- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Forget about Saturday's 19-point loss in the Big 12 tournament championship.
Confidence might already have been lacking in Longhorn land well before second-ranked Texas' loss to No. 20 Oklahoma the day before Selection Sunday.
You know me. I firmly believe the point guard is the most important position on the floor, both emotionally and physically. And with Jamie Carey consistently running the point for Texas at the beginning of the year, the Longhorns appeared to be the type of team that really could make a legitimate run for the NCAA championship and return trip to the Final Four.
But the Longhorns aren't playing with as much cohesiveness and chemistry since coach Jody Conradt began using dual point guards and occasionally not starting Carey in late January. At the time, Conradt handed over point guard duties to Nina Norman -- who had been starting alongside Carey in the backcourt -- while inserting freshman forward Tiffany Jackson into the lineup with the hopes of going with a bigger starting five.
"You know, I've always coached on my gut feelings, and this morning I felt as if we would be better off at the start going with a bigger presence right away in the paint," Conradt said on Feb. 1. "Yet, at the same time, I was a bit sick to my stomach, thinking about the fact that Jamie would be sitting next to me on the bench once the whistle sounded. ... My fear was that we would be in trouble if both Tiffany and Stacy (Stephens) got into early foul trouble, but I wanted them both to be on the floor together to rebound together."
Though Carey played just 18 minutes that day and went 0-for-5 from the field, Texas edged Texas Tech 82-73. And in the next two games, Carey was back in the lineup, and notched 12- and 13-point performances. Though she came off the bench in the following game, on Feb. 11, she added another 12 points and things seemed OK.
But when the Lady Raiders and Longhorns met again on Feb. 22, Texas' offense fell apart. Carey didn't start that game and finished with just three points on 1-for-9 shooting. The 'Horns led 31-26 at halftime, but never got into their offensive rhythm after the break, making only 6 of 25 field-goal attempts in the second half. Texas shot 31 percent for the game -- at the time its second-worst shooting performance of the year -- and commited 16 turnovers while handing out only eight assists. On the season, Texas averages 14.1 assists.
Carey has started every game since, and Texas had won five straight before Saturday's loss. To be fair, Carey has come up big at times, twice sinking a game-winning 3-pointer in a pair of dramatic wins over Baylor and Kansas State late last month.
And Norman has certainly thrived. Prior to Saturday's Big 12 final, she had scored in double figures in five straight games, all against Top 25 teams, averaging 14.8 points -- about six points higher than her season average.
In Saturday's loss to Oklahoma, neither Carey nor Norman -- who both started -- seemed to find their rhythm. Carey went 1-for-9 from the field, scoring two points and dishing out three assists. Norman hit 1 of 6 shot attempts, with two points and four assists. They were a combined 0-for-6 from 3-point range. Texas, which tallied nine assists, had another cold-shooting night, hitting 19 of 50 field goals. For the first time this season, the Longhorns failed to sink a 3-pointer, going 0-for-11 from beyond the arc.
Clearly, all cylinders are not clicking. While the potential for another trip to the Final Four is there, this lineup move by Conradt -- whom I view as one of the most gifted coaches in the country -- has hurt Carey's confidence. It has prevented her -- and ultimately Texas' offense -- from getting into its normal offensive rhythm and flow.
Norman is an exceptional player we've raved about since her freshman season when she nailed that game-winning shot against Tennessee. She comes up big in the clutch. But on this team, if Conradt wants Jackson in the starting lineup, Norman might be best-suited coming off the bench. She is going to play starter's minutes anyway, so why not give the reins to Carey? Let her start and dictate the action. If changes are needed later, put Norman in. Otherwise, name a point guard and stick with her -- especially when it's someone as talented as Carey who played as big a role as anybody last season as Texas made its first Final Four appearance since 1987.
Don't overlook the Gophers
Six weeks ago, Minnesota appeared to be headed for a fairly high seed. The Gophers have slipped a bit since Lindsay Whalen, their senior All-American, suffered a broken hand.
But with Whalen back -- team officials believe she'll be in the lineup for the first round -- this is a team that could still make a lengthy run in this year's NCAA Tournament.
Janel McCarville is playing the best basketball of her career. And if Whalen can get back close to game shape, watch out. When Whalen heats up, she can do a lot of damage. So regardless of Minnesota's seed, I wouldn't want to see them in my region.
Odds and ends
Second is the best? For the first time since 1998, Connecticut did not receive a No. 1 seed. The Huskies had been a top seed for five consecutive seasons.
Welcome: Five teams will make their NCAA Tournament debut this season: Colgate, Eastern Michigan, Lipscomb, Loyola Marymount and Marist.
Family ties? Temple's got 'em. Not only does Richard Hamilton's younger sister, Christena, is a 5-foot-10 senior guard, is the Owls' third-best scorer at 9.1 points per game. Senior Toni Belafonte, a 5-9 guard/forward who's the cousin of singer Harry Belafonte, averages 4.4 points. Both players have started all 30 games this season for Temple.
Back again: Marist is making its first trip to the NCAA Tournament. But one of the Red Foxes has gone dancin' before. Senior Maureen Magarity, a 6-1 forward, was part of Boston College's second-round run in the 2000 NCAA Tournament. Magarity averages almost 13 points and five rebounds for Marist.
Finally: One popular storyline this week is the fact that Houston's Chandi Jones is finally getting some of the national recognition she deserves, especially since the Cougars reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years. But one of the nation's best point guards who also has gone largely under the radar will be fortunate to end her career in the Big Dance. Northwestern State's La'Terrica Dobin is about to become the first basketball player -- male or female -- to lead the nation in assists three consecutive years. The 5-foot-4 senior is averaging 9.8 assists, 15 points and five rebounds. Oh, Harry's elf is actually Dobby.
Scoring leaders abound: This season, it seems more school career scoring records fell than ever. At Duke, Alana Beard became the all-time scoring leader for men and women. Nicole Ohlde did the same thing at Kansas State, then broke the Big 12 scoring mark, too. Ditto for Kelly Mazzante in the Big Ten.
Many other players have hit milestones this season, and at least two players will be riding high into the NCAA Tournament after breaking records Saturday. Lindsay Taylor, UC Santa Barbara's 6-foot-8 senior center, scored 25 points in the Big West final to become the Gauchos' all-time scoring leader with 1,733 career points. Utah sophomore Kim Smith then topped the 1,000-point plateau, setting a new single-season record for Utah sophomores with 1,008 points ... and counting.
Name game: Though we're sure ESPN.com's Page 2 will produce it's all-tournament name team later this week, here's our favorite so far: Stretch James, a 6-2 forward and former junior college All-American now a senior at Missouri.
They might be giants: UCSB's Taylor isn't the only 6-8 player on the hardwoods this March. Liberty's Katie Feenstra is back. And she's not alone. Though her 6-7 counterpart in the paint from last season has graduated, 6-3 Kristina Palaimaite has stepped up for Liberty this season. Feenstra, the first Liberty player in program history to be named a finalist for the Kodak All-America team, shoots a blistering 67 percent from the floor to rank second nationally, while Palaimaite knocks down almost 51 percent of her attempts.
Upsets all over: Including Saturday's conference championships, an unranked team beat a ranked opponent 67 times this season. On 35 occasions, a lower-ranked team beat a higher-ranked team. And we know we'll see some more next weekend.
Melanie Jackson, who coordinates women's college basketball coverage for ESPN.com, contributed to this report. Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
See why Lieberman thinks No. 1 seed Texas might be lacking confidence.