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Hopes high across land as season nears

AP Photo/Craig Fritz

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The Kansas women's basketball players walked into their new locker room for the first time Wednesday. Seniors got to pick their spots first. Danielle McCray, the Big 12's preseason player of the year, nabbed a middle locker that had a pillar on one side to give her just the right mix of being in the thick of things but also having a little "space."

Thursday morning, the Jayhawks received the news that the league's coaches had picked them in a tie to finish second in the Big 12, along with Texas. Baylor, which welcomes a celebrated recruiting class that includes dunking sensation Brittney Griner, is picked first.

Texas A&M was selected fourth, and got one first-place vote to Baylor's five and three each for Kansas and Texas. Oklahoma, beginning life without the Paris twins, was picked fifth and Nebraska, which has Kelsey Griffin returning for her senior season, was sixth.

And that makes up the projected top half -- a place where Kansas hasn't actually finished in the Big 12 since 2000, which was also the last season the Jayhawks made the NCAA tournament field.

In the ever-growing world of women's basketball, some might look only at the success of UConn (and its perfect NCAA championship team last season) and Tennessee (2007 and '08 titles) and say things haven't changed much. But that's really not the case.

Tennessee, accustomed to jumping from peak to peak, actually fell in a valley last year with a group of super-talented youngsters who were overwhelmed by how good Division I really is. And Ball State dismissed the mighty Orange Crush in the NCAA's first round. Yes, Tennessee will come roaring back, but it was an interesting development.

Louisville ascended to its first Final Four and made the NCAA title game. Teams such as Gonzaga and South Dakota State made rumblings in the NCAA tournament; expect them and Middle Tennessee to be among some solid squads this season that aren't from "big" conferences.

And while UConn is going to start this season No. 1 again with Stanford -- which is also coming off back-to-back Final Four appearances -- in the second slot, there is still a sense of some shifting terrain as the talent pool expands.

An example might be here in the Heartland. Certainly, Kansas has advantages that lots of programs don't. Success in men's basketball and football (when players from those programs aren't fighting each other, that is) have put cash in the Jayhawks' coffers even during down economic times.

The school's commitment to facility upgrades and its membership in the Big 12 are big aids to Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson's goal of taking the program to a competitive level it really never reached even during the Jayhawks' best days in the 1990s.

"There is a tremendous opportunity here, as prepared as we are with kids who have experience, kids who have bought into the system," Henrickson said. "Sade [Morris] and Danielle [McCray] are as dependable as they come as far as their commitment to getting it right every day.

"Absolutely, there is a window that we have to take advantage of. And there is no reason we shouldn't with the experience we have returning and their understanding of the league, the game and what it takes to be successful."

But Henrickson is also well aware that the Big 12 has a wide-open feel to such a degree that several teams are thinking they could win the conference title. Still, she wants her players to come in with a sense that it's OK to embrace the idea that there are external expectations for the program. That it's the "good" kind of pressure.

If Kansas performs as projected this season, it will end its decade-long drought away from the Big Dance for a program that was at the top of the Big 12 when the conference began in 1996-97.

A lot, of course, has happened in the women's basketball world since then. Much has changed in just the Big 12. And Kansas has been through a real transformation, the results of which women's hoops followers nationwide might see this season.

"I think about it a lot," McCray said of the NCAA tournament. "We don't just want to enter it, we want to go far in it."

The furthest Kansas has ever gone is the Sweet 16, which the program achieved in 1996 and '98. In its last appearance, in 2000, the Jayhawks fell in double overtime in the first round to Vanderbilt.

And just a little symmetry here … that KU-Vandy game was played on Louisiana Tech's home court, as Ruston, La., was one of the early-round sites. The day before that game was when Leon Barmore announced he was retiring. Thus began the merry-go-round at Louisiana Tech, during which assistant Kim Mulkey decided a lack of commitment from school officials meant she'd be better off at Baylor, where she has since won a national championship and brought Barmore aboard as an assistant. Time flies, huh?

Well, yes, in some ways. But it hasn't exactly flown by for Kansas fans waiting to get back to the NCAA tournament.

Kansas star Lynn Pride finished her career in 2000, and the downhill slide commenced. Concurrently, Kansas State's program was elevated by in-state talent that Kansas was never in serious pursuit of, and the balance of power in the Sunflower State shifted from crimson/blue to purple.

Tough times for those devoted to the big-beaked bird with the oversized shoes? Oh, yeah. The ultimate indignity for Jayhawks loyalists was how K-Staters would overtake KU's Allen Fieldhouse for games between the two. Kansas State has won 16 of the past 17 meetings in the series, going back to 2002. The only KU win in that span was a double-overtime victory in Lawrence in 2007.

During the 2004 season, longtime coach Marian Washington, battling health problems, retired and was replaced on an interim basis by Jayhawk legend Lynette Woodard.

But everyone then knew that Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins, who came to the school in the summer of 2003 from Connecticut, had his eye on a coach who had impressed him during his tenure in the Big East. That was Henrickson, who left Virginia Tech and took over in Lawrence for the 2004-05 season. She has been trying to build Kansas into a power in the Big 12 ever since.

Last season, the Jayhawks had their best league finish since 2000 -- tied for seventh -- and missing out on an NCAA tournament bid actually held a silver lining. Kansas played in the WNIT and made it to the final, where the Jayhawks fell to South Florida but drew a sell-out crowd to Allen Fieldhouse for the first time in program history.

It's hard to explain unless you've been to Allen what a magnificent venue it is for basketball, how much you feel like you are existing in both the past and the present every time you're in there. The past that the vast majority of people know about, obviously, is with Kansas' loved-beyond-measure men's program.

Henrickson realizes the Jayhawks men's team continued success should be nothing but a positive for her squad. Just as he did for UConn, Perkins has done everything possible to boost the Kansas women. Including with the new facilities that are the same as the men have -- the only difference is the men's shower heads are just a little higher -- and with the compensation of Henrickson and her staff.

One of Henrickson's assistant coaches is Tamika (Williams) Raymond, part of what many consider the best collegiate women's team ever: the 2002 UConn national champions.

Raymond, who is starting her second season at Kansas, talks about how UConn coach Geno Auriemma is able to get his Huskies -- even in 2002, when they were ludicrously talented -- to be a little worried every day in practice that they are losing ground.

Raymond smiles at the contrast. She thinks egos at times have to be deflated at highly successful programs but inflated at programs that are on the rise.

"That's why he's a mastermind," Raymond said of Auriemma. "He can psychologically trick you into thinking you aren't that good, and you've got to get so much better.

"I came here to Kansas at a good time; Bonnie and her staff had already gotten a lot of things up and running. I've come when it's turning the corner. And I think with these kids, they just have to believe in themselves. At UConn, everybody who goes there already thinks they're really good."

Kansas is among those programs now at a place where they can say, "How good can we be?" As practice is set to begin and the excitement builds to the college season's tip off, that's a pretty nice place to be.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.