Lady Bears, Huskers early favorites
With the most dynamic freshman in the country (Baylor center Brittney Griner), one of the remaining undefeated teams (Nebraska) and the usual collection of NCAA tournament hopefuls (might the league snag eight bids as it did in 2008?), the Big 12 could be the most interesting conference this season.
Baylor and Nebraska appear to be the top teams heading into league play, which starts for all 12 squads Saturday. And Texas A&M, sparked by juco transfer Danielle Adams, should not be underestimated.
Oklahoma State's Andrea Riley, Kansas' Danielle McCray, Colorado's Brittany Spears, Nebraska's Kelsey Griffin and Griner are the league's top five in scoring average, and would also make an exceptional Big 12 all-star team covering each position. Because of graduation losses and/or injuries, Kansas State's Ashley Sweat, Iowa State's Alison Lacey and Oklahoma's Danielle Robinson must be "on" for every game. And Texas needs Kathleen Nash to stay aggressive.
Teams finishing in the top half of the Big 12 have an excellent chance to go to the NCAA tournament. The league has sent at least six teams to the Big Dance in nine of the 13 years the conference has existed. The aforementioned eight bids are the most the Big 12 has received; the fewest was four (1998, 2004).
Oklahoma currently has the longest unbroken streak of NCAA bids (10) among Big 12 teams, dating back to 2000. Meanwhile, Kansas -- although upset in its nonconference finale at New Mexico State on Sunday -- looks to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2000. And Texas Tech hopes to end a four-year NCAA tournament absence. Don't be surprised if Missouri gets an upset or two that could dent other teams' postseason chances.
Question to answer
How will teams try to deal with Griner? Just as Oklahoma center Courtney Paris -- because of her size and strength -- presented unprecedented problems for foes when she entered the league four years ago, Griner does things no one else does. Not just with dunking, but shot blocking. The 6-foot-8 Griner is averaging 19.6 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.3 blocks. Especially for the Big 12 South teams that will have to face her twice a season, it looks like it's going to be a long four years.
Team to watch
Oklahoma State "roller-coastered" from going 11-5 in the league and making a Sweet 16 appearance in 2008 to 4-12 and the WNIT in 2009. Coach Kurt Budke attributed much of that to chemistry issues last season, so we'll see if they have been remedied. Riley, now a senior, is leading the league in scoring (23.5 ppg) and assists (7.8 apg). In her second season in Stillwater, juco transfer Tegan Cunningham (17.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg) is providing a consistent No. 2 threat. The Cowgirls (11-2) have lost to ranked teams Ohio State and Michigan State. An indication of how good Oklahoma State really is should come soon, as the Cowgirls open Big 12 play by hosting Baylor and then visiting Kansas.
Player to watch
Kansas point guard Angel Goodrich, a redshirt freshman, could be a program-changer. A prized recruit who suffered a torn ACL before last season, Goodrich has been as good as expected in her delayed debut. She's third in the Big 12 in assist average (7.5). If she continues to improve as an effective perimeter shooter and penetrator, she makes the Jayhawks much more difficult to guard both in transition and the half court.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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