LINCOLN — Jordan Hooper’s ready to enjoy her final run through the Big Ten. It should be a wringer.
The No. 16 Nebraska women’s basketball team is one of the favorites to win the league — perhaps the preeminent favorite — but the race for the conference crown seems more wide open than it did last year. Or the year before.
“There’s no definite ‘W’ on that schedule,” said the 6-foot-2 senior from Alliance. “You have to play really hard. And so does the other team.”
Said coach Connie Yori: “I just don’t see any games that we can look at and say, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to win that by double figures.’ I just don’t see that happening. I think it’s going to be a few possessions late in games to whether you have a great season or whether you have a mediocre season.”
The Huskers’ Big Ten opener — a 66-65 nail-biter over Northwestern — came down to a final, wayward Wildcat shot at the rim. And two road games — beginning with Thursday night’s trip to Michigan State — look equally tough for an NU team that spent the past month inside Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Hooper’s looking forward to it.
“It’s fun,” said Hooper, one of two Big Ten players averaging a double-double. “It’s fun to see there’s no easy games. Those aren’t fun. You come to a good school so you can play good teams.”
According to Hooper, the Spartans qualify.
“They’re really athletic,” she said. “They’re big, they’re strong, they’re physical. They have huge posts.”
Though MSU has a puzzling five-point loss to IPFW on its résumé, it started league play with a 81-56 rout of Minnesota. The Spartans, who advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament last year, have one of the league’s most experienced backcourts in Klarissa Bell and Kiana Johnson. And their tall front line should challenge a Nebraska frontcourt that requires Hooper and Seward junior Emily Cady to control the post.
Michigan State’s weakness last year — scoring droughts — has been resolved by freshmen Aerial Powers and Tori Jankoska, who combine to average 25 points per game. The Spartans are scoring 15.2 more points per game this year than last season.
“They’re a really good scoring team,” said Yori, whose Huskers beat Michigan State 59-54 in Lincoln last year. “They’re a better scoring team than they were a year ago. They have more weapons.”
Nebraska’s previous trip to East Lansing’s Breslin Center — a 73-53 loss in 2012 on MSU’s senior day — was perhaps the worst NU has played in the Big Ten, Yori said.
Hooper expects Michigan State’s best shot, in part because Nebraska is seen as a front-runner in a wide-open race.
“We’re going to get everybody’s best shot, no matter what, because of that ranking,” Hooper said. “We go out and play hard no matter what, if we’re ranked 400th or if we’re ranked fourth ... but it does put a bigger target on your back. You have to focus more and be prepared a little bit better.”