Big 12 holds no big surprises
One of the things about living so long in Big 12 territory is that no matter what happens, I can always say, "Well, that doesn't really surprise me."
The qualifier is pretty important here. For instance, I was surprised when Iowa State lost to Drake a week ago, but not really surprised. See, I'm not saying I can regularly predict with any fantastic accuracy everything that's going to occur. Just that when it does, I always understand it -- even when it doesn't necessarily make sense.
That's because when you've followed the programs for so long and seen them in person so much, you just have a feel for the entire spectrum of what they're capable of -- the good and the bad.
So if Kansas had beaten both Xavier and TCU at the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas over the Thanksgiving holiday, I would not have been surprised. But the fact that the Jayhawks lost both of those games -- the latter in part because of a late technical foul assessed for calling a timeout when Kansas didn't have one -- well, that didn't surprise me, either.
For the first time in coach Bonnie Henrickson's career at KU, the Jayhawks are actually feeling the pressure of being expected to win. They've been climbing up from the bottom half of the conference since she arrived for the 2004-05 season. This year, they received a preseason ranking and were picked to finish second in the Big 12, along with Texas.
Falling to Xavier, which was ranked No. 10 to KU's No. 23, was an acceptable loss. And even though TCU was unranked, it's still TCU -- a program that coach Jeff Mittie has led to eight NCAA tournament appearances in his 10 seasons there.
KU might well fall out of the rankings now, but there's no reason for the Jayhawks to panic. Six of their remaining eight nonconference games are at home in Lawrence, Kan. They are integrating a redshirt freshman point guard in Angel Goodrich and watching sophomore post Aishah Sutherland develop consistency. They have a legitimate All-American in Danielle McCray.
But if, in their Big 12 opener in January, the Jayhawks somehow lose to graduation-depleted Kansas State for the ninth consecutive year in Manhattan, Kan., maybe then they should consider panicking.
As for the Wildcats, they are going through the pains any program does after losing a savvy point guard who played a million minutes and never had a real understudy. To say Shalee Lehning was a staple for K-State the past four seasons is like saying Miley Cyrus is pretty important to the Disney Channel -- it just doesn't quite adequately wrap up either one's all-everythingness.
K-State also lost defensive anchor Marlies Gipson, and of its two returning starters, only senior forward Ashley Sweat is a consistent high-level scoring threat. She has already scored 33 in a game and will pile up the points provided the other mostly young Wildcats (like rookie guard Brittany Chambers) can do enough to keep her from being quadruple-teamed.
Iowa State lost three starters from an Elite Eight squad last season. The Cyclones are inexperienced, to say the least, at post, where they start two freshmen. But because Iowa State has a run-through-a-wall type senior in Alison Lacey and coach Bill Fennelly doing the strategizing, you just expect that the Cyclones are going to figure out a way to get to the NCAA tournament for the 11th time in Fennelly's 15 seasons in Ames.
Missouri has won the fewest Big 12 games (11) of any program over the past three seasons, with Colorado and Kansas next at 14 each. The Buffaloes, who this season do have some talent, led by junior forward Brittany Spears (19.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg), are 4-1. Which doesn't sound like a big deal, except that it's CU's best start in coach Kathy McConnell-Miller's five seasons. Perhaps it's a true sign of progress at Colorado, a program that needs to regain its former status. We'll see.
That brings us to Nebraska, the only Big 12 program never to have won a league tournament title in either the Big 12 or Big Eight/Southwest Conference days. If ever there was a season to do it, how about this one?
The league tournament is in Kansas City, an easy drive from Lincoln, Neb., for Huskers fans who've never seen the Nebraska women even make the Big 12 final. (They made the Big Eight final twice, losing to K-State in 1977 and Kansas in 1993.)
Led by seniors Kelsey Griffin, Cory Montgomery and Yvonne Turner, the Huskers are 6-0, the best start in coach Connie Yori's eight seasons. They've yet to have a real test, though, and won't until a trip to Miami on Saturday and a visit from LSU on Dec. 20, a game I'm really looking forward to that should draw a big crowd to the Huskers' Devaney Center. Both Miami and LSU are also currently unbeaten.
