DES MOINES, Iowa -- The Big 12 starts a new women's basketball season with its usual assortment of Top 25 teams, some talented returning players and several highly acclaimed recruits.
And, for the first time, as the home of the defending national champion.
After touting itself for years as one of the nation's strongest leagues in the women's game, Baylor gave the Big 12 the one thing it was missing. Now, the Lady Bears find themselves with one tough act to follow -- and they'll have to do it without some key players who made that title possible.
"We're not the same basketball team that won the national championship,'' Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson is quick to point out. "It will be a totally different team, and we've got to find our identity and find our strengths and weaknesses and approach this season as if we're not defending anything.
"It's just a new year.''
It could be a year in which newcomers play a prominent role.
Mulkey-Robertson will be looking for help from some of her five new players. Texas has a top-notch group of freshmen headed by sharp-shooting Erika Arriaran, who was Parade magazine's national high school player of the year.
Oklahoma is expecting big things from the Paris twins, 6-foot-4 Courtney and 6-3 Ashley. Kansas has guard Shaquina Mosley, the junior college player of the year; Oklahoma State is looking for immediate help from four junior college transfers; and Iowa State might start three freshmen.
"This is the deepest recruiting class that the Big 12 has ever had, top to bottom,'' Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. "These freshmen are going to come in and play. Sometimes not out of necessity. These kids are going to play just because they're damn good.''
There also are new faces in the coaching ranks. Kurt Budke moved over from Louisiana Tech to try to get things going at Oklahoma State, and Tulsa's Kathy McConnell-Miller has stepped in at Colorado to succeed Ceal Barry, who left after 22 years in Boulder.
With preseason All-American Sophia Young back for her senior year, no one is feeling sorry for Baylor. The Lady Bears (No. 7 ESPN/USA Today; No. 6 AP) also return guard Chameka Scott and forward Abiola Wabara from their 33-3 team, which routed Michigan State 84-62 in the NCAA championship game.
But the Lady Bears will miss Steffanie Blackmon, who has moved on after teaming with Young to form a dynamic frontcourt. They'll also miss Emily Niemann, whose 3-point shooting was so crucial in the title game. With two years left, Niemann stunned the coaching staff by announcing in August that she was leaving for UC Santa Barbara.
"We are only going to have 11 players dressed out,'' Mulkey-Robertson said. "You'd like for the freshmen to learn from
the upperclassmen, but they are not going to have that opportunity. With 11 players, they are going to have to play.''
Baylor is favored to repeat as the Big 12 champion, with No. 12 Texas, No. 13 Texas Tech and No. 25 Oklahoma as the top challengers. Look for Nebraska, which returns all five starters, to jump in the standings and earn an NCAA Tournament berth. And don't be surprised if coach Bill Fennelly finds a way to keep Iowa State hanging around.
Texas coach Jody Conradt has the advantage of teaming her freshmen with two standout veterans, All-Big 12 forward Tiffany Jackson and guard Nina Norman. A key for the Longhorns will be Norman's ability to fill the leadership role vacated by the departure of Jamie Carey.
"It's going to be different, because Jamie always had my back,'' Norman said. "Anything that went wrong, I could always
come to her. But I think I'm doing pretty good on my own.''
With four starters and seven other letter winners from a 24-8 team, Texas Tech won't have to rely on newcomers as much as some others. Point guard Erin Grant, a preseason all-conference choice, heads a trio of seniors who are the team's heart and soul.
"I absolutely love this class,'' Tech coach Marsha Sharp said. "They're one of my favorite classes to have coached in my career. I love their mentality and passion, how hard they work. I don't think anybody with our basketball program has any thoughts of not trying to help them finish their careers in a great way.''
With the Paris twins, Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale doesn't have to worry about her inside game the next four years. Courtney received some national player of the year honors and put up jaw-dropping numbers as a high school senior, averaging 27.4 points, 18.9 rebounds and five blocks.
"We have guys on the scout team and they can't guard her,'' Oklahoma junior Erin Higgins said.
Iowa State has to rework its lineup after going 23-7 and tying for third in the league. Freshmen Rachel Pierson, Nicky Wieben and Heather Ezell could end up starting alongside juniors Lyndsey Medders and Megan Ronhovde.
"I hope we can surprise some people,'' Fennelly said. "I think we can.''
Junior guard Kiera Hardy, the league scoring champion, heads a veteran group at Nebraska, which looked to be headed to the NCAA Tournament last season until losing its final four Big 12 games.
"Losing that last stretch of games really opened our eyes on what we need to do and work on as a team,'' Hardy said. "I think this year we're going to be better and finish stronger.''
With the graduation of Kendra Wecker and Laurie Koehn, an era ended at Kansas State, where coach Deb Patterson has to do some serious rebuilding after a four-year run that produced a 103-26 record. Patterson hopes freshmen Marlies Gipson, JoAnn Hamlin and Shalee Lehning can bring some new star power.
Mosley and four returning starters should make coach Bonnie Henrickson's second season at Kansas better than the first (12-16), while Blair expects improvement at Texas A&M, where freshmen played 53 percent of the minutes last season.
Four returning starters will help McConnell-Miller's transition into the Big 12. Missouri has five starters back to try to improve on its 4-12 conference record, and Budke has no place to go but up at Oklahoma State, which was 7-20 last season.
"I left a lot of people that think I am crazy,'' said Budke, who was coaching one of the nation's traditional powers at
Louisiana Tech. "But I was looking to the future. I think if you want to build a powerhouse that's going to be around for the next 10 to 15 years, the Big 12 is a good place to start.''