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West Virginia right at home in Big 12

Coach Mike Carey's Mountaineers (25-3) have won 12 of their last 13 games. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Christal Caldwell grew up in what's largely ACC territory in Charlotte, N.C. She went to an SEC school, Florida, for college. After a year, she joined the Big East, transferring to West Virginia. Then the Mountaineers left for the Big 12.

Suffice to say, Caldwell has competed in more arenas than most college players ever will.

"I remember the first time going to Kansas last year, and I thought, 'Am I really in Kansas?'" Caldwell said, laughing. "I think of it as a good opportunity. Playing in different conferences has shown me different styles and types of players, and it's helped me work on my game."

Sunday, Caldwell and her teammates will see a packed Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas, as the No. 11 Mountaineers take on No. 6 Baylor. The Lady Bears lead the Big 12 at 15-1, with West Virginia just behind at 14-2.

Whatever happens in that game, these have been the top two teams in the Big 12 this season. And in the Mountaineers' case, they are past due for a shout-out nationally. Coach Mike Carey mentioned this to his team before its Feb. 19 game against Oklahoma State.

West Virginia then proceeded to clobber the Cowgirls 77-45. That game, as much as any this season, showed how good the Mountaineers can be when they are clicking.

"I thought we came out and played inspired," Carey said. "Our whole thing was, we kind of felt we were not getting the respect we deserve. We are No. 2 in the conference, but there are teams getting more recognition. This was a chance for us at home to prove a point: That we're about as good as anybody."

The Mountaineers have won their subsequent two games -- against Kansas State and Texas Tech - by hefty margins and are 25-3 overall this season.

West Virginia has had among the more difficult geographical transitions of any school in all the league-swapping that has occurred in the past few years in college sports. The Mountaineers no longer have any close rival teams in their league, the way they did in the Big East. Every conference road trip is a long one for West Virginia now.

In the Mountaineers' first Big 12 season, they went 17-14 overall, 9-9 in the league and lost to Delaware in the NCAA tournament first round. They did that not only after navigating a new conference, but doing so without their standout center Asya Bussie, who had to redshirt 2012-13 with a knee injury.

Both she and her teammates made the best of that tough situation. Bussie focused her attention on watching and learning from the bench. Everybody else had a part in picking up the considerable void left by her absence on court.

"In the beginning, I was very depressed," Bussie acknowledged about her injury. "But my teammates and Coach Carey really helped me. I've had to turn it into a positive thing and work on my game, to get better. And go to graduate school."

Indeed, that is not an insignificant silver lining: Bussie already has her undergraduate degree. Plus, she went to "school" in watching basketball, since she couldn't play.

"I just had to turn around how I looked at things," Bussie said. "I learned to be more of a leader. I realized the coaches can only do so much from the bench; you need to be on the floor talking to your team. And I looked for other ways I would be able to score and help the team out when I came back. You see the game from a different view."

Caldwell says Bussie is also the one whom most of the other players go to for advice, so last year she provided that off the bench, too.

"She's a great leader, and she's a good listener," Caldwell said. "On the court, she draws so much attention from defenses, and she's very patient. Off the court, she works hard all the time and does the little things that not everybody does. She is someone you can go to talk to who will be there for you."

With Bussie out, Caldwell led the Mountaineers in scoring last season at 13.1 ppg. This year, their top scorer is sophomore Bria Holmes at 14.9 ppg. That's followed by three seniors in Bussie (12.9), Caldwell (12.2) and Taylor Palmer (10.5).

Asked if this is one of the deepest teams he has had in 13 seasons at West Virginia, Carey said it was, but added a qualifier.

"It's depth that is legit," he said. "I play a lot of kids all the time. But I think everybody this season can come in and have a good game for us. We normally play nine to 10 people every game. We developed our bench early."

This season actually started with kind of a hiccup, if you will: A 70-61 loss at home to Ohio State on Nov. 8. But the Mountaineers didn't lose again for two months, when Baylor defeated them Jan. 8 in Morgantown, W.Va., 78-62. Their only other loss was at Texas, 66-63, on Jan. 25.

Caldwell, though, is a tough critic. It was a game just a couple of weeks ago that solidified in her mind that the Mountaineers were truly a strong team.

"At Oklahoma -- the way we fought back," Caldwell said of West Virginia's 76-75 win in Norman on Feb. 13 after trailing by as much as 14. "We weren't playing like ourselves. It would have been easy to lie down and say, 'This game is over -- it's on their floor, we have a lot of people in foul trouble, we can't buy a basket.'

"But we didn't do that. We started to defend, and we came out with a win. It showed how much fight we have as a team."

Ah, defense. It wouldn't be a story about a Carey-coached team without talking about that. The defense's lynchpin, he said, is Bussie.

"A lot of people don't realize how good a defensive center she is," he said. "She's not one that's got a lot of lift, but she has really quick feet."

Bussie says bluntly of her defensive mindset: "I just don't like the other team to score."

In the earlier game with Baylor, one player did most of the scoring for the Lady Bears: Odyssey Sims had a career-high 48 points. So, of course, conversation about the rematch with Baylor starts with this: How do the Mountaineers try to slow down Sims this time?

"This is going to be strictly about defense," Caldwell said. "We have to be able to deny her touches. She is such a great player. If we are going to give ourselves a chance, you can't let her get the ball as much."

West Virginia will then end the regular season at home against Kansas on March 4. Then it's on to Oklahoma City, where the Mountaineers hope to make some noise in the Big 12 tournament.

"I think we have more confidence now; we've won a lot of big games," Bussie said. "We've learned how deep we are, and we are hungry."

For Caldwell, all the moves and adjustments have been worth it.

"It feels good as a senior to know that I've grown with this team," she said. "We've been through so much together. To be doing this well my last year is a great feeling."