Many have scoffed at Big Ten women's basketball in the past few years, but a strong field of Midwestern squads is looking to right the ship and head strong into the NCAA tournament in March.

Many have scoffed at Big Ten women's basketball in the past few years, but a strong field of Midwestern squads is looking to right the ship and head strong into the NCAA tournament in March.

Ohio State, now ranked No. 18, is leading the pack. They fell twice to powerhouse teams - Auburn and North Carolina - but have shone in their other games. (All stats in this story are as of Dec. 16.)

"I think we're a lot better," coach Jim Foster told The Columbus Dispatch last week. "We're better today than we were at any point last year."

As conference play begins Sunday afternoon against Michigan, the Big Ten is theirs to lose. Here's what to watch for as the Buckeyes, now 8-2, prepare for those hated rivals from the state up north.

Keys to success

In the first 10 games, new prospects have meshed well with the team's old guard. If they maintain strengths and tweak weaknesses, they'll be cutting down the nets at the Big Ten championship March 8.

What they do well: The inside/outside game.

The well-documented rapport between Prahalis and Lavender has led to many good things. Developing that relationship will open up mid-range opportunities and the Bucks' decent three-point game. Teams need both to survive down the stretch.

Where they need work: Ball control.

Having more turnovers than assists is one way a good team goes south. The Bucks have 170 recorded dimes and coughed up the rock 182 times. To completely gel, the team's big three have to right their assist-turnover ratio.

Who to watch

#42 Jantel Lavender

Center

Sophomore

Last year, this dominating center became the first freshman in either the men's or women's game to win Big Ten Player of the Year honors. This year, the standout recruit is better than ever. Playing nearly every minute, Lavender's been the team's leading scorer in all but one game, averaging about 22 points and 12 rebounds per contest.

#21 Samantha Prahalis

Guard

Freshman

Apparently taking cues from Lavender, this 2008 McDonald's All-American is putting up ballin' stats as a freshman. In addition to being a solid defender, her point-per-game average is second on the team, and she's also doled out more than twice as many assists as any other Buckeye.

#55 Star Allen

Forward

Senior

Analysts agree that Allen can be great when she's eligible to play. After missing 18 of 31 games last year due to academic troubles, she seems on the right track, logging minutes in every contest so far. Increased time has led to increased production: nine points on 57 percent shooting and seven rebounds a night.

Home schedule

Dec. 21 Michigan 2 p.m.

Jan. 4 Michigan State 2 p.m.

Jan. 15 Minnesota 7 p.m.

Jan. 22 Illinois 7 p.m.

Feb. 1 Indiana 4 p.m.

Feb. 5 Purdue 7 p.m.

Feb. 15 Northwestern 11 a.m.

Feb. 26 Wisconsin time TBA

March 1 Penn State time TBA

Games to watch

Minnesota, Jan. 15

The Gophers are averaging more than 75 points per game. Leading a trio scoring in double figures is star junior Katie Ohm, who's shooting 50 percent inside and outside of the arc. She was named the Big Ten Player of the Week December 9.

Indiana, Feb. 1

At the helm of this strong program are Amber Jackson, with more than 17 points per game, and Whitney Thomas, an All-American candidate and the active Big Ten leader in double-doubles. They've won six in a row en route to a 7-2 record.

Wisconsin, Feb. 26

At the start of conference play, the Badgers stand at the top of the Big Ten. They got blown out by South Dakota State - then rattled off 10 straight wins, including one against No. 7 Baylor. The Lady Badgers are limiting teams to fewer than 55 points.

Ohio State's WNBA star

Katie Smith

Guard, Detroit Shock

Rookie season: 1999

Named the Ohio State female athlete of the century in 2002, Smith has enjoyed a stellar pro career, lasting longer than many WNBA franchises. In 2008, she averaged more than 15 points and four rebounds, leading her team to a championship win. She was named the finals MVP.