Ohio State's Big Ten run in jeopardy

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — When Michigan beat Ohio State in women's basketball in late December, it was a milestone — the first time the Wolverines had beaten the Buckeyes in 15 games.

It also was only the beginning.

Teams from all over the Big Ten are sensing an opening this season. After winning at least a share of the league's last six regular-season titles, Ohio State has dropped five of its first nine conference games and is currently in seventh place.

"Ohio State — they're always the team to beat," Michigan guard Veronica Hicks said. "We're seeing now that teams — it's like UConn — everybody wants a piece. To see that they're human after winning six years straight, everybody's out for blood, but you've got to hand it to them, because they're still in position to do good things. We have a lot of games left."

The Buckeyes (13-8, 4-5) are only three games out of first place, but they'll have to outplay quite a few other contenders down the stretch if they want to extend their streak. Penn State (18-5, 7-2) and Wisconsin (12-9, 7-2) are tied for first, followed by No. 11 Michigan State (18-3, 6-2) and Michigan (13-8, 6-3). No. 20 Iowa (17-5, 5-4) and Purdue (15-7, 5-4) are tied for fifth.

"There is no definitive top or bottom in the league. There's a lot of parity," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. "There's been a lot of turnover and a lot of resources have been put into programs that didn't have that in the past. The league is tough top to bottom."

Ohio State won 31 games last season and returned five starters, including All-American Jantel Lavender. The Buckeyes won their first seven games of 2010-11 but have slumped badly since then. Ohio State's worst conference mark under coach Jim Foster was 10-6 in 2002-03, his first season with the Buckeyes. They're already on the verge of matching that loss total.

And with so many teams in contention, the race for first is shaping up to be a wild one.

"I think it's taken a while for the Big Ten to get to this competitive level," Foster said. "You have to compete longer and harder and you have to compete every night."

Only two Big Ten teams are in The Associated Press Top 25, but the league's top seven all were ranked at least 53rd in the RPI as of Tuesday afternoon, according to RealTimeRPI.com. That includes Ohio State at No. 18.

Michigan coach Kevin Borseth expects the Buckeyes to be heard from again before the season is over.

"It's like backing a wolf into a corner," he said. "They're going to come back out after you."

Michigan beat Ohio State again last week. The Wolverines are trying for their first Big Ten title.

"We're trying to make it look like basketball," Borseth said. "We're trying to make ourselves competitive. We're trying to have people see that we're here for real, we're here to stay. We're a legitimate contender.

"We're someone that, when you come here, you don't just have to get the bus here. You have to be able to compete against us."

Wisconsin also is trying for its first Big Ten crown. The other contenders have more impressive recent histories. Purdue won the national title in 1999 and finished second in 2001. Penn State was a Final Four team in 2000, and Michigan State reached the national championship game in 2005.

Still, when it comes to regular-season dominance, those teams all have taken a back seat in the Big Ten to Ohio State — but that appears to finally be changing.

"I think we have the toughest conference top to bottom," Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. "Every game is competitive. I think it makes it fun. I think it speaks volumes of the parity and the quality of play in this conference. We have some good players in the Big Ten and pretty soon I think people will start to recognize that."

On Thursday night, the top four teams in the league standings will face each other, with Michigan hosting Penn State, and Michigan State playing at Wisconsin.

"That's going to be a statement night right there," Hicks said. "Everybody is going to show if they have what it takes to be at that top spot."

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