Big expectations for the Big 12


We have to start off with the always-entertaining Stacy Stephens. Texas coach Jody Conradt mentioned that when UConn's Geno Auriemma had worked with Stephens in USA Basketball, he had referred to the Longhorns center
as a "dinosaur.''

Meaning a throwback player, right? Old-school, hard-working, nose-to-the grindstone type?

Uh, remember this is Auriemma.

"As in a big body,'' Conradt said, "with a little brain.''

Now, Conradt laughed about this, and Stephens also found it amusing. Which right off tells you the kid has a large brain, or at least a clever one. (And Auriemma knew this, too, of course.)

Stephens loves a good one-liner even if -- or maybe especially if -- it's at her expense. She could aw-shucks you into believing she's Jethro off the "Beverly Hillbillies.'' And maybe some East or West Coast rubes might fall for it, but not us Heartlanders.

She has old-fashioned "horse sense,'' an appreciation of quirky humor and is one heck of good sport.

It's players such as Stephens who have helped so much with the popularity of women's hoops in these parts. The Big 12 has led the nation in attendance the past four seasons, and is set to have another big year. Five teams are in the coaches' preseason top-25 poll, including Texas, Kansas State and Texas Tech in the top 10. (Rankings don't mean beans, but it's still nice if you're a team that's ranked.)

There's one returning consensus All-American, Kansas State senior center Nicole Ohlde, and several others who might contend for such honors. There's the nicest group of hard-core fans, who regularly post on the amazingly jerk-free HoopScoop Web site.

K-State fans write, "Caton Hill is so hilarious,'' and Oklahoma fans write, "We love watching Kendra Wecker -- except when she's killing us,'' and Texas fans say, "Jeez, we have a hard time with Tera Bjorklund,'' and Texas Tech fans say, "That Jamie Carey is one intense player,'' and everybody loves Sooners coach Sherri Coale.

Sure, sometimes Texas Tech and Texas boosters simply cannot help charcoaling each other's toast, or the Oklahoma-Texas state rivalry flares up, or somebody is sure they got hosed by the refs in somebody else's building ... but it wouldn't be any fun without a little of that.

All in all, things have turned out very good for women's hoops in a conference that was formed for football purposes. The Big 12's next goal is winning a national championship, which it has at least gotten a shot at the past two seasons with Oklahoma and Texas in the Final Four.

Both times, the Big 12 teams were blocked by Connecticut, a team that has won four national championships and has been regularly in contention for that ultimate prize for a decade now.

Like those in every other conference, the Big 12's top teams are aware that UConn is the giant that somebody will have to "stop"; the Huskies aren't going to give away anything.

But maybe it's the Big 12's year. Certainly, Texas is thinking that way. Texas Tech, even after losing Plenette Pierson, is a program that never counts itself out. Oklahoma and Colorado admittedly are in the long-shot pool in terms of winning it all, but they are definitely going to impact how everything shakes out. (And Oklahoma is the host for the Midwest Regional.)

It's my guess that Baylor and Missouri might battle to be the sixth NCAA team from the conference. And Kansas, with a lot of good young athletes, is going to pull at least one big upset in league play.

And then, have we forgotten anybody? Let's see ...oh, yes, there's "How did they lose to Notre Dame?'' Kansas State. I might have just a few thoughts on the Wildcats.

Texas and K-State finished 1-2 in the league last season, with the Wildcats giving the Longhorns their only Big 12 loss.

K-State has won four in a row against Texas. In fact, in 2001 K-State had only two league victories, and one was against Texas.

Yeah, K-State was at the bottom of the conference that recently. I now hear people say things such as "Well, K-State always seems to underachieve in March,'' and I think, "When did one year become 'always?' ''

The Wildcats didn't play well in the 2002 Sweet 16 round, but a team of mostly freshmen and sophomores losing to senior-laden Old Dominion was not that surprising.

Last season in the second round, K-State gagged. Let's just put those cards on the table. The Wildcats went the first 11 minutes of the second half without scoring and utterly panicked.

Reasons? The Wildcats didn't have depth. (The Wildcats this season add five freshmen, which if they develop as hoped, could help them a lot come tournament time.)

One of their key players, guard Laurie Koehn, had missed almost all of February with a slow-healing foot injury. It was hard for her to be completely in sync when she did return. (She seems fine now.)

But the other thing was the extra pressure from the K-Staters' enormous fear of letting down "their people.'' Ohlde, Wecker and Koehn are Sunflower State natives, all from little towns where everybody knows everybody -- but everybody especially knows them.

They could have gone elsewhere, but stayed home. Because they did, even on the most dead-cornstalk, nose-running, dreary-gray, face-freezing day in a Kansas winter, people are thrilled to be in the Little Apple watching these kids play ball.

But part of the evolution of a program is learning to deal with the double-edged sword of that love. Iowa State also faced that in its dramatic rise in popularity. It's something UConn and Tennessee have had to master. Texas Tech has done it pretty well, too. But it's all so much newer for K-State.

(Which just seven years ago was calling the now-deceased Jack Hartman, the K-State men's coaching legend, out of retirement from his farm to get the women's team through the end of the season after the Brian Agler disaster. Which had been preceded by the Susan Yow train wreck. Point being, Deb Patterson -- like Bill Fennelly -- didn't exactly walk into the Taj Mahal.)

Meanwhile ... there's a small-town native element to Texas also. Stephens is from Winnsboro and forward Heather Schreiber is from Windthorst. But Texas has had a winning record for 25 of Conradt's 27 seasons. The program has been through more phases: being the "hot thing,'' having that wane, and then going through the process of building it back again. Colorado has gone through that, too.

Oklahoma, which also had a big spike in success/attention, had the combined power of two very confident personalities in Coale and former star Stacey Dales. How much Coale can get kids to believe in themselves was evident last season, when practically everybody on the team either blew out a knee or was a freshman or a newcomer -- and the Sooners still made the NCAA field.

So the upshot of all of this is that among the top expected five in the Big 12, K-State's the one that observers think has the most to prove emotionally in March. That's fair.

As the other Wildcat fan favorite, South Dakotan Megan Mahoney, said, "I think we learned we can't crack under pressure like that.''

Texas seemed ultra-confident in the entire postseason up until door-slamming time against UConn in the national semifinals. The Huskies, specifically Diana Taurasi, did a lot to stop that. But the Longhorns thought they should have won, and -- led by point guard Jamie Carey -- maintain that feeling into this season.

Texas and K-State play in the annual State Farm Tipoff Classic at Purdue on Nov. 16. Texas meets Duke (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and K-State plays the Boilermakers (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

Some other marquee nonconference games from the Big 12 include both Texas and Oklahoma meeting Tennessee, Texas facing Georgia, Texas Tech vs. Stanford and K-State possibly playing Penn State in a Bahamas tournament.

Then the Big 12 regular season will be a blast -- the same way it always is in the Big Ten and SEC, too. And come March, the Big 12's best won't mind if they're called "dinosaurs.''

As long as that means a big-fanged T-Rex.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.