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The start of conference play is often looked upon as a new season.

This year the Big Ten Conference schedule is full of new twists.

Traditional powers Maryland and Rutgers joined the conference this season, turning the Big Ten into one of the top women's basketball conferences overnight.

As if the addition of two perennial powers didn't make things difficult enough for the league's other 12 members, the conference schedule that opens this weekend has been changed to 18 games rather than the 16-game conference schedule from last year..

"You add Maryland, you add Rutgers and it's crazy how good our conference is right now," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "It's definitely going to be a challenge to get through the Big Ten, especially with 18 games, it's going to be just a grueling stretch just to get through these 18 games."

MORE : Offensive freedom has Hawkeyes scoring at school-best clip

The addition of Maryland and Rutgers gives the Big Ten five teams in the most recent Associated Press top-25 poll.

Last year's Big Ten tournament champion Nebraska is the highest ranked team at 12th.

Maryland is 15th and Rutgers is 17th.

Last year's conference regular-season co-champion Michigan State is 20th while Iowa is 23rd.

Three other teams, Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana all have just one loss on the season.

Iowa opens Big Ten play on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Carver-Hawkeye Arena against last year's conference co-champion Penn State (3-8).

"I think the conference looks incredible," Bluder said. "You look at someone like Northwestern who is 10-1 and they didn't even make the NCAA Tournament last year and finished toward the bottom of the Big Ten. Indiana didn't make the tournament, Illinois didn't make the tournament and they are playing really great basketball right now."

MELISSA DIXON: Shooting way into Iowa record book

The addition of Maryland and Rutgers brings star power to a conference that had five teams earn top-six seeds or better in last year's NCAA Tournament, but saw only one advance past the second round.

Maryland advanced to the Final Four last season as a four-seed and won the 2006 national title under head coach, and Cedar Rapids native, Brenda Frese.

C. Vivian Stringer has led Rutgers to a pair of Final Fours including an appearance in the 2007 national title game.

"I think it gives us more prestige nationally because those are two really known commodities for women's basketball," Bluder said. "They've got great name recognition. Rutgers has been to a Final Four, Maryland has been to a couple of them and won a national championship and was just there last year, so these are two teams that nationally garner a lot of respect and so bringing them into the Big Ten just elevates everybody."

Iowa travels to both Rutgers and Maryland as part of its 18-game Big Ten schedule.

The Hawkeyes have five conference games against teams currently in the Top 25, with four of those coming on the road.

After Sunday's conference opener against Penn State the Hawkeyes face back-to-back road tests at Rutgers and 9-3 Illinois.

"We know the Big Ten is so competitive," Iowa senior guard Melissa Dixon said. "The Big Ten season is such a long season with such great teams so you need to bounce back if you lose and you need to keep it going when you win.

Reach Ryan Murken at 339-7369 or rmurken@press-citizen.com.


TEAM-BY-TEAM BREAKDOWN

Illinois

Record: 9-3

AP Ranking: Not ranked

MVP: C Chatrice White, 6-foot-3, Fr. Has started from day one and averages 15.4 points and a team-high 7.7 rebounds per game.

Breakdown: At 9-3 the Illini have already equaled last season's win total and are one of the league's most improved teams. A year after going 2-14 to finish last in the Big Ten and ending the season on an 11-game losing skid Illinois is poised for a conference climb.

Vs. Iowa: Jan. 8 in Champaign, Ill.

Indiana

Record: 10-1

AP Ranking: Not ranked

MVP: G Larryn Brooks, 5-foot-5, Soph. Averages 13.5 points and has a team-high 51 assists.

Breakdown: A year ago the Hoosiers were the last remaining unbeaten team in the conference but struggled down the stretch, finishing 5-11 in the league.

This year the Hoosiers will try to take the next step and put a full season together.

Freshmen Amanda Cahill (11.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and Tyra Buss (14.4 ppg) have teamed well with Brooks to give the Hoosiers some added scoring punch.

Vs. Iowa: Feb. 15 in Iowa City.

Maryland

Record: 9-2

AP Ranking: 15

MVP: G Lexie Brown, 5-foot-9, Soph. A preseason all-conference pick, Brown is averaging 11.2 points and leads the Terrapins with 34 assists and 21 steals.

Breakdown: One of the two conference newcomers, Maryland opens its first season in the Big Ten as the favorite to win the conference crown.

A Final Four team a season ago, the Terrapins were the preseason pick to win the league by both the media and the coaches and lead the league in scoring at 84.7 points per game.

Vs. Iowa: Feb. 1 at College Park, Md.

Michigan State

Record: 8-3

AP Ranking: 20

MVP: F Aerial Powers, 6-foot-0, Soph. An early conference player of the year candidate, Powers is averaging 19.4 points, 12.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.

Breakdown: Led by a Big Ten player of the year candidate, Michigan State is a contender to win the league title.

Powers is one of the most versatile and talented players in the league and is getting plenty of help from sophomore guard Tori Jankoska (18.7 ppg).

The Spartans' three losses have come to highly-ranked teams Notre Dame, Georgia and Baylor.

Vs. Iowa: Jan. 18 at East Lansing, Mich.

