- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Sure, the Mountain West Conference team that will be at The Pit this weekend isn't the first choice of the local fans. But
The New Mexico folks likely will get behind their rival, Utah, at least a little bit for the Sweet 16. In fact, the Utes probably won't know what to think when they hear some cheers for them in Albuquerque.
If there's one advantage the Utes have in this regional, it's that they're quite familiar with the venue -- they make the trip there every year. Normally, they are the "bad guys." Now, they'll be carrying the MWC banner when they face the winner of Tuesday's game between Ohio State and Boston College (ESPN2, 9 ET).
The No. 5 Utes defeated No. 4 Arizona State on Monday, advancing Utah to the program's second Sweet 16. The first one was in 2001, when Utah was also a No. 5 seed but was the host for the first two rounds because fourth-seeded Iowa
had a facility conflict.
And there was a Canadian standout on that Utes team, too: Amy Ewert, who was from Vancouver, B.C. This season, of course, there are six Canadians on the squad, including the two stars: Kim Smith (British Columbia) and Shona Thorburn (Ontario). You'll see both of them in the WNBA this summer.
The Utah women's team is vastly underappreciated in Salt Lake City, a contrast to the attention the Lobos get in Albuquerque. But the Utes are very worth watching, and anyone who thinks they're going to be just happy to be in the Sweet 16 is wrong.
Oh, at this point, I do have to say that when you're too much of a smart-aleck, you deserve to get stung. A couple of days ago, I was talking about Utah being the Beehive State because there are a lot of bees there, ha-ha, which is not really funny not to mention inaccurate.
Several very nice folks from Utah e-mailed to make sure I had the story straight, how Deseret, which was the initial proposed name for the state, means "honeybee." Which was an insect admired by Brigham Young, who wished his followers to be productive, industrious and work together, like honeybees do. I guess ants do, too, but they don't produce anything for us to eat on biscuits plus "Anthill State" wouldn't have sounded nearly as good.
Elaine Elliott's Utah program definitely has long had the honeybee mentality.
I should also mention some other people e-mailed to give me grief for another previous smart-aleck remark about the MWC and Big 12 having the same number of teams in the bracket. And how the MWC went 4-0 in its openers, while the Big 12 went 2-2 -- including a loss in the conferences' head-to-head matchup in the first round, TCU vs. Texas A&M. And I deserved that grief.
But in the second-round matchups Monday, the Big 12 prevailed. Oklahoma defeated BYU 86-70, and Baylor downed New Mexico 87-67.
It was a weird year in the Big 12, which was mostly a young conference, having lost a lot of really good seniors in both 2004 and 2005. And two of the teams that were thought to be league-title contenders, Texas and Texas Tech, had very difficult seasons and ended up not making the postseason. This is the only time since the inaugural NCAA Tournament in 1982 that at least one of those schools wasn't in the NCAA field. That year, Texas would have made it, but opted instead to play in the dying AIAW tournament.
Those two are marquee names and typically play very high-profile nonconference games. So when they struggled, the perception of the conference dropped. Considering Texas A&M fell and Missouri played so poorly (first-round blowout loss to Virginia Tech) -- and those were the teams that finished third and fourth in the league -- it's obvious that the Big 12 definitely had a separation point between everyone else and the "big two" of Oklahoma and Baylor.
One other thing that is notable, though, in relation to the Big 12 and the NCAA Tournament, is that three pretty new Big 12 coaches saw their former teams perform in the Big Dance.
Bonnie Henrickson, in her second season at Kansas, recruited the veteran players who have led the way to Virginia Tech's meeting tonight with UConn. Kathy McConnell Miller, who took over at Colorado this year, put together the inspiring Tulsa team that almost made the Sweet 16 before falling to DePaul. And Oklahoma State's Kurt Budke, who had to endure a 0-16 debut season in Big 12 play, watched his old Louisiana Tech team make the NCAA Tournament for the 25th year in a row.
But, no question, Oklahoma and Baylor established themselves all along as the league's best bets for another Final Four appearance. OU lost a few surprising games in the nonconference, but even Courtney Paris is allowed to have a hiccup or two in her first college season. You sure aren't going to see that again, though.
And Baylor, the defending national champion, is trying to prove it can overcome the loss of three key players from that 2005 team. Bet against Kim Mulkey-Robertson at your own risk.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.