As the Big 12 enters year 1 AG (after Griner) it does so as a league that, for the first time in years, has no clear-cut favorite. The conference as a whole looks less powerful than it has in the past as it has no teams without major question marks. Oklahoma looks to be the front-runner, but the Sooners are a team with several significant limitations. The Cowgirls return a balanced squad. Baylor returns the league’s best player and some talented youngsters. If those players grow up quickly, the Bears could add another league championship to their resume. And the rest of the pack could threaten on any given night in a league about to witness a greater parity of competition than this conference has seen in quite some time.
1 Oklahoma (24-11, 11-7 tied-3rd)
Oklahoma stands out as the most experienced squad in a league in which many teams will lack seasoning. Coach Sheri Coale returns four of her top five scorers as well as several veterans coming off injuries.
The 2012 Sooners did one thing very well, one thing very badly and one fairly poor. In league games, they scored a conference second-best 71.3 points a game, but they gave up 71.4, which ranked ninth of the 10 teams in the league. Outboarded by 2.1 a game, the Sooners also finished in the basement (seventh) in rebounding margin.
That last category could prove to be the downfall for OU's hopes this year, as rebounding is an area where the Sooners look to have gotten worse, not better. The now-graduated Joanna McFarland grabbed over 25 percent of the team’s rebounds, and there is no one on the roster who looks capable of replicating her numbers. Six-six Nicole Griffin returns to start at center, but she has never averaged even five rebounds a game.
In the plus column, this should be a team with plenty of firepower. Five-seven guard Aaryn Ellenberg, who led the team in scoring last season with 18.7 points a game, returns to lead the team. The Sooners are traditionally a strong 3-point shooting team and Ellenberg, who hit 41 percent of her six attempts a game last season, is one of the better 3-point shooters around. Lending her support will be Griffin, who averaged 11.3 points, and guard Sharane Campbell, who put up 10 per game. Also back from last season's starting five is 5-10 guard Morgan Hook, who averaged just shy of 10 points per game (9.9) while passing out an average of more than five assists.
|The Sooners will count on senior guard and leading scorer Aaryn Ellenberg to take them to the top of the Big 12 standings this season. (Photo courtesy University of Oklahoma)|
Another question for the Sooners will be depth. While the starting rotation boasts an abundance of senior leadership, the bench will consist primarily of untested freshmen -- guards Gioya Carter (5-9), T'ona Edwards (5-5), and Derica Wyatt (5-10) and 6-2 forwards Shaya Kellogg and Felisha Gibbs, supplemented by 6-3 forward Kaylon Williams, a redshirt sophomore. Coale has been hit by the injury bug in recent seasons and with so little tested talent available to replace key players, keeping her starters healthy could be her biggest obstacle to winning her seventh Big 12th championship in her 19 years as Oklahoma head coach.
Oklahoma looks to be the favorite but they must tighten up their defense and beef up their rebounding. If they do neither, they will likely be surpassed by more complete teams.
2 Oklahoma State (22-11, 9-9, tied 5th)
If Oklahoma stumbles during the season, look for in-state rival Oklahoma State to jump in and take the top spot. The Cowgirls were the league’s most balanced team last season, and this year's squad returns four starters buttressed by a strong recruiting class.
While four starters return, the one who didn’t is a huge loss. Toni Young, who led the team in both scoring (16 ppg) and rebounding (10.1 rbg), was a first-round WNBA draft pick last spring and leaves a large hole in the Cowgirls' lineup. But it appears that coach Jim Littell has the players to fill the scoring void. Three of the four returning starters averaged double figures last season -- 6-0 forward Liz Donohoe (15), 5-6 guard Tiffany Bias (12) and 6-0 guard Brittney Martin (10.1) and the fourth, 6-1 center Kendra Suttles, averaged 9.7 points a game.
The main weakness in the 2012 team was a lack of depth. For much of the season, Littell used a rotation of only six players. This season the team adds eight freshmen and a junior college transfer. From that group and the three other returnees who played minimal minutes last season, the Cowgirls will have to find three or four who can contribute significant minutes.
While Littell should have little problem replacing Young's lost points from the group as a whole, rebounding could be an issue. None of the returnees averaged more than 6.2 boards per game, and with the undersized Suttles holding down the middle, Littell will need a commitment from every member of the team to go hard to the boards.
