- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Last year, Baylor won the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles, and all the league chatter heading into the NCAA tournament was about the Lady Bears. Then Texas A&M beat Baylor in the Elite Eight and ended up winning the national title.
This year, the Aggies are the defending champions. And all the Big 12 talk going into the NCAA tournament is about Baylor again. The Lady Bears repeated both their conference titles, the tournament crown coming after a 23-point spanking of the Aggies in the final last Saturday.
With that, Texas A&M essentially bid adieu to the Big 12; the school joins the SEC, along with Missouri, next school year. However, Gary Blair's program could add one last feather to the Big 12's cap with another Final Four appearance. This time, the Aggies won't have to go through Baylor to do that; both teams would have to make the national final to meet again.
But to get to Denver, Texas A&M might have to overcome the team it beat in last season's national championship game, Notre Dame, as they're both in the Raleigh region. But that's all a ways down the road.
First things first: The women's NCAA tournament begins Saturday; the No. 3 seed Aggies are hosting the early rounds and open against 14th-seeded Albany.
Texas A&M finished tied with Oklahoma for second in the Big 12, going 11-7 in league play. The Aggies lost twice to longtime rival Texas, whom they won't be playing again for the foreseeable future. One of those losses to the Longhorns was in the regular-season finale, when Texas could do no wrong and the Aggies could do little right.
Sure, Texas A&M lost post Danielle Adams and point guard Sydney Colson, who both graduated and moved to the WNBA. But with so much talent back -- including center Kelsey Bone, who sat out last season after transferring -- some might have expected the Aggies to be more of a consistent powerhouse this season.
Senior guard Sydney Carter explains what has bothered the Aggies, starting with what she felt like has been erratic play too often from herself.
"I feel like I took on so many different duties and felt I had to have all the pressure on me," Carter said. "And I kind of got overwhelmed because of those expectations that we had from winning a championship.
"It's definitely hard to defend it because you just feel that pressure that people are watching, and they expect you to win. We've too often been playing not to lose."
Indeed, but there are plenty of teams that would love to be in Texas A&M's shoes about this time next season -- at least the part about being defending champs. Yet Blair acknowledges this season has been a lot of work and not so enjoyable.
"It hasn't been fun," Blair said. "It's been more like every night you have to be at your best. Whether you're playing or coaching, signing an autograph, or doing a radio show or a speech. We've had to live with the SEC/Big 12 issue. We had our two kids going to the WNBA. I haven't even had a chance to sit down and watch the Stanford or Notre Dame games as a whole from the Final Four.
"I had to cancel the Alaskan cruise I first promised my wife 11 years ago, because our schedules were too busy. We're worn out physically and mentally, but we keep doing it. You keep going and going. When do you get a chance to enjoy it? I don't know."
Actually, that sounds a lot like what UConn's Geno Auriemma has voiced in the past: That winning an NCAA title brings a whole other set of responsibilities and expectations.
All that said, though, come on: Everyone still wants to be the champion.
Take Stanford, the No. 1 seed in the Fresno Regional. The Cardinal are shooting for their fifth consecutive Final Four and the program's first title since 1992. Coach Tara VanDerveer will gladly take whatever rat race follows winning a title these days versus another spring and summer of agonizing over being so close again.
In the Des Moines Regional, Baylor's Kim Mulkey has had her undefeated team embrace the favorite's role rather than be burdened by it. This season has been very different in that sense from the championship season of 2005, when the Lady Bears were a No. 2 seed, had lost three games and were considered just in the general mix of top contenders going into that NCAA tournament.
Last year, Baylor was certainly good enough to earn the program's second championship, but the Lady Bears were stopped by the team that had the most experience playing them in 2010-11, Texas A&M.
Just like Baylor and A&M did last season, Raleigh No. 1 seed Notre Dame and Kingston No. 1 UConn might meet four times this season. The Irish won the first two matchups and the Big East regular-season title; the Huskies won the third and the league tournament championship.
The Final Four hasn't had all four No. 1 seeds since 1989, but it could happen this year with the way those four teams -- Baylor, Notre Dame, UConn and Stanford -- have kept themselves on a plateau a bit above everyone else.
Is there a legitimate dark horse outside the top eight teams in the field that might win the title? Probably not. However, there could be some "different" names in the Sweet 16 or even Elite Eight. Such as Des Moines No. 3 seed Delaware or Raleigh No. 5 seed St. Bonaventure, the latter making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Texas A&M's Carter said what she has learned from this season-long lesson in dealing with prosperity is this: You must concentrate on not letting the success change how you play.
"It's important for me to be that spirited person I've always been," Carter said. "I've got to initiate more emotion out there and get people going. It's time to start playing the way we know we can play."
That could be said for everyone now.
13dBonnie D. Ford