CHICAGO - Even with super-efficient point guard Rachel Banham on the sideline, Gophers women's basketball coach Pam Borton was already seeing an improved team from last year's version.
Banham -- who sat out much of the summer after doctors discovered a blood clot in her lungs but was cleared this week to play -- has returned to a squad Borton hopes can make the NCAA tournament.
"She makes everybody better," Borton said of Banham, who was voted preseason All-Big Ten by league coaches. "She's a premier player. She's one of the best point guards in the country. And I think if you're one of her teammates, I think you're really excited for her to get back because it makes their games easier, too. ... We're already better than we were last year and Rachel hasn't even gotten on the floor yet. So she's going to obviously take us to a whole new level."
Banham admits she is rusty from the time off, and will need time to work on her conditioning, but she said she also feels inspired from her time spent watching the game from afar.
While dealing with her injury -- which is genetic -- Banham helped with plays, mentored freshman guard Shayne Mullaney and, most of all, watched.
"I see some things that we definitely need to work on, and I think I wouldn't have noticed if I was out there right now," Banham said. "It's kind of cool, seeing it from my side and being able to see what we need to work on so when I get back. I can help get that going."
Some of that includes ballhandling and getting up and down the court, two things Borton believes the team will be better at in 2012-13.
"We're starting to learn what defines us as a team," senior Katie Loberg said. "We're definitely a very hard-working team."
Bemidji native Kayla Hirt is fully back from an ACL tear that cost her all of 2011-12 and should return to the elite player she was as an incoming freshman last year, Borton said. "She's one of those throwback kids that every coach looks for -- those kids you have to kick out of the gym," she said.
The Big Ten releases only the top three teams in the coaches and media polls. Both polls had Penn State No. 1 and Nebraska No. 2, but the coaches voted Purdue third, while the media picked Ohio State No. 3.
The coaches selected Banham to their preseason all-conference team.
The media chose Ohio State guard Tayler Hill, a senior from Minneapolis, as preseason player of the year. Hill shared that honor with Penn State's Alex Bentley in the coaches' vote.