OU looks to supplant Baylor
They met for the Big 12 women's basketball tournament championship for the first time in 2002, two programs set on becoming the best in the league. And in the decade-plus since, that's what Baylor and Oklahoma have been.
The Sooners won that first high-profile showdown in 2002, and went on that year to be the Big 12's first representative as a conference in the Women's Final Four. The results since are very impressive for both programs.
Baylor has two NCAA titles, an additional Final Four appearance, four Big 12 regular-season titles, and five Big 12 tournament crowns. Oklahoma has been to the Final Four three times, won or tied for the regular-season title six times, and won four conference tournaments.
Now, as we enter the 2013-14 season, who projects as the top two teams in the Big 12? Oklahoma and Baylor. They were selected 1-2 in a coaches' poll of the now 10-team Big 12. It's the eighth time in the past nine years that one or the other was picked to win the league.
Admittedly, part of their high preseason placement this season is by default. Who else is there to pick as a favorite? It's a very young league that lost a lot of successful seniors. There is more unknown than known going into this Big 12 season. West Virginia got two votes for first place -- compared to Oklahoma's five and Baylor's three -- but the Mountaineers still seem like an odd visitor going into their second season in the Big 12.
There are programs clearly in rebuilding mode, others that will have to prove they haven't lost as much ground as we might think, and still others that must show they really are at a level above where they were last season.
Thus, the two old reliables are the safest choices to put forth as the league's vanguards. Although each has plenty of questions to answer themselves.
Baylor lost national player of the year and WNBA No. 1 draft pick Brittney Griner, along with four other seniors who all played big roles in the Lady Bears' 2012 NCAA championship.
Coach Kim Mulkey and the Baylor fan base were prepared for this. Everyone knew that with such a large senior class that was so instrumental in the team's success, there would have to be an adjustment period after they left.
However, no one was prepared for how they left: with a shocking Sweet 16 loss to Louisville.
Falling short of the Final Four held in Mulkey's home state of Louisiana was a huge emotional blow to her, the players, and the Baylor faithful. Then later in the spring, Griner went public about being encouraged to not speak out about her sexual orientation while at Baylor, which brought some negative publicity to the school.
A good vibe surrounded the program during the summer of 2012 -- which included a White House visit and the anticipation of a great chance to repeat – but 2013 was very different.
That said, Baylor under Mulkey has a history of responding well to disappointments. In 2004, the Lady Bears lost in the Sweet 16 to Tennessee after a controversial foul put the Lady Vols on the line for the winning points with two-tenths of a second left. The next year, Baylor won the national championship.
In 2011, Baylor faced Texas A&M in a regional final in Dallas, the fourth meeting that season between the two -- and the only one the Aggies won. Texas A&M went on to win the NCAA title. The next year, Baylor won the national championship.
Now it's quite a stretch to suggest Baylor will be able to pull off an NCAA title this season to salve their wounds from 2013. The Lady Bears have just one returning starter in senior point guard Odyssey Sims, and a lot of young players -- such as Big 12 preseason freshman of the year Ieshia Small -- who have yet to prove themselves.
Instead, Baylor is in a role that Mulkey will try to make the most out of: underdog. At least on the national scene, anyway, if not in the Big 12. For those players who sat on Baylor's bench in recent seasons and the freshmen who enter the program, there is a new canvas for them to fill.
Meanwhile, a couple of hours before Baylor was stunned by Louisville last year in the Oklahoma City Regional, the Sooners' season ended on the same floor. In their case, it wasn't shocking to lose to Tennessee. With the injuries Oklahoma had dealt with all season, a Sweet 16 appearance was a strong finish by any reasonable measurement.
Oklahoma overcame the loss of team leader and coach on the floor Whitney Hand, who nine games into her senior season suffered an ACL injury that ended her college career. Other players found themselves in bigger roles than they expected, and coach Sherri Coale talked emotionally when the season ended about how proud she was of the personal growth she saw from her team.
The Sooners already have been hit by injuries again this year: Guard Maddie Manning, who played just six games last season before an ACL tear, is out already this season with another ACL tear.
Morgan Hook, the point guard who led Oklahoma with 186 assists last year, currently has a dislocated thumb and will miss time at the start of her senior season. Point guard T'ona Edwards (pronounced Tee-OWN-uh) is one of the OU freshmen who will have to step forward quickly this season.
Oklahoma has the leading returning scorer in the Big 12 with senior guard Aaryn Ellenberg. She has been rather overshadowed nationally throughout her career because so much attention, understandably, has been on Baylor. But Ellenberg, who averaged 18.7 points last season and is at 16.8 for her OU career, should get more of a spotlight as a senior. She has made 284 3-pointers in her career, hitting 41.4 percent from long range last season (115-of-278).
The last time Oklahoma was picked as the league's preseason favorite, in 2009, the Sooners won the Big 12 regular-season title and went to the Final Four. But that was with the Paris twins, Courtney and Ashley, as seniors. This Oklahoma team has more uncertainty going into the season, which is reflective of the conference as a whole.
Yet when it comes time for the 2014 Big 12 tournament final, we could see Oklahoma and Baylor meeting again for a championship. The league tournament will be at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, the same place where both teams ended their 2013 seasons.
By then, we'll know how well each lived up to this year's preseason expectations.
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