The 2012 Cowgirl squad ranked in the upper half of the league in every major statistical category and, apart from rebounding, there is no reason to think they will slip in any area this year. This is a balanced squad that simply doesn’t have the talent of Oklahoma. That talent disparity will likely keep them out of first place, but the Cowgirls have proven to the nation that they have no shortage of heart, and if the Sooners underachieve, OSU will likely be the main beneficiary.
3 Baylor (34-2, 18-0, 1st)
After four years with Brittany Griner in the lineup, coach Kim Mulkey will be starting from close to scratch in 2013. Beyond her impressive numbers, Griner affected every aspect of the game. Without her, the Bears will have to find an identity and learn to play without one of the most dominating players in college history. But in some respects, Griner was so dominant that many forget just how much else Baylor has lost to graduation: two-thirds of the Bears' starting backcourt -- Jordan Madden and Kimetria Hayden -- are gone, as 6-1 post Brooklyn Pope, who started in more than two-thirds of Baylor's games and contributed 10.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per outing. Also gone is 6-1 forward Destiny Williams, who was typically first off the bench and accounted for 8.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
Baylor begins its 2013-14 campaign with only one player with significant experience, but that player is special. Five-eight senior guard Odessey Sims was named an All-American last season after averaging 12.9 points and almost six assists a game. Frequently mentioned as a front-runner for this year's National Player of the Year honors, Sims will be counted on to be the team’s primary scorer this season and could move from the point to spending time at both shooting guard and small forward.
After Sims little is certain. Mulkey returns her daughter, 5-9 guard Mackenzie Robertson, as well as 6-2 forward Mariah Chandler, a redshirt senior, and 6-4 post Sune Agbuke, a junior. Of the three, only Robertson saw significant minutes (10.3 per game) and none contributed more than 2.3 points per outing. The remaining nine of the 13 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores. With the lone exceptions of sophomores Alexis Prince and Niya Johnson, who averaged roughly 13-14 minutes apiece off the bench, but contributed only 5.1 and 1.8 points per game respectively, no one on this year's roster has played more than mop-up minutes in the Big 12.
Mulkey is an excellent recruiter so she has plenty of talent on her team, but most of the talent is unproven. Of the newcomers, the most likely to make an immediate contribution would be 5-9 guard Imani Wright, a WBCA All-American, and 6-0 guard Ieshia Small, a McDonald's All-American and potential match-up nightmare who was picked as preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year. How quickly they, and the rest of their freshman classmates, prove themselves will determine the Bears success this year and the team is likely to be much better at the end of the season than at the beginning.
4 Texas (12-18, 5-13, tied - 9th)
In her first season at the Longhorns helm, coach Karen Aston endured growing pains, transition pains and general pains. She should start getting paid back on all counts this season. She returns all the players who played regularly last year and adds a strong freshman class.
The 2012 squad was weak offensively, decent on defense and strong on the boards. With all players returning and a year under Aston’s direction, this year's edition of the Longhorns should be better in all areas. The strength of last year's team was its post game, and that should remain the case. Six-one Nneka Enemkpali, now a junior, was second on the team in scoring with 13 points a game on 46.2-percent shooting. She also added 9.4 rebounds and almost one block a game. She was joined in the frontcourt by 6-7 Imani McGee-Stafford who shot 48.3 percent to average 11.1 points a game to go with 9.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks a game in her freshman campaign. They will be joined by 6-5 freshmen Kelsey Lang who shows strong potential. Those three should give Texas the strongest post game in the league.
|Six-seven Imani McGee-Stafford will help anchor what is likely to be the Big 12's most powerful post game. (Photo courtesy Texas Athletics Media Relations)|
The backcourt returns a trio of starters who did not shoot the ball well last year. Chassidy Fussell led the team in scoring at 14.2 points but shot only 38.7 percent from the field. Fussell was the Horns' only real 3-point threat but she knocked down only 30.8 percent of her six attempts a game. Also back are guards Empress Davenport and Celina Rodrigo, both sophomores, who will share duties at the point this season. Davenport started in 27 of the 29 games in which she played last season, averaging 8.3 points but demonstrating freshman ballhandling woes, with an upside-down assist-to-turnover ratio of 59:72. Rodrigo started in 23 out of her 30 games last year, averaging only 2.2 points, but proving herself the more adept ballhandler, with an ATO of 111:80.
The Longhorns should be the league’s most improved team. How far they go, however, will likely depend on how much the perimeter improves. This is still a young team, with Fussell the only senior likely to play major minutes, so the future looks good in Austin.
