Big expectations for the Big 12 championship
I can't even tell you how much I love conference tournaments. L-O-V-E. You can watch all this hoops on TV and become pleasantly delirious.
So far, we've seen East Carolina beat Rice in the Conference USA final in Tulsa, Okla., and wondered, "Does East Carolina ever think it somehow ended up in the WAC?" We've seen North Carolina fans actually root for rival NC State in the ACC tournament as the Wolfpack upset the Tar Heels' most despised presence in the universe, Duke.
We've watched Vanderbilt win its fifth SEC tournament title -- and for the fourth time not have to beat Darth Vader Tennessee to do it. We've watched Purdue survive Michigan State and Ohio State survive Penn State in the Big Ten. And we've speculated that if Spartans 6-foot-9 freshman Allyssa DeHaan were to cross paths with Duke's 6-7 Alison Bales or NC State's 6-7 Gillian Goring or LSU's 6-6 Sylvia Fowles, she might be tempted to quip, "Hey, shrimp, how's the weather down there?"
I love it all, but especially the first day or two of most tournaments, when the bracket is still big. It's so awesome to have games all afternoon and all night. I almost wish this happened every single day. Of the entire year. For the rest of my life.
Oh, sure, you think I'd eventually get tired of it -- maybe even as early as 2036 -- but I wouldn't. However, my dog would never get a bath, the IRS would have me arrested for failure to ever again get my income tax done, and I'd probably die of overconsumption of pretzels, a hoops-tournament staple.
Which reminds me
On my ill-fated attempt to go to the Duke-North Carolina game a week ago, during the flight to Washington D.C. -- which was supposed to be a connection, not the destination -- the woman next to me really did this: She opened her "free" package of pretzels, fussed over them a bit and then said, "Here, take these."
I could have assured her I'd soon be eating buckets of pretzels at the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments, and, even if that were not the case, I wasn't in any great need of her opened bag. But instead I just said, "No, thank you."
She said, "No, really, take them. I don't like salt. I assumed they wouldn't have salt."
What? Wouldn't almost anyone assume just the opposite about a bag of pretzels?
I turned them down again. So she started trying to pick the salt off, granule by granule, explaining just how much she didn't like it I should have sensed right then the trip was going to be a disaster.
But obviously I'm completely over it now, and it's time to move on to my next big trip by automobile to Oklahoma City and the Big 12 championship.
The first two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, we get to experience, as the legendary Starland Vocal Band once put it, a little "Afternoon Delight." Yes, it's such a treat to watch hoops on a weekday afternoon
Wait a second. That might not have been what the band was singing about. Nonetheless, basketballs will be in flight and teams will make a lot of buckets 'fore the sun goes down.
And, wow, this is a very special tournament for me, as the teams I cover for The Kansas City Star -- Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State -- are seeded Nos. 10, 11 and 12. Also known as third-from-last, next-to-last and dead last.
In the 1980s, those schools were all at such a level of ineptitude on the gridiron that we referred to it as the "Bermuda Triangle of Football." It's not that bad in women's hoops now for the Tigers, Jayhawks and Wildcats. But it ain't good, either. Frankly, this year would have been better than last year for me to spend February in Italy watching people do incredibly dangerous things on snow and ice.
However, if you combine the number of Big 12 victories those three programs got this season -- 13 -- they are tied with Texas A&M and Oklahoma for first place!
Which brings us to the Big 12's big two, which wasn't too far from being a big three (if you include Baylor).
How about Texas A&M? What a story. In the first seven years of the Big 12, the Aggies never won more than five league games per season and never finished above a tie for ninth in the league. They were irrelevant. During what was then a weekly coaches' teleconference, I used to fret, "What on earth will we ask Peggie Gillom this time?" Because I hate for coaches to not get any questions. But, I'll admit, a few times I just put down the phone on A&M's turn and went to get a bowl of cereal.
In 2003, Texas A&M decided it needed to "go in a different direction." About the same time, Arkansas for some reason decided it was tired of a coach who'd gone 198-120, with five NCAA Tournament berths (including a Final Four trip), in 10 seasons.
Arkansas essentially told Gary Blair to feel free to find another job. The Aggies wisely offered him theirs. He had never had an overall losing record in 18 years as a college head coach. He had his first, 9-19, with A&M in 2003-04. The next season, the Aggies were 16-15. They were still struggling in the Big 12, but they were clearly making progress.
Last season, they were 23-9 and had their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1996. This season, they're 23-5, Big 12 co-champs with Oklahoma and the conference tournament's No. 1 seed. It's the Aggies' first league title in women's basketball; they never finished higher than second in the Southwest Conference.
And you might have noticed Blair's replacement at Arkansas, Susie Gardner, resigned this past week after going 64-54 in four seasons and not making the NCAA field.
Blair has constructed his Texas A&M program much the same as he did with Stephen F. Austin and Arkansas. Texas A&M plays irritating defense and never stops hustling. Even with junior standout Morenike Atunrase far from 100 percent due to injuries, the Aggies were able to beat Oklahoma twice.
Sophomore guard Takia Starks has been A&M's top scorer (14.2 points per game), junior guard A'Quonesia Franklin the chief distributor (4.79 assists per game) and sophomore center La Toya Micheaux the leading rebounder (7.6).
As for Oklahoma, the Sooners are the "hometown" team for the tournament this year for the first time. But as coach Sherri Coale pointed out in a recent teleconference, the Sooners kind of felt that way in Dallas last year, too, because so many OU fans made the trip to Reunion Arena. (It should go without saying that I have never, ever, ever left the teleconference to get a bowl of cereal while Coale is talking.)
The OU faithful will be out in full force and full throat at Cox Convention Center. And all fans, whether they cheer for the Sooners, should take a moment to applaud OU sophomore center Courtney Paris.
She is averaging 24.0 points and 16.0 rebounds. She has done something I just didn't believe possible. I never would have guessed that someday I'd hear a TV announcer say about another kid, "She's had double-doubles in more than half of her games this season!" and I'd think, "Oh, big deal. Courtney Paris gets a double-double every single time she plays!"
I now have to keep reminding myself there is the "Courtney standard" and the "everybody else standard." Paris has so warped the statistical measuring stick for herself that the extraordinary is now just ordinary for her.
Missouri coach Cindy Stein misspoke the other day and accidentally coined a perfect word to describe Paris: "Persistency." Indeed, Paris is both persistent and consistent to an astonishing degree.
The Sooners don't begin and end with Paris; in fact, the late-season emergence of freshman point guard Jenna Plumley has been one of OU's top stories. She's just a little bitty thing (5-foot-4) next to the 6-4 Paris, but somebody's got to get big gals the ball. Plumley has done that, plus hit crucial perimeter shots.
It's not easy for a rookie to lead on a team with six seniors and a sophomore who's all-world. But Coale is just about the perfect coach to make that work because her players trust her as much as they do.
As for whether seeds will hold, resulting in a Texas A&M-Oklahoma final well, the league has been far too nutso this season for anyone to feel a high degree of comfort in predicting anything. But I'm ready to hit the road and find out. Think they'll have any pretzels in Oklahoma City?Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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- Stokes records triple-double as UConn rolls