten record with 112 3-pointers, and Gray, a 41.1 percent 3-point shooter last season.

Top challengers

Purdue returns leading scorer Brittany Rayburn and virtually its entire roster from last year's 21-12 team that might have gone deeper in the NCAA tournament if it hadn't run into UConn in the second round.

One huge snag: Leading rebounder Drey Mingo suffered an ACL tear in her right knee in an intrasquad scrimmage in late October and is probably out for the season.

Iowa (22-9) lost do-everything guard Kachine Alexander to graduation but returns every other starter. With complementary guards Kamille Wahlin and Jaime Printy, plus a freshman recruiting class ranked No. 11 nationally by, this is a deep Hawkeyes team ready to move up.

Even without Kalisha Keane, the coaches choice as Big Ten player of the year (Lavender won the media poll), defending regular-season champion Michigan State (27-6) should be formidable as usual, with conference defensive player of the year Lykendra Johnson leading the way.

Could surprise

After consecutive WNIT appearances and a season-sweep of conference champion Ohio State last season, look for Michigan (17-13) to elbow its way into the NCAA tournament picture.

Seniors Courtney Boylan, Jamillya Hardley and Carmen Reynolds lead an experienced team that has steadily improved the last three seasons. Last year the Wolverines beat four ranked opponents and finished 10-6 in the Big Ten, but blew an NCAA bid by losing to 11th seed Illinois in the conference quarterfinals.

Game of the year

Notre Dame at Purdue, Dec. 10. The national runners-up, ranked No. 2 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches preseason poll, roll into West Lafayette six days after defending national champion Texas A&M.

Which game is bigger? This one, since it's for the unofficial Indiana state collegiate championship. (Sorry, Hoosier fans).

Fab freshmen

So how did Northwestern, of all places, land McDonald's All-American Morgan Jones of Altamonte Springs, Fla.? Family connections. Jones' older sister Tailor transferred to Northwestern from Florida in 2009. The 6-foot-2 Morgan Jones, a multi-talented guard, was rated the No. 9 recruit in the nation by

The player just behind Jones on that list, guard Samantha Logic of Racine, Wis., landed at Iowa. Another McDonald's All-American, the 5-foot-11 Logic is often likened to WNBA great Katie Smith. She lacks blinding speed but makes up for it with vision and precision passing.

Any homegrown point guard who commits to Minnesota risks unfair comparison to Lindsay Whalen, but 5-7 Rachel Banham of Lakeville, Minn., might be close enough to energize the offensively challenged Gophers.

Story to watch

Attendance is down at Minnesota, which is coming off back-to-back losing seasons after seven NCAA tournament appearances in eight years. That's usually not enough for athletic director Joel Maturi to fire a coach like Pam Borton, who took the Gophers to the Final Four in 2004.

But Minnesota has a new president, Eric Kaler, and may have a new AD next year after Maturi's contract expires. What happens then?

Probably nothing if Borton can reverse last year's 12-18 finish. But with a non-conference schedule that includes Baylor and Florida State, that could be a challenge.

Comeback story

Nebraska may make its Big Ten debut with its coach unable to walk the sidelines. Complications from left knee surgery, including a staph infection and a blood clot, forced coach Connie Yori to be hospitalized twice, totaling three weeks. Yori is still taking pain medication and needs a motorized cart to get around.

"It's crazy how painful it was," Yori told USA Today. "I've had a baby, and it's 20 times more painful than childbirth."

She also can't fly, and associate head coach Sunny Smallwood took her place at Big Ten Media Day in suburban Chicago on Oct. 27.

"She kind of zooms around on this little cart or on crutches," Smallwood said. "So far she hasn't taken anybody out, which is nice."

Yori is determined to be on the bench for every game, though she might be in that cart until she regains enough flexibility in the knee to stand.

Did you know?

Prahalis shares the same hometown -- Commack, N.Y., a Long Island bedroom community -- as NBC's Bob Costas and talk show host Rosie O'Donnell. Prahalis once taped an opening for O'Donnell's original syndicated show.

Going to the Dance

Penn State, Purdue, Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State.

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