5 West Virginia (17-14, 9-9, tied-5th)
There are many skills necessary to play good basketball. Some are more important than others, but few matter as much as the ability to shoot the ball. It was in this area that the 2012 Mountaineers fell short. They ranked seventh in the Big 12 in field-goal percentage, fifth in 3-point shooting and dead last in free-throw shooting. They return four starters this year, and their success will depend largely in how much individual improvement those returnees have made over the summer.
That improvement must begin with last year's leading scorer, 5-9 guard Christal Caldwell, who returns as a senior. Caldwell led the team with 13.1 points a game but shot only 34.5 percent from the field. Caldwell also took 159 more shots than any other player on the team. If West Virginia wants to move up in the league, they cannot afford to have someone who shoots that poorly shoot as much as Caldwell did last year. Backcourt running mate Taylor Palmer, also a senior, is the second leading returning scorer at 9.9 points a game, but, again, she shot only 36.4 percent from the floor. The only returnee who has proven to be a decent shooter is 6-1 forward Averee Fields, who shot 44.4 percent en route to a 7.8-point-per-game average.
|Leading scorer Christal Caldwell will have to improve her marksmanship if the Mountaineers are to move up in the standings this season. (Photo courtesy WVU Photo Services)|
What West Virginia does bring to the table is experience. There are only two true freshmen on the roster -- 6-4 center Lubirdia Gordon and 6-1 forward Teana Muldrow -- but neither looks likely to play significant minutes.
The Mountaineers were a decent, but not exceptional, defensive team and they aren’t good enough defensively to overcome their shooting woes. At this level, it is not easy to teach a player to shoot significantly better, but coach Mike Carey and his staff will have to succeed at that across the board if his team is to improve its record.
6 Iowa State (24-9, 13-2, 2nd)
Under Bill Fennelly, the Cyclones have become known for a simple style of offense. They shoot threes. Lots of them, many from far behind the 3-point arc. Last season, the Cyclones attempted 23 treys a game despite the fact that their posts each took 10 or more shots a game. Those posts represent the main losses to graduation, and with a return to a four-guard offense the likely result, look for the Cyclones to shoot even more from long range this season.
Despite Iowa State's reliance on the three-ball, its post players had developed into keys to the team last year. Gone are Chelsea Poppins and Anna Prins, both honorable mention All-Americans, who combined for 25 points and 15 rebounds a game. They will be sorely missed. Six-three Hallie Christopherson, a 2012 first-team all-Big 12 selection, will move from the perimeter to the inside but she will continue to step out and shoot the three.
The two post players are likely to be replaced in the starting lineup by a pair of freshmen guards, 5-8 Jadda Buckley and 5-10 Seanna Johnson. Buckley is the more heralded of the two and is a proven 3-point shooter. Returning to round out the starting five will be 5-8 guard Nikki Moody (8.4 ppg) and 5-11 wing Brynn Williamson (8.3 ppg), both juniors who will need to up their games considerably if they are to replace the firepower lost to graduation, as will 5-7 sophomore guard Nicole ("Kidd") Blaskowsky, who was typically first off the bench last year, averaging 8.3 points per game.
This leaves the Cyclones seriously undersized and vulnerable in the post should Christopherson fall victim to injury or foul troubles. Apart from Christofferson, the Iowa State roster boasts only two players who stand more than six feet -- 6-4 sophomore forward/center Madison Baier and 6-2 freshman forward Jordan Jensen. Baier is nearly as inexperienced as Jensen, having seen action in only 13 games last season and averaging only 4.7 minutes and 0.5 points per game.
The Cyclones run a half-court offense that limits opponents’ possessions, and are a strong defensive team. But last season, they were also a strong rebounding team, an advantage that will be difficult to replicate with this year's smaller lineup. Still, Fennelly is a proven winner with a proven system. The holes in the Cyclones' post game should keep them in the lower middle tier of the conference standings, but this is a team that would be overlooked at one's peril. They are capable of winning a game or two they’re not expected to when they prove to be exceptionally hot from long range.
7 Kansas State (19-18, 5-13, 8th)
The 2012 Kansas State season was marred by injuries and generally poor play. Coach Deb Patterson had to play the second half of the season with only six or seven players, none of whom was over six-feet tall. This season the roster includes five freshmen and four players returning from injury. The first challenge for this group will be replacing Brittany Chambers, who averaged 21 points and 7.6 rebounds last season.
