Commentary

All eyes on Baylor, Brittney Griner

Big 12 coaches vote Lady Bears as near-unanimous preseason league favorite

Originally Published: October 21, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY -- Wednesday at the Sprint Center in downtown was the 15th Big 12 women's basketball media day -- but the final one for what we've known since 1996 as the Jumbo Dozen.

Next year, Nebraska "moves" east to the Big Ten (12) and Colorado "moves" west to the Pac-10 (12). Then the Big 12 (10) will implement a true round-robin schedule, which most of the coaches seem to think will be just as well.

[+] EnlargeMelissa Jones
Jim Brown/US PresswireSenior guard Melissa Jones and Baylor reached the Final Four last season.

"I think it will bring our league closer together," Texas Tech coach Kristy Curry said. "We can all be on the same page. I think it will eliminate some of the walls that have built up. It won't be the North versus the South."

The Big 12, more than any other conference, has long had cracks in its unity. Coaches from the South Division rarely failed to remind people that they played not just in the Big 12, but the Big 12 South.

For much of the league's existence, teams from the South have had greater postseason success in women's basketball. South teams have won 11 of 14 league tournament titles, including the past nine in a row. The league has six Final Four appearances since it formed, all by South schools. That includes Baylor's 2005 NCAA title.

The regular-season Big 12 title -- which North schools have won or shared five times in the 14 seasons -- has tended to be looked upon with a degree of disdain by the South. They believe it to be skewed since the six schools in each division play each other round-robin, but face the other division's teams just once.

So … when two of the North teams are gone next season, ideally so should the rift between the divisions, which will no longer matter. As it is, there is one more season of things as they've been since 1996-97, and there's a firm consensus about who is favored to win this season's title: another South team, Baylor.

The coaches' preseason pick was, in reality, unanimous. Coaches aren't allowed to select their own team, so Baylor's Kim Mulkey gave a vote to Texas A&M, last season's Big 12 tournament champion.

Baylor was also the preseason Big 12 favorite last season, too, but that was more by default than a true consensus that Mulkey's squad clearly was the best. Four teams got first-place preseason votes from the coaches then. The season before, five teams did.

Last fall, Mulkey was a bit bemused that Baylor was given the preseason favorite's nod, considering the youth of her team. This fall, as she brings all but one player back from a Final Four squad, she knew it was coming.

[+] EnlargeBonnie Henrickson
AP PhotoEntering her seventh season at Kansas, Bonnie Henrickson is still searching for her first NCAA tournament berth with the Jayhawks.

"Somebody has to be picked No. 1," she said, "so we'll take it."

Thursday, the Big East's preseason poll came out. Obviously, UConn was the top pick. And unlike last season, when the eventual Big 12 regular-season champion, Nebraska, never faced UConn, this season's Big 12 marquee team, Baylor, will do so right away.

Their nationally televised game (ESPN2, State Farm Tip-Off Classic) on Nov. 16 in Hartford, Conn., will have all the eyes of the women's basketball world. Mulkey praised the Huskies but said she thinks this season won't have the same feel of "UConn and everybody else" that last season did. By the same token, though …

"UConn is the national champion until somebody proves otherwise," Mulkey said. "UConn continues to have the winning streak until somebody beats them. We will get an opportunity quickly to play them."

Mulkey brought senior guard Melissa Jones and sophomore center Brittney Griner with her to media day. Jones would likely be the unanimous pick among the other Big 12 coaches as the "glue" player they most wish they had on their teams. And the 6-foot-8 Griner would be the most coveted player based on her rare combination of size, agility and skills.

Jones is healthy again after being sidelined for 15 games during last season with what turned into a stress fracture. Jones is on the preseason all-Big 12 team along with Griner, who was also picked as the league's preseason player of the year. Baylor's Brooklyn Pope, a transfer from Rutgers, and Odyssey Sims, a rookie, were voted the league's preseason newcomer and freshman of the year, respectively.

You combine all that respect with the number of question marks most of the other Big 12 teams are facing, and it's not like there is the slightest debate, really, that Baylor is the favorite.

That's not any guarantee; only three times has the Big 12's preseason pick actually won the regular-season title outright. Three other times, the preseason favorite has ended up sharing that championship.

Also, those question marks the other 11 teams face aren't necessarily the same thing as "holes." At least, we don't know that now. They have yet to be fully revealed as deficiencies … for the time being, they're just uncertainties.

But there are plenty of them, from second-place pick Texas A&M, which lost two starters from its league-tournament championship team, and last-place selection Colorado, which has a new coach in alum Linda Lappe.

[+] EnlargeKristy Curry
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiFifth-year Texas Tech coach Kristy Curry also is looking for her first NCAA tournament bid with the Lady Raiders.

Curry, entering her fifth season at Tech, and Bonnie Henrickson, starting her seventh at Kansas, might be feeling real heat about not having reached the NCAA tournament yet with those programs.

Gail Goestenkors, beginning her fourth season at Texas, has made the NCAA field all three previous seasons as Longhorns coach. But that hasn't been good enough for some Texas followers, who unrealistically expected an immediate Final Four. And last season's NCAA first-round loss in Austin, Texas, particularly irked them.

In contrast, the soon-to-depart Buffaloes almost seem as though they are playing with house money this season. Lappe, a proud graduate set on restoring the tradition to the program she helped take as a player to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2002, has high expectations of what the Buffs can do.

But anything better than last place in the Big 12 actually will be seen as progress, and an upwardly mobile jumping-off place into the Pac-10.

Lappe expressed some sadness that Wednesday was both her first and last visit to Big 12 media day as Colorado's coach. Nebraska coach Connie Yori, coming off her best season with the Huskers, said it was a rather strange feeling to know she'll be talking about a different conference a year from now.

But for one more season, their focus is on the Big 12, which was in peril of completely breaking up this summer with all the conference-swapping scenarios that were in play.

Everyone knew whatever happened, it would be driven by football alone. Which meant that the Big 12's accomplishments in women's basketball -- the league has led the nation in attendance for 11 seasons in a row -- were not a consideration. But the potential of losing that bothered even Yori, although she's leaving the league.

"I know this is going to sound sappy," she said, "but my first thought when I found out we were going to the Big Ten for sure was, 'Oh, I hope the Big 12 sticks together.'

"Because I would have hated to have seen those coaches, those student-athletes and those programs suffer -- the people who were going to be highly impacted, potentially, because of our move. So I was thankful that the Big 12 stuck together.

"And frankly, I have not thought a lot yet about playing in the Big Ten next year. You can't. We've got a season to play now."

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

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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