- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Baylor, the defending NCAA champion, stays the same.
The giant of the Big 12 has gone 31-1 in league play the past two seasons and is expected to win the conference again in 2012-13. But other things are different in the 10-team Jumbo Dozen.
Starting with the makeup of the league, which changes for the second season in a row. Nebraska (Big Ten) and Colorado (Pac-12) left after 2010-11; now Texas A&M and Missouri are gone to the SEC.
The Big 12 newcomers are West Virginia and TCU, both of which have had solid women's basketball programs the past several years. Combined, they have made 17 NCAA tournament appearances.
"We have some familiarity with the [Big 12] schools," TCU coach Jeff Mittie said. "We've played them over the years, and hopefully we'll benefit from that knowledge."
TCU geographically fits in the Big 12, but West Virginia absolutely doesn't. A lot of leagues are far-flung now, but the Mountaineers don't have even one remotely reasonable driving trip -- the closest Big 12 school to Morgantown, W.Va., is Iowa State, 870 miles away.
One of the Big 12's chief points of pride is being the attendance leader in women's hoops for the past 13 seasons. That has been aided at least somewhat by rivalries between schools close enough that opposing fans can drive to games. West Virginia isn't going to have a significant traveling fan presence in the Big 12, and that's a shame.
Gone are Texas A&M's rivalries with Texas and Baylor, which provided good theater -- especially in recent seasons between the Aggies and Lady Bears. Also gone for the Longhorns is coach Gail Goestenkors, who stepped down after her fifth season in Austin. She has been replaced by former Texas assistant Karen Aston, who joins West Virginia's Mike Carey and Mittie as the new coaching faces in the Big 12.
Another big change for the Big 12 this season is that, for the first time since the league began in 1996-97, the women's and men's hoops tournaments will separate. They had always been held in the same city on the same week, but the women this year will be in Dallas while the men remain in Kansas City, Mo. Fans can't double-up on the tournaments, but it gives the women their own spotlight and allows them to play their quarterfinals and semifinals on the weekend to maximize attendance.
"It's a positive move," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. "You just think about where we stand on the global landscape of women's basketball, and we can stand on our own. I think it will be a period of growth as the media and the public get accustomed to having those two tournaments separated."
The league has had at least six NCAA bids every season since 2007 and Women's Final Four appearances each of the past four years. Will both streaks continue?
Predicted order of finish
1. Baylor (40-0 in 2011-12): All five starters return, and a talented freshman class can come in and learn the ropes without having pressure put on them. The rookies will get a chance to play, though, as coach Kim Mulkey prepares to lose four senior starters -- led by center Brittney Griner (23.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg) -- after this season. Mulkey and the Baylor fans will savor one more season with Griner, who is expected to repeat as national player of the year.
2. Oklahoma (21-13): It seems as if the Sooners always find a way, regardless of graduation of stars or injuries. Attribute that to the cohesiveness Coale fosters. This season, they have already lost part-time starter Kaylon Williams to an Achilles' injury but have back five players with a lot of starting experience, led by senior Whitney Hand (13.3 ppg) and junior Aaryn Ellenberg (15.5 ppg).
3. Kansas (21-13): After years of frustration, the Jayhawks finally got a break with their at-large bid into the NCAA tournament -- their first appearance since 2000 -- and capitalized. KU upset Nebraska and Delaware to reach the Sweet 16 and played well before falling to Tennessee. Top point guard Angel Goodrich (14 ppg, 7.4 rpg) returns for her senior year, as does post player Carolyn Davis, back from a knee injury. Davis led the Jayhawks in scoring (16.9 ppg) before getting hurt in February.
4. Oklahoma State (22-12): It was the most emotional story in women's hoops last season: Head coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna died in a Nov. 17 plane crash while on a recruiting trip. Assistant Jim Littell took over and led Oklahoma State to the WNIT championship. The Cowgirls bring back everyone, led by junior guard Tiffany Bias and forward Liz Donohoe, last season's Big 12 freshman of the year. Both averaged 13.1 ppg.
5. Texas (18-14): This is the job Aston long coveted, and now she can try to return the Longhorns to being competitive on the national scene. One of Goestenkors' best parting gifts was recruiting Imani McGee-Stafford, a 6-foot-7 freshman post player who is the daughter of former Southern California and WNBA player Pam McGee. She is one of seven Texas newcomers. The Horns lost three starters but have back leading scorer Chassidy Fussell (16.3 ppg).
6. West Virginia (24-10): The Mountaineers went 11-5 in their final season in the Big East and are trying their luck in a new conference. They already got a very bad break, losing senior center Asya Bussie (12.1 ppg) for the season to a knee injury. There still are four starters returning, though, including center Ayana Dunning (8.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg). West Virginia has played just 11 games in its history against current Big 12 schools, but one of them was last season in the NCAA tournament, as the Mountaineers got a first-round victory over Texas before falling to Stanford.
7. Iowa State (18-13): Most of the Cyclones' experience this season is in the frontcourt, led by senior Chelsea Poppens (14.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg). Sophomore guard Nikki Moody (10 ppg, 4.3 apg) is back, but she must continue to improve while the even younger Cyclones perimeter players will have to grow up fast. Iowa State, which has made the NCAA tournament 13 of the past 16 years, led all the Big 12 schools in attendance last season, averaging 9,805 per home game.
8. Texas Tech (21-14): Four starters are among nine players who are back for Tech, which went to the WNIT last season. The Lady Raiders have made the NCAA tournament just once (2011) in coach Kristy Curry's six seasons in Lubbock, which has some wondering if she is on the hot seat. Senior guard Casey Morris (10.1 ppg) will try to spark the only current Big 12 squad to beat Baylor in the past two seasons.
9. TCU (16-14): The Horned Frogs were 9-5 in their final season in the Mountain West Conference and didn't play in the NCAA tournament or WNIT. Natalie Ventress (13.4 ppg), the team's scoring leader as a freshman, is back. TCU has faced every Big 12 school at least once in the past, although their combined record against Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma is a yucky 9-101. But much of that was when TCU was in the Southwest Conference with the first three of those schools, before Mittie's time. TCU now can recruit on more equal footing as a member of the Big 12.
10. Kansas State (20-14): Yes, the Wildcats have been underestimated a lot over the years. But they lost three starters from last season and don't have any player taller than 6-1. So there is legitimate reason to think that even a tough-minded, good-shooting senior guard such as Brittany Chambers (14 ppg) might have a tough time keeping K-State out of the cellar. Then again, maybe the Wildcats will thrive on the low expectations of others.
Players to watch
Carolyn Davis, senior, C-F, Kansas: We assume all eyes will be on Griner and the Baylor gang, so let's mention a few other players, starting with Davis, who was having a terrific junior season until a knee injury at Kansas State on Feb. 12. She is a WNBA prospect with good footwork and a sweet shooting touch inside, but how strong will she be coming back from being hurt?
Chassidy Fussell, junior, G, Texas: She was the third-leading scorer in the Big 12 last season (16.3), but Texas had another disappointing finish. How will she do with a new coach and a fresh outlook?
Aaryn Ellenberg, junior, G, Oklahoma: She was second in the league behind Kansas State's Chambers in 3-point field goals made last season with 75. She was fourth in the Big 12 in scoring (15.5). But she also led the Sooners in turnovers with 95, a number she'd definitely like to cut down.