The key returnee is 5-7 guard Haley Texada whose 11.8-point average was second on the team to Chambers. Besides Texada, the team will depend largely on freshmen. At least three, perhaps four, freshman will start. Five-eight guard Kindred Wesemann is the highest ranked freshman in her class and will be counted on to provide immediate offense. A pair of freshmen post players, 6-3 Erica White and 6-5 Breanna Lewis, will likely start in the post. The Wildcats were one of the weakest rebounding teams in the league last season and those two will have to learn quickly to compete with the always-physical posts in the Big 12.
|The Wildcats' young roster will look to Haley Texada for leadership this season. (Photo Courtesy K-State Athletic Communications)|
Traditionally Kansas State has been a first division team that is a regular participant in the NCAA tournament. If they are to get to the Big Dance this season, their freshmen will have to grow up fast.
8 TCU (9-21, 2-16, 10th)
In 2012, the Horned Frogs did not enjoy a warm welcome to the Big 12 as they struggled to find any wins during what turned out to be a long inaugural season in their new conference. Coach Kevin Mittie brought an inexperienced team into the Big 12 and it showed. In 2012-13 TCU scored fewer points and shot the ball worse than any other team in league play.
But most of those players are back with a year of seasoning under their belts, and they will complemented by a strong freshmen class. Four starters return, including the top two scorers, Zahna Medley (12.9 ppg) and Natalie Ventress (11.3 ppg), and the leading rebounder, Latricia Lovings (9.0 rbg). Mittie will count heavily on his returnees, as well as 6-6 freshman center Klara Bradshaw. If Bradshaw can make a major contribution in the middle, it will help this team's offense tremendously. TCU was outrebounded by 10.1 boards a game last season, a league worst. Bradshaw will be counted on to improve that number as well.
Defensively, the Horned Frogs were decent and this year's more experienced roster should allow for further improvement in that department.
Mittie is a veteran coach who is a proven winner. It’s going to take him time to field a competitive team in the Big 12, but he should take another baby step this year.
9 Kansas (20-14, 8-10, 7th)
Jayhawk coach Bonnie Henrickson rode a trio of players to three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances in recent years. But those three, Carolyn Davis, Angel Goodrich and Monica Engelman, are now gone and they leave a gaping hole in the Kansas roster.
Kansas was third in the league in points scored last season, but it’s difficult to see where all those points will come from this year. The two returning starters will be counted on to step up and increase their scoring significantly. Junior forward Chelsea Gardner (6-3) averaged 8.7 points and a team-high 6.9 rebounds, and 5-7 junior guard Natalie Knight added 8.3 points before tearing her ACL in January. It appears that the rest of the offense will come from returning relievers; Henrickson has added five freshmen but none seems ready to step in and contribute. Among the most likely upperclassmen to make a difference is 6-1 junior guard Asia Boyd, who averaged a little over 13 minutes per game last year, and was good for 4.2 points, 2.4 rebounds and 0.8 assists per game. But Boyd had several breakout games that demonstrated her potential to do considerably more, and her team will need her to take it up a notch this season.
If the Jayhawks struggle offensively, they will need to depend on their defense and that is going to be a problem. In 2012, Kansas was, if not the worst, close to the worst defensive team in the league. Given the lack of experience, it’s difficult to see where much defensive improvement will come from.
The Jayhawks finished seventh last year, even with their three key players in place. It will be difficult for them to match even that this season.
10. Texas Tech (21-10, 11-7, tied-3rd)
After struggling for her first six seasons in the Big 12, Kristy Curry took a senior-dominated team to her best record at the school last year. And then she left. New coach Candi Whitaker takes over a roster of largely unproven players. Five of her 11 players are freshmen, and the only starter returning is 6-0 senior forward Kelsi Baker, who averaged 10.6 points and 5.6 rebounds a game last season.
Freshmen guards Jasmine Caston, Minta Spears and Diamond Lockhart are all likely starters and will make up three quarters of Whitaker’s four-guard lineup. Only 6-3 post Shauntal Nobles, a redshirt senior, provides height for the team. Nobles averaged 2.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in 12.6 minutes last year. She is the only player who stands more than six feet who is likely to get minutes. Six-five senior center Haley Schneider's career high is four points; younger sister Kellyn, also 6-5, has had better moments, but averaged just 1.6 points and 1.3 rebounds a game last year. Beyond that, the well is dry.
Given their youth and lack of height, it will be difficult for the Raiders to compete in the physical Big 12 this season. Whitaker has a nice freshman class to build around, but the dividends are not likely to be seen for another year or two.
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