That wraps up the North schools in the Big 12. As for the South, I've already written a fair amount this season about Baylor and Oklahoma. Things have gone largely as expected so far for both. Oklahoma's two losses were at Georgia and to Notre Dame at the Paradise Jam event in the Virgin Islands. The latter, though, came without sophomore guard Whitney Hand, who suffered a knee injury Friday against San Diego State.
Unfortunately, it was announced Monday that she suffered an ACL tear and will miss the rest of the season. It reduces the Sooners' roster to nine and benches one of the league's most charismatic players. Hand will now apply for a medical hardship waiver and should receive it, having played in only five games.
Baylor, after losing its opener at Tennessee, has won six in a row by an average margin of nearly 40 points. Brittney Griner dunked against Jacksonville State and nearly had a triple-double against Lamar (26 points, 12 rebounds, 8 blocked shots).
Baylor's only game in the next 13 days is Saturday, when coach Kim Mulkey's alma mater and longtime employer Louisiana Tech -- coached by Teresa Weatherspoon -- visits Waco, Texas.
Oklahoma State, which went through chemistry issues last season, lost twice so far -- but both times to ranked teams. The Andrea Riley-led Cowgirls fell in the preseason WNIT title game at Ohio State and in double-overtime to another Big Ten contender, Michigan State, at the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas.
The remainder of Oklahoma State's nonconference schedule is not nearly so supersized, and all but one of those games (at Vermont) are at home in Stillwater, Okla.
Texas and Texas Tech rather unfortunately met UConn and Tennessee, respectively, in the ESPNU Road to the Championship doubleheader in San Antonio on Nov. 17. It wasn't much of a showcase for the Big 12; both teams got crushed.
Tech hasn't lost since, though -- but also hasn't left Lubbock since, either. And it won't leave until a Dec. 18 trip to UCLA. Sophomore Kierra Mallard is one of the better young post players in the league, but once again Tech is integrating a lot of newcomers.
Coach Kristy Curry took on an even-tougher-than-it-looked job in replacing Marsha Sharp in 2006, a time when the other three Big 12 schools in the Lone Star State were already collectively stronger than ever. Then the next year, 2007, Texas hired Gail Goestenkors as coach.
She's gone to the NCAA tournament her first two seasons with the Longhorns. But let's face it -- Texas wants championships and pays coaches accordingly. Goestenkors left Duke for Texas because it was an offer too good to refuse, the school-provided resources would be plentiful, and it was a new challenge.
It has, indeed, been that -- because the expectations are so high. The Longhorns beat Mississippi State -- the team that eliminated Texas from the NCAA tournament last season -- and Rutgers at the Paradise Jam event in the Virgin Islands, but were upset by Southern California. The Longhorns still have a visit to Tennessee coming up this Sunday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).
Kathleen Nash is emerging as the Longhorns' most reliable scorer and rebounder. If Goestenkors' career at Texas continues to be similar to how things started for her at Duke, Nash is going to have a very successful junior season. Players were fully invested in her system at Duke by Goestenkors' third year there, and the same appears to be the case now at Texas.
Texas A&M's fans thought the Aggies were being grossly underestimated in the preseason. I think most observers were not really doubting the program, but just waiting to see how the team would deal out of the gate with the loss of three starters. The answer has come in: pretty darn well.
The Aggies are 3-0, beginning the season with a statement victory against Duke. They didn't play over the Thanksgiving holiday. After a midweek visit from one of coach Gary Blair's former teams, Stephen F. Austin, the Aggies go to a tournament at Cal this coming weekend, where they seem likely to face the Bears in the title game.
Danielle Adams, the junior college player of the year last season, has started off just as she was predicted to. Picked as preseason Big 12 newcomer of the year, she has led the Aggies in scoring all three games.
Blair has a deep team with some very powerful players inside. And if the Aggies ended up actually winning the Big 12? Well, even though I still think Baylor is the favorite it wouldn't be a surprise.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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