Commentary

K-State coming on strong in Big 12

Wildcats clinch fourth seed in league tourney, boost NCAA résumé

Originally Published: March 6, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Wednesday, just a little after 7 p.m., you probably wouldn't have given a plugged nickel for Kansas State's chances at getting a Big 12 tournament first-round bye. And you also would have put the Wildcats on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble.

That's because less than a minute into their game that night with No. 5 Texas A&M, the Wildcats lost starting post player Jalana Childs with an injured tailbone after she took a hard fall.

K-State, standing then at 8-6 in the league and needing a signature victory for its NCAA résumé, seemed as if it was on the precipice of disappointment.

But guess what? A little after 9 p.m. that night, it was a completely different story. And by 9 p.m. Saturday, the Wildcats were positively beaming at the postseason opportunities they'd set up for themselves.

We say the weather can change very drastically here in the Midwest in the springtime -- and, indeed, it can. But so can the fortunes of a basketball team.

Even without Childs, a 6-foot-2 junior out of Orlando, Fla., K-State still managed to upset Texas A&M. That was thanks largely to guard Brittany Chambers' shooting clinic, as she scored 35 points.

Coming into Saturday night's game at in-state rival Kansas in the regular-season finale, Childs was not certain she was really going to be able to contribute. She had to convince herself she could do it.

"I was in a lot of pain today," Childs said. "It was just a mental war with myself."

To which K-State coach Deb Patterson said, "And you won it."

She did win, and so did the Wildcats. They defeated Kansas 56-51 behind Childs' 16 points, essentially nailing down their NCAA tournament berth and also earning the No. 4 seed in next week's Big 12 tournament in Kansas City.

The Wildcats needed some help for the latter, and they got it from a rather unlikely source: Missouri. Coach Robin Pingeton is in her first season in Columbia trying to revive the Tigers' program. She got a little boost in the right direction with an upset of Iowa State, a team for which she was previously an assistant before becoming head coach at Illinois State.

The Tigers' 49-48 victory Saturday afternoon over the Cyclones meant the Wildcats went into their game that evening knowing a victory would give them the important early-round bye in the league tournament.

Well … at least, some of them knew.

"I don't think our whole team did. I did," Chambers said. "I had a little birdie in my ear before the game. Probably why I was so fiery during the game."

OK, but actually, Chambers is pretty fiery every game. A 5-foot-8 sophomore from Jordan, Minn., she epitomizes the moxie that the Wildcats have shown this season. They've exceeded the expectations most had for them after they lost starters Ashley Sweat and Kari Kincaid to graduation.

Sweat was K-State's leading scorer last season, and Kincaid was the "glue" player. K-State finished 14-18 in 2010, and Chambers was the only returning Wildcat who had averaged in double figures in scoring. K-State was picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 preseason coaches' poll.

"I don't think anyone ever sees us in the top four," Chambers said. "We kind of thrive in that position of the underdog."

After the 2005 graduation of one of the program's most successful classes -- led by Kendra Wecker, K-State's all-time leading scorer and rebounder -- outside expectations for the Wildcats have not been high.

Yet they won the WNIT title in 2006, made the NCAA field in 2008 and '09, and are headed back to the Big Dance this season.

Contrast that with Kansas, which for the 11th season in a row will not be in the NCAA tournament. Unless the Jayhawks win the Big 12 tournament and automatic bid. Which is not going to happen.

Kansas had made nine consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament from 1992 to 2000, but has not gone back since. That is quite a drought; consider that the last time the Jayhawks were in the NCAA field, Kim Mulkey was still an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech.

Speaking of Mulkey, her Baylor squad clinched the Big 12 regular-season title Wednesday, but without senior Melissa Jones playing. Jones suffered an injury in last weekend's game at Oklahoma that caused swelling behind the optic nerve in her right eye, leaving her for a time without vision in that eye.

It was a scary few days for Baylor and Jones, but she returned to the lineup for Saturday's victory at Colorado. That's her home state, so even though she didn't get to play on Senior Night at Baylor, she did get to compete one more time in Colorado.

Texas A&M, after its stumble at Kansas State, bounced back Saturday with a victory against Nebraska and is the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 tournament. Oklahoma is the other bye team at No. 3, despite having lost three of its last four Big 12 games.

Texas Tech got to 8-8 in the league by beating the Sooners on Saturday, while Texas missed the .500 mark by falling at Oklahoma State. Are the 7-9 Longhorns in danger of not making the NCAA field? Perhaps … but then you have to consider their RPI, strength of schedule, and the fact that they beat Texas Tech twice this season. Yeah, it's kind of a big mess.

Which is how you might describe this whole season for Nebraska, last season's hot story as the Huskers went all the way until the league tournament undefeated. In 2010-11, though, the bottom fell out for the Huskers, as they were devastated by graduation and injuries.

At 3-13, Nebraska is the No. 12 seed in that program's final Big 12 tournament; next season, the Huskers are off to the Big Ten, while Colorado goes to what will be the Pac-12.

For a time last summer, Kansas State was one of those schools that didn't know where it was going to end up in what looked like a cataclysmic series of conference realignments. But the Big 12's survival as a 10-school league kept Kansas State and Kansas in place.

And on the same day the Kansas men clinched that program's seventh consecutive Big 12 regular-season title, the Jayhawks women lost for the 19th time in their last 21 meetings with Kansas State.

Technically, this is a rivalry game, and it still does feel like one. Yet it has been decidedly one-sided in K-State's favor for the last 10 seasons.

KU has a sparkling, almost-new locker room and practice facility. Coach Bonnie Henrickson and her staff are well-compensated. The Jayhawks' struggles haven't been about Kansas not spending the money to have a winning women's program.

Yet it just hasn't come together. In Henrickson's seven seasons, the Jayhawks are 115-106 overall and 35-77 in the Big 12. This season's 6-10 league mark -- they will be the No. 8 seed -- ties their best under Henrickson. Their biggest postseason accomplishment in her time in Lawrence has been making the 2009 WNIT title game, where KU drew a sell-out crowd of 16,000-plus to Allen Fieldhouse but fell to South Florida.

KU has a new athletic director in Sheahon Zenger, who took over in February. Will he allow Henrickson one more season to try to get the Jayhawks back in the NCAA field? That remains to be seen.

At Kansas State, however, the mood is obviously far more upbeat. The Wildcats will go into Kansas City knowing they gutted out the last week of the regular season and earned their bye.

"We're really proud of our basketball team," Patterson said. "It was an unbelievably emotional experience beating Texas A&M, and to come back and counter that with a road game/rivalry game is just about everything you could picture putting on the plate. Unless it would have been, like, A&M and Baylor back-to-back.

"To us, this game between K-State and KU always takes on such a dynamic personality; it's not like any other game we play in the league. So all compliments to our players for the emotional toughness they brought to the floor."

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