Oklahoma remains big favorite in Big 12

Updated: October 25, 2006, 10:02 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Did you know Courtney Paris "flunked" rebounding last season?

You probably thought, as I did, that if a player got more rebounds (539) in a season than anyone previously in the NCAA era -- she had more defensive rebounds than all but four players had total rebounds last year -- that would warrant an "A-plus-plus-plus" grade.

Courtney Paris
Billy Hefton/Icon SMILast season, Courtney Paris and OU became the first Big 12 women's team to go undefeated (16-0) in league play.

Paris flunked rebounding? Isn't that as absurd as saying the Bionic Woman doesn't hear very well?

Not exactly. This is why, according to the maestro of the Paris Symphony Orchestra, aka the Oklahoma women's basketball team:

"Courtney gets 22 rebounds … and she didn't block out one time," Sooners coach Sherri Coale said, referring to what her film sessions revealed. "We grade rebounding -- Chad Thrailkill on my staff does this. Every time a shot goes up, every player is graded. Did they do the right thing? Courtney didn't pass rebounding one time last year.

"So at the end of the year, the NCAA sends this huge plaque because she's the national rebounding leader. She puts a post-it on it and says, 'Too bad I could never pass rebounding, TK,' and hangs it in his office. That's her."

I have to tell you, I've never seen anyone do a worse job of "flunking" anything. This obviously tells you a lot about what kind of sense of humor -- highly developed -- Coale and Paris both have. But also how perfection-driven both are.

Paris pulled off an admirable feat last year -- she was a one-woman show and a terrific team player. Meaning the Sooners were more than just Paris -- and certainly are again this season -- yet you could easily get caught up in just watching her. Take the Big 12 tournament championship game, where she had 24 points … and 26 rebounds. This was against Baylor, the second-best rebounding team in the league last season.

I think you can guess who was first in the Big 12 in that category … yeah, the team with the flunker on it.

If you showed Paris a box score from that league title game, though, she'd barely notice the 26 boards. Here's what she would see: her six turnovers.

Paris had 99 of those last season, and she blasts herself for giveaways. Which, perhaps, is what a great player must do to throw fuel on the "I'm not good enough" flames of motivation after having one of the best rookie seasons in college hoops history. She averaged 21.9 points and 15.0 rebounds, leading the Sooners to a 16-0 mark in league regular-season play and a conference tournament crown.

The Big 12 was not, in comparison to previous years, at typical strength. I say this not to take anything from the Sooners, because to go undefeated even in a so-called "down" Big 12 is still quite a feat. No team -- even national champion Baylor in 2005 or national runner-up Oklahoma in 2002 -- had ever run the table in the Big 12 since it formed in 1996-97.

The league sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament. OU and Baylor made the Sweet 16, losing to Stanford and eventual champ Maryland, respectively. Texas A&M and Missouri lost in the first round.

As for the rest of the Big 12 last year, Kansas State was very young (but did win the postseason WNIT). Kansas (Bonnie Henrickson), Colorado (Kathy McConnell-Miller) and Oklahoma State (Kurt Budke) were all in their first or second season under a new coach.

Injuries took a toll on Texas, Texas Tech, Iowa State and Nebraska -- but especially the Longhorns. Their much-heralded rookie class was hit hard by injuries and coach Jody Conradt also thought there wasn't a high enough level of effort by the rookies, even when they were healthy.

Texas was led by Tiffany Jackson, now a senior, who had to play through her injuries. She admits now that it was difficult just to walk into practice at times last year because things seemed so discouraging.

"Honestly," Jackson said with a wry smile at Big 12 media day last week, "I had not even considered that not going to the NCAA Tournament was an option here."

But the Longhorns' season ended in the first round of the Big 12 tournament, while their longtime rival Texas Tech fell in the quarterfinals and also missed the postseason.

Tech coach Marsha Sharp resigned -- she had made that decision even before the season, wanting to move to administrative work at least for a while -- and Kristy Curry left Purdue to take over "Double-T Nation."

