Big 12 about more than just Baylor
Lady Bears dominating as expected, but rest of league has had some surprises
One of the biggest certainties of the 2012 Big 12 season was known way back at the end of March 2011: Baylor would be a monster. As soon as Baylor's Elite Eight loss to Texas A&M in Dallas was over last spring, coach Kim Mulkey and her returning players were already looking toward avenging it with a run at the national championship this season.
So far, so good for No. 1-ranked Baylor, which on Saturday stayed perfect with a 76-41 dismissal of No. 22 Kansas State. On Wednesday, Baylor had paid back Texas Tech for its only 2011 regular-season loss to a Big 12 team, beating the No. 20 Lady Raiders 72-64.
Baylor, 19-0 overall and 6-0 in the Big 12, is trying to become the third team since the league began in 1996-97 to go through conference regular-season play unbeaten.
Oklahoma first did it with a huge freshman year by Courtney Paris in 2006 and then won the Big 12 tournament, as well. Nebraska did it with a senior-led team in 2010, but lost in the league tourney semifinals. The Huskers, of course, are now in their inaugural year in the Big Ten. Texas A&M and Missouri currently are in their last season in the Big 12 before exiting to the SEC.
Thus far in 2012 for the other Big 12 teams, facing Baylor has been a bit like having to swallow a couple spoonfuls of horrible-tasting medicine. Because even if you didn't feel sick going in, once Baylor is done with you, you will feel pretty under the weather after all.
The key, though, is to take that medicine and move on. Because while it seems highly unlikely any team except Baylor will finish atop the Big 12, how the rest of the standings will look when it's over is open to all kinds of guesses. While Baylor has done just as expected, the Big 12 also has had some surprises. Including in the Sunflower State, as Kansas and Kansas State are part of a four-way tie for second with Texas A&M and Oklahoma at 4-2.
That's no shock in regard to the Aggies and Sooners, who were picked in the preseason to finish second and fourth, respectively. But the Jayhawks were picked to finish seventh in the now 10-team league, and the Wildcats ninth.
It wasn't a very good past week for K-State, which got into the coaches' poll on Tuesday morning but lost that night at home to Oklahoma and then had to endure the drubbing in Waco. K-State hasn't beaten Oklahoma or Baylor since 2004, Nicole Ohlde's senior season in Manhattan, Kan.
Still, K-State has gotten road wins over Kansas and Texas Tech, and also defeated Texas A&M at home in Bramlage Coliseum for the second year in a row.
Kansas' two league losses are to K-State on Jan. 7 -- the Wildcats have been the Jayhawks' nemesis now for the past decade -- and to Texas A&M on Saturday. Both were at home in Lawrence, which might be perplexing to coach Bonnie Henrickson since her team has beaten Texas and Oklahoma State on the road.
Kansas' last trip to the NCAA tournament was in 2000. To put that in perspective, the Jayhawks lost their first-round game that year to Vanderbilt at early-round host school Louisiana Tech -- when Mulkey was in her final season as an assistant coach there.
The Jayhawks lost promising sophomore Keena Mays in December, as she opted to transfer, saying she wanted to be closer to her Texas home. It was bizarre, considering she had just entered KU's starting lineup and was coming off a couple of very good games.
The Jayhawks, led by juniors Carolyn Davis and Angel Goodrich and senior Aishah Sutherland, are 15-3 overall in Henrickson's eighth season in Lawrence. KU's NCAA prospects seem pretty good for now, and Henrickson's job might well depend on it.
Texas A&M's victory over KU was needed by the Aggies, who have won three in a row after seeing their 11-game victory streak against Texas end on Jan. 11. The defending national champions are still kind of finding their identity after the graduation of Sydney Colson and Danielle Adams, but it's coming along.
BIG 12 STANDINGS
A look at the top half of the standings in the Big 12 Conference (through Sunday's games).
