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Thursday, November 7, 2013
Youth will dominate; can OU, too?

By Mechelle Voepel
espnW.com

Don't be alarmed if you find yourself asking "Who is that?" while watching games involving Big 12 teams this year. There are a lot of new or unfamiliar faces, with a ton of freshmen and little-known reserves who will try to take more prominent roles.

We'll start with the obvious: Baylor lost four starters -- Brittney Griner, Kimetria Hayden, Jordan Madden and Brooklyn Pope -- plus the equivalent of a starter in Destiny Williams. There's no way to sugarcoat it: They had a nightmare ending to their Baylor careers, with an upset loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16.

That ended Baylor's attempt to repeat its national championship, and it turned a page on one of the most successful chapters of any Big 12 women's basketball program.

Baylor isn't the only Big 12 team that took heavy senior losses and is now looking to forge a new identity. But the Lady Bears likely are better stocked and prepared to deal with that, because they've been one of the higher-echelon programs in recruiting in recent years.

Despite all that is gone at Baylor, the Lady Bears are still picked by the league's coaches to finish second behind Oklahoma, which was hurt badly by injuries last year yet still made the Sweet 16. Unfortunately for the Sooners, they've started out this preseason under an injury cloud, too.

We mentioned the avalanche of rookies: Oklahoma State has seven, plus a redshirt freshman. Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and TCU each have five true freshmen; Iowa State, Texas and Texas Tech have four apiece.

Texas Tech also has a new coach: Candi Whitaker, who spent last season as an assistant at Oklahoma State. Whitaker played for legendary Tech coach Marsha Sharp, but has the advantage of not having to directly follow her, as Kristy Curry did.

Whitaker hopes to return Texas Tech to the days when it was a national contender and had a fearsome home-court advantage. It will be a tall order.

The Big 12 tournament this year is back in Oklahoma City, where it has been very successful before.

The Big 12 had seven NCAA bids last year, and has had at least six every season since 2007. With so many young players this season in the league, will that streak continue?

Predicted order of finish

1. Oklahoma (24-11 in 2012-13): The Sooners made the Oklahoma City Regional last year, despite an injury-plagued season, and fell to Tennessee. Gone are gritty post player Joanna McFarland and guard Whitney Hand, who was out much of last year with a knee injury. This season, OU has four returning starters, but one -- guard Morgan Hook -- starts the season with a dislocated thumb, although she played the Sooners' exhibition game Nov. 5. Maddie Manning, after missing most of last year with a right ACL tear, is already gone for this season with a left ACL tear. Still, if the team can avoid any more big injuries and the newcomers contribute, the Sooners can be very good.

2. Baylor (34-2): It's a testament to senior point guard Odyssey Sims, coach Kim Mulkey and Baylor's recruiting that the Lady Bears are picked second even after losing four starters and a reserve who was almost like a starter. Sims will be in charge, but it's a Baylor team looking for an all-new identity. There are five freshmen, led by preseason Big 12 newcomer of the year Ieshia Small, a 6-foot guard.

3. West Virginia (17-14): The Mountaineers lost center Asya Bussie (12.1 PPG in 2011-12) before last season to a knee injury. They still made an NCAA appearance, losing to Delaware. Bussie is back, and so are four starters from last year, led by guard Christal Caldwell (13.1 PPG). Compared to the rest of the Big 12, West Virginia isn't loaded with newcomers; coach Mike Carey has two freshmen and one redshirt freshman. So experience should be a strength for the Mountaineers, who are in their second season in the Big 12.

4. Texas (12-18): All five starters return for Karen Aston in her second season as the Longhorns coach. That includes Imani McGee-Stafford, a 6-foot-7 post who was the Big 12 freshman of the year last season (11.1 PPG and 9.4 RPG). Guard Chassidy Fussell (14.2 PPG) returns for her senior season, and junior forward Nneka Enemkpali (13.0 PPG, 9.4 RPG) is back to help dominate the boards along with McGee-Stafford. Last year, the Longhorns lost their first seven Big 12 games and finished 5-13 in the league. Much more is expected for 2013-14.

5. Oklahoma State (22-11): The Cowgirls lost leading scorer and rebounder Toni Young, who was drafted by the WNBA's New York Liberty. But they bring back four other starters, led by senior guard Tiffany Bias (12.0 PPG) and junior forward Liz Donohoe (15.0 PPG). Oklahoma State gave a little scare to Duke before falling to the Blue Devils in Durham, N.C., in the NCAA's second round last year. OSU leads the Big 12 in freshmen, with seven, but the highest-impact newcomer could be juco transfer post player Marisha Wallace.

6. Iowa State (24-9): We might be underestimating the Cyclones here. But it's a reflection of how much they may miss two starters lost to graduation -- Chelsea Poppens and Anna Prins -- from a team that fell to Georgia in the NCAA's second round. They bring back three starters, led by senior Hallie Christofferson (15.6 PPG). Nikki Moody, a junior, now has two years under her belt as point guard. But the Cyclones will need real progress quickly from the returning reserves and/or the four freshmen.

7. Kansas (20-14): After a decade-plus out of the NCAA tournament, Kansas now has made back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. But gone are point guard Angel Goodrich, forward Carolyn Davis and guard Monica Engelman. Forward Chelsea Gardner and guard Natalie Knight return as starters, although the latter had last season cut short after 19 games because of a knee injury. The Jayhawks are another team that needs freshmen development very soon with their five.

8. Kansas State (19-18): The Wildcats lost one of their grittiest players ever, guard Brittany Chambers, to graduation. She finished her career last year in the WNIT semifinals. The only returner who averaged in double figures last year is junior guard Haley Texada (11.8 PPG). Katya Leike, a transfer forward from Nebraska who missed last year because of injury, should step in immediately. Leticia Romero might make the quickest impact among the five rookies. K-State also has two redshirt freshmen.

9. TCU (9-21): The Horned Frogs' first season in the Big 12 was rough, as they finished 2-16. And they are picked near the bottom again. But … this team might end up being better than that. There are four returning starters, led by guards Zahna Medley (12.9 PPG) and Natalie Ventress (11.3 PPG). Transfer Alexia Standish (Texas A&M) is a guard with Big 12 experience who is expected to help the Horned Frogs when she is eligible to play.

10. Texas Tech (21-11): The Lady Raiders finished fourth in the league and made the NCAA tournament field … but then were beaten in the first round on their home court by South Florida. It was time to go for coach Kristy Curry, who made two NCAA appearances in seven seasons; she's now at Alabama. For her replacement, Tech picked former player Candi Whitaker. Texas Tech lost four starters, so this has the look of a rebuilding year.

Players to watch

Odyssey Sims, senior, G, Baylor: Sims took last season's loss to Louisville extremely hard, but it wasn't the end of her college career. In her final year, she's surrounded by rookies and returning reserves trying to prove themselves, which will test her leadership. Sims, who averaged 12.9 points and 5.8 assists last year, is expected to be a high pick in April's WNBA draft.

Aaryn Ellenberg, senior, G, Oklahoma: Nicknamed "Vegas" for her hometown, she is the leading scorer (18.7 PPG) returning to the Big 12 this season and has been a steady force her entire career at Oklahoma. The Sooners likely will have a freshman, T'ona Edwards, seeing some time at point guard, which means Ellenberg will need to do a lot of mentoring, too.

Hallie Christofferson, senior, F, Iowa State: An athletic presence who can do so much for the Cyclones, she'll have her plate full this season. Look for her to increase her scoring (15.6) and rebounding (6.7) averages for a team that will need a lot of leadership from her.