Michigan

Record: 8-3

AP Ranking: Not ranked

MVP: F Cyesha Goree, 6-foot-3, Sr. Goree is averaging a double-double on the season with 13.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.

Breakdown: Take the Wolverines lightly at your own risk. A 20-win team a year ago, Michigan has four players averaging in double figures and has the talent to improve on last year's 8-8 mark in Big Ten play.

. Iowa: Jan. 22 at Iowa City.

Minnesota

Record: 11-1

AP Ranking: Not ranked

MVP: C Amanda Zahui 6-foot-5, Soph. Zahui has emerged as the league's top post threat, averaging 15.6 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.

Breakdown: At 11-1 the Gophers are halfway to last year's 22-win total but first-year head coach Marlene Stollins will have to go the rest of the season without preseason player of the year Rachel Banham, who tore her ACL earlier this month.

Zahui and senior forward Shae Kelley (16 ppg) will need to pick up the scoring production lost with Banham's injury.

Vs. Iowa: Feb. 17 at Minneapolis; March 1 at Iowa City.

Nebraska

Record: 10-1

AP Ranking: 12

MVP: G Rachel Theriot, 6-foot-0, Jr. Theriot is the glue and the top scorer at 18.3 points per game for the 12th-ranked Cornhuskers.

Breakdown: The highest ranked Big Ten team in this week's Associated Press poll, the Huskers are one of the favorites to win Big Ten crown.

Theriot headlines a list of four returning starters that also includes Emily Cady (13.6 ppg) and Tear'a Laudermill (12.4) from a team that went 26-7 and won the Big Ten Tournament.

Vs. Iowa: Jan. 26 at Iowa City; Feb. 12 at Lincoln, Neb.

Northwestern

Record: 10-1

AP Ranking: Receiving votes

MVP: F Nia Coffey 6-foot-1, Soph. Coffey leads the Wildcats with 16.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and two blocks per game.

Breakdown: The Big Ten surprise of the season to date, the Wildcats are 10-1 and knocking on the door of the Top 25 a year after finishing 17-16.

Four Wildcats are averaging in double figures, led by Coffey. Northwestern is tops in the Big Ten in points allowed at 55.1 per game.

Vs. Iowa: Jan. 14 at Iowa City; Jan. 29 at Evanston, Ill.

Ohio State

Record: 8-4

AP Ranking: Not ranked

MVP: G Kelsey Mitchell, 5-foot-8, Fr. One of the most productive freshman in the nation, Mitchell leads the Big Ten in scoring at 25.9 points per game.

Breakdown: The Buckeyes boast one of the most dangerous backcourt combos in the country with Mitchell and junior Ameryst Alston (21.9). The duo are the top two scorers in the conference.

The Buckeyes bring a four-game winning streak into Big Ten play and should be one of the most improved teams in the league after posting a 5-11 mark a season ago.

Vs. Iowa: Feb. 5 at Iowa City; Feb. 21 at Columbus, Ohio.

Penn State

Record: 3-8

AP Ranking: Not ranked

MVP: G Sierra Moore, 5-foot-11, Soph. Moore is posting 12.6 points, 4.2 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game.

Breakdown: Last year's Big Ten regular-season champions have struggled to a 3-8 mark this season a year after advancing to the Sweet 16.

Moore, junior center Candice Agee and freshman Lindsey Spann all average double figures but the Nittany Lions are 12th in the Big Ten in points against, allowing 65.3 per game.

Vs. Iowa: Dec. 28 at Iowa City.

Purdue

Record: 7-4

AP Ranking: Not ranked

MVP: F Whitney Bays, 6-foot-2, Sr. Almost an automatic double-double every night, Bays averages 13.6 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.

Breakdown: Purdue lost a lot of firepower from last year's squad that went 22-9, finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten and won an NCAA Tournament game.

The Boilermakers rely on Bays and Ashley Morrissette (10.4 ppg) to carry the offensive load and are averaging just 66.2 points per game.

Vs. Iowa: Jan. 11 at Iowa City

Rutgers

Record: 9-2

AP Ranking: 17

MVP: F Betnijah Laney, 6-foot-0, Sr. Laney leads the conference with 12.8 rebounds per game while scoring 15.2 points per outing.

Breakdown: Led by former Iowa coach C. Vivian Stringer the Scarlet Knights will contend for a Big Ten title in their first season in the league.

Rutgers' only two losses this season have come to Top 11 teams Tennessee and North Carolina, by a combined 13 points.

Vs. Iowa: Jan. 4 at New Brunswick, N.J.

Wisconsin

Record: 4-6

AP Ranking: Not ranked

MVP: F Michala Johnson 6-foot-3, Sr. Leads the Badgers with 12.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.

Breakdown: Following a 1-5 start to the season the Badgers have won three of four entering Big Ten play, including a road win at Florida. The lowest-scoring team in the Big Ten at 60 points per game, the Badgers need to get continued production from Johnson and junior guard Nicole Bauman (12.4 ppg) to improve on last year's 11th-place Big Ten finish.

Vs. Iowa: Feb. 8 at Madison, Wis.; Feb. 26 at Iowa City.

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