Commentary

A lot to look forward in Big 12

Originally Published: January 9, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Danielle Gant/Danielle Wilson/Danielle RobinsonAP PhotoDanielle -- Gant at Texas A&M, Wilson at Baylor and Robinson at OU -- rules the Big 12.
For the folks who follow the Big 12, the conference season is kind of like a big slumber party at a cool kid's house, where there are great scary movies on TV, good food and nobody ends up with itching powder in their sleeping bag.

OK, that might be overstating it just a bit. But it's a pretty good bet that, at the very least, Missouri and Colorado will be the geeky guests getting punked. Just not without getting some revenge.

Kansas and Nebraska will be trying hard not to be linked socially to the Tigers and Buffs. Texas Tech is hoping to be back with the NCAA tournament "in" crowd and not hanging out with the WNIT nerds.

But overall, the denizens of Jumbo Dozen Land can expect a lot of good times for a league that almost certainly (you could drop the "almost," actually) will lead the nation in attendance again.

With the most energized game-time atmospheres and the most teams with a shot to make it on selection day, the Big 12 likely will be at the top of the heap.

Not looking for a quarrel with the Big East here; nobody has forgotten the league blitzing the Big 12 in last season's NCAA tournament. It's just that the combination of good programs, regional rivalries, coaching "big" personalities and enthusiastic fans makes it a fun league to be around.

The "hotshot" name at this slumber party? Danielle. As in Danielle McCray at Kansas (second in the league in scoring at 18.9 points per game), Danielle Wilson at Baylor (15.1 ppg), Danielle Gant at Texas A&M (13.6 ppg) and Danielle Robinson at Oklahoma (12.4 ppg/5.9 assists per game).

Eight teams from the Big 12 made the NCAA tournament field last season, and it's likely that seven or eight will do it again. Whether the Big 12 gets a Final Four team might depend on whether the league avoids having its best team end up in the same regional as UConn.

But that's all a ways down the road. To get started with the Big 12 season, which begins Saturday with six conference matchups, let's just look at what we've seen so far. The league already got a little shake-up even before conference play tipped off, as Texas A&M and Texas both lost Monday -- at Florida State and Purdue, respectively.

Texas coach Gail Goestenkors said she saw the wreck at Purdue coming the day before it happened. The Longhorns had been upset at San Diego State on Dec. 30, came back to dismiss Lamar at home, but then went to West Lafayette, Ind., and practiced poorly.

The Horns' post players will likely get knocked around early in games a few more times. Their growth process will be about whether they get frustrated (like what happened against Purdue) or become determined to deny success in the paint. Look for Kat Nash to continue to be one of those "moxie" players whose hustle and attitude spreads to her Texas teammates.

[+] EnlargeAndrea Riley
AP Photo/Brody SchmidtAndrea Riley leads the Big 12 in scoring at 21.5 ppg through 13 games.

Texas A&M went the furthest of the Big 12 teams last season (Elite Eight). But the scoring drought that sunk the Aggies in the regional final against Tennessee can still happen this year, as evidenced by A&M's evaporating offense in a 60-53 loss to Florida State Jan. 5.

Takia Starks and Danielle Gant are the scoring spark plugs, but defense remains what the Aggies usually do best.

Baylor's lone loss thus far was by one point to Wisconsin at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands. Kim Mulkey's crew is rebounding well, and she might have the most versatile group of post players in the league.

So Baylor is really just a lost-focus-in-the-islands defeat away from being unbeaten. And if this team follows the same kind of trajectory it was on last season before Jhasmin Player was injured in February, Baylor might be the Big 12's best Final Four bet.

That won't sound good to Oklahoma, which is in the last season of Paris-palooza and getting all it could ask for from sisters Courtney (15.3 ppg, 12.8 rebounds per game) and Ashley (14.4, 10.2).

Just looking at the results so far, there's no reason to be pessimistic about OU. After all, its only losses are to the top two teams in the country: UConn and North Carolina. Plus, the schedule should be good for the Sooners, who face what appear to be the top two Big 12 North teams -- Kansas State and Iowa State -- at home this season. And the league tournament is in Oklahoma City.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma State raised question marks not just by losing at Arkansas-Little Rock but by doing so by 14 points (Dec. 6). However, it was one of just two defeats for the Cowgirls, who opened the season losing at Duke. Guard Andrea Riley, who led the Big 12 in scoring last season, is at it again this season, averaging a league-best 21.5 points.

The Cowgirls' strength of schedule is a disappointing 164, according to Jerry Palm's site, but that's actually good compared to that of the league's lone undefeated team, Kansas State.

To paraphrase Marc Antony, as written by ol' Bill Shakespeare:

Friends, Texans, Midwesterners, lend me your ears;
I come not to bury K-State, nor to (excessively) praise it.

Here's the deal: The Wildcats won the Big 12 regular-season title last season and brought back four starters … and still played a nonconference schedule that could be called -- if one were being charitable -- timid.

With an SOS of 219 -- worse than any other Big 12 school except Colorado -- K-State's 13-0 record entering conference play has to be taken with a grain of salt. Its cupcake schedule in November and December aside, the Wildcats play well as a team, play very well at home and have that "sum is greater than its parts" thing going on.

That last quality is what got Iowa State into the NCAA tournament last season despite two starters going down with torn ACLs. The Cyclones have much more depth this season, and might win some games during league play thanks to a defense that has played better than their renowned offense.

Anyway, the "slumber" party is about to start. And no one wants to be caught actually sleeping at this one. Some, though, will conk out. But several others will make it until daylight.

Mechelle Voepel 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.