The past week was a good one for Oklahoma, which rebounded from a loss to Oklahoma State on Jan. 14 with wins against K-State and Texas. The Sooners have been through the ringer with injuries, as guard Jasmine Hartman and center Lyndsey Cloman suffered ACL tears before the season. The latest casualty is the broken jaw of junior post Joanna McFarland, who was hurt in the loss to the Cowgirls.
Considering that OU also lost starters Danielle Robinson and Carlee Roethlisberger to graduation, coach Sherri Coale again has had her hands full moving around the chess pieces. But she's good at it, and the presence of her on-court surrogate in fierce resolve -- junior Whitney Hand -- definitely helps. So does having sophomore Aaryn Ellenberg, who leads the Sooners at 18.2 points per game.
Ellenberg had 18 points and seven rebounds Saturday against Texas, which continues to be the team nobody is really sure about game to game.
The Longhorns started the Big 12 slate with losses to Kansas and Oklahoma State, but then got the big win in its soon-to-end series with Texas A&M. But that lift didn't last long with a subsequent loss -- of the blowout variety -- to Baylor. The Longhorns needed a last-second shot by Yvonne Anderson to beat Iowa State 62-60 on Wednesday. In Saturday's loss to the Sooners, Texas' offense again struggled and was especially wounded by going 19-of-31 from the foul line.
Texas was picked to finish third in the league, but right now is tied for third from the bottom. Texas Tech is tied with the Longhorns at 2-4 in the Big 12. Tech was unbeaten -- but not very sternly tested by its schedule -- in nonconference play.
Texas Tech started the Big 12 season with two victories, but has since lost four in a row. The latest was Sunday: a 66-49 defeat at Iowa State, which won its first Big 12 game of 2012.
The Cyclones, picked to finish fifth, are now 1-5 and a step out of last place, which is left to 0-6 Missouri. Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly's battle with cancerous lesions on his vocal chords has left him unable to talk very much in a season in which he'd normally be doing a fair amount of yelling. Despite returning four starters, the absence of the one who graduated -- Kelsey Bolte -- has really been felt at Iowa State.
Missouri, which has never finished higher than fourth in the Big 12 and never made the Big 12 tourney title game, was picked to finish last. So, like Baylor, the Tigers are fulfilling expectations, much as they wish they weren't.
(While there's no present indication Missouri will fare any better in the SEC, the Tigers might not do significantly worse, either. That's because it's hard to get a lot worse than four trips to the NCAA tournament in the last 25 years, which is what Missouri has had in the previous quarter-century of Big 12/Big Eight play.)
Finally, we salute Oklahoma State, which of course endured the most painful thing any team in the country has this season: the deaths of head coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna in a November plane crash.
A team with no seniors, Oklahoma State is 11-4 overall and 3-3 in the Big 12. OSU's most emotional victory came against a group of Sooners who are not only the Cowgirls' biggest rivals but, poignantly, also their closest friends among their opponents.
The entire OU team came from Norman to attend the memorial service for Budke and Serna at Gallagher-Iba Arena on Nov. 21. And as hard as the Sooners battled to win the game there in Stillwater on Jan. 14, their congratulatory handshakes and hugs afterward were heartfelt.
Former assistant Jim Littell has been named head coach, the interim tag removed, and he has kept the Cowgirls respectfully focused on the tasks in front of them. Freshman forward Liz Donohoe, at 14.2 points per game, is currently the top-scoring rookie in the Big 12. Sophomore guard Tiffany Bias is averaging 11.4 points and 7.5 assists, second in the league only to Kansas' Goodrich at 7.7.
And so there is the tour through the league dominated by the green giant, but still wide-open for everything other than first place. The scheduling matrix that divided the North and South teams for the league's first 15 seasons is gone, and instead there's a full home-and-home round robin that might be more "fair" but is also pretty brutal.
Baylor, with the return this past week of guard Shanay Washington after she'd been out since early last season with a knee injury, seems to just keep getting stronger.
The remainder of the season, though, could be a roller-coaster test of strength for the rest of the Big 12.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
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