This was a big task, of course, even before Curry coached one practice. Sharp knew the names and faces and family histories of a ton of Tech fans, and they loved that. She is one of the most recognizable people in West Texas. So Curry had to show she would be just as down-home and "accessible" -- or at least accessible enough -- to the folks in the grocery store who want to talk about Alesha Robertson's jump shot as Sharp always had been.

Curry, a Louisiana native, has the personality for it, and of course, she's no longer in the Midwest, where folks talk "funny."

"There is no better place for my accent than Lubbock," Curry said.

Curry became the fourth head coach in the Big 12 with ties to Louisiana Tech. She had been an assistant there, as had Gary Blair (who has totally rebuilt Texas A&M, just as he promised) and Baylor's Kim Mulkey (who, of course, was also an All-American point guard for Louisiana Tech).

Budke was Louisiana Tech's head coach after Leon Barmore retired, and Budke had to live through a "tale of two cities" saga last season when he moved to the Big 12. It was the best of times in Norman, where the Sooners went 16-0, and the worst of times in Stillwater, where the Cowgirls went 0-16.

Budke cleaned house and brought in 10 newcomers for this season; his many highly successful years as a junior college coach are bound to help in terms of reconstructing Oklahoma State with an infusion of juco talent.

Overall, I'd project this will be a better Big 12 this season. Nebraska has most of its talent returning, including first-team All-Big 12 guard Kiera Hardy, and Kelsey Griffin, who like other really talented rookies last season understandably got lost in the Paris Parade. The Cornhuskers also return senior Jelena Spiric, a forward who brings a lot of stability and scoring potential.

Spiric suffered an ACL injury before last season, as did Texas Tech's Chesley Dabbs, who is also a senior. In both cases, their injuries had a damaging domino effect on their teams because they were hard to replace and their absences kept some of their teammates from being able to play to their strengths.

Another team that suffered a key absence that affected its entire on-court chemistry was Colorado. It welcomes back 6-foot-4 center Kara Richards, who missed 2005-06 with a foot injury. That especially helps junior Jackie McFarland, who can move back to her natural spot at the four. It's always hard to gauge such things, but I think McFarland might be the best Big 12 player that most fans nationwide don't know about. Watch for her this season.

Meanwhile, Iowa State's Lyndsey Medders led Division I in assists per game (7.7) last season, despite playing with a broken foot, which she sustained in late January. She's one of those players I want to call "the toughest dang son-of-a-gun in the league" … except, of course, she's not a "son" and nobody ever says "daughter-of-a-gun." But you know what I mean. She is nails.

Iowa State and Nebraska made the WNIT last season, and they appear to be the top Big 12 North squads this year. But, really, I'm not at all sure how the North teams will shake out.

Among the South schools, a lot of people are saying that Texas is being overlooked, which I think is impossible. Certainly, no opposing coach is going to do anything but sweat profusely over preparing for the Horns. They'll be back in the Big Dance this year.

Baylor lost starters Abiola Wabara, Chameka Scott and Big 12 Player of the Year Sophia Young. But we've seen enough of Mulkey's sideline ability to know that Baylor will be OK.

Let's give Curry some breathing room at Texas Tech. I think everything's going to be fine there, but it has become even fiercer recruiting in the Lone Star State since the elevation of Baylor and Texas A&M.

Speaking of the Aggies, they seem to be the chief challenger to the Sooners. And, along with CU's McFarland, I should say A&M's Morenike Atunrase is another "best player in the Big 12" that isn't known nationwide.

Ultimately, OU -- which will host the annual State Farm Tipoff Classic doubleheader on Nov. 12 -- is still considered the big, big favorite in the league.

As mentioned, not just because of Courtney Paris. She's got a talented sister, Ashley, who I think any other Big 12 team would like in its starting lineup. There is also a lot of senior leadership at the guard spot: Britney Brown, Chelsi Welch and Erin Higgins all return as starters, and Kendra Moore is a valuable reserve.

There are two other seniors: do-everything starter Leah Rush, and another reliable reserve in Krista Sanchez. There are five newcomers, all freshmen, and they couldn't be coming into a better situation. There are plenty of good teammates to learn from, not a lot of pressure and yet they can all potentially have an impact on whether the Sooners can make a national title run this season.

Oh, and they might even "pass" rebounding. Courtney will give 'em some helpful tips.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.