Eight years ago, coach Bonnie Henrickson moved from Virginia Tech to Kansas –- and was given one of the largest salaries in the country at the time.
Naturally, immediate success was expected, but things didn’t quite go as smoothly as Henrickson or KU fans hoped. In fact, there were even rumblings along the way that maybe hiring Henrickson was a mistake, and that the move to the Big 12 was too big a jump.
But this year, even the harshest critics have had to back off, as the Jayhawks won their first seven games of the season. Currently ranked No. 17 in the nation, even in the brutal Big 12, are expected to be right at the top of the conference standings.
So what took so long?
First, the cupboard was bare when Henrickson arrived, as even though long-time coach Marian Washington is now in the Hall of Fame, the game had passed her by. Henrickson, in essence, was starting from ground zero, with not a lot of talent to build around.
And then, of course, there’s the Big 12 factor. The length of the rebuilding process “is a reflection of how tough the league is,” says Henrickson.
First, she says, there’s the talent level of the Big 12. This season, of course, there’s Brittney Griner, Odyssey Sims and Baylor, but over the years, the conference has produced national champions such as Texas A&M and tremendous talents such as Danielle Adams, Oklahoma's Paris twins and so many others.
Next, there’s the quality of coaching. Henrickson’s salary inspired other schools to step up, and now Kim Mulkey makes $1 million a season –- an unprecedented number not that long ago.
“That’s made me a better coach,” says Henrickson of the caliber of her competition. “It’s a challenge.”
Finally, there’s the environment on the road. Travel in the Pac-12, and except for Stanford, if there are more than 1,500 people in the stands in a cavernous arena, it’s a shock. “In the Big 12, you play against 6,000, 7,000, maybe even 11,000 fans every night,” says Henrickson. “For young kids, it’s tough.”
And if all that wasn’t enough, Henrickson and the Jayhawks were crushed by the bane of women’s basketball: the ACL tear. “We’ve had six ACLs to five different kids,” says Henrickson, “three of whom will play in the WNBA.”
Danielle McCray is already there, and current seniors Angel Goodrich (two ACLs) and Carolyn Davis are expected to be first-round picks in the spring. But when talented players like that go down, more is lost than just their skills and abilities –- the impact reverberates up and down the roster.
“Now you have to ask a kid off the bench ‘Hey, I need you to do what Angel does,’” says Henrickson –- and then another bench player moves up the rotation and has to do more as well.
On top of that, the injuries shake up the strategic system. “We had to change who we are offensively,” Henrickson says, “and that’s not easy to do when you find out on Monday, and you play Wednesday and Saturday.”
But so far, so good for Henrickson and the Jayhawks this year –- who are also a little better prepared to deal with injuries, major and minor. “When I got here, we were behind from a recruiting and talent standpoint,” she says. “Now, we’re more experienced and our depth is better. Our sophomore class is really producing.”
And so is Henrickson.
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Of course, Kansas isn’t alone in the AP top 25. Five other Big 12 teams are there, led by No. 3 Baylor, which just handled No. 5 Notre Dame, 73-61, in a rematch of last season's NCAA semifinal. Baylor -- and Griner -- got off to a slow start, but Skylar Diggins remains in a shooting slump, and despite the heroics of Irish freshman Jewell Lloyd, the Lady Bears took charge midway through the second half behind 24 and 14 from Griner and the return of Sims from a hamstring injury. Brooklyn Pope also had a big night (14 points, four boards, three assists off the bench), as she tends to do against Notre Dame.
Texas, who has a Top-25 match-up with No. 117/19 UCLA on the schedule today, and Oklahoma (who lost their lone Top 25 game thus far -- also to the Bruins -- on Nov. 14) are 12th and 13th in the AP poll, respectively, Oklahoma State weighs in at No. 16 and Iowa State ranks 22nd.
The SEC, long considered the standard by which other leagues are measured, has just three teams in the national rankings.
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It’s hard to keep track, so as a refresher, remember that Nebraska and Missouri are no longer in the Big 12, but Texas Christian and West Virginia have joined. (Colorado left for the Pac-12 what seems like ages ago … in 2011.)
The newcomers, though, must make the same kind of adjustments Bonnie Henrickson did. Of the conference’s overall seven losses, the Horned Frogs and Mountaineers account for four.