Anyone who thought that the days of Baylor's dominance in the Big 12 would be gone as fast as the departure of Brittney Griner and about 80 percent of the Lady Bears' firepower from Waco have been proven quite mistaken as the 2013-14 season has unrolled. Baylor remains the Big 12's Big Kahuna, the league's regular-season champs (an honor which it shares with West Virginia), the No. 1 seed, and the clear favorite to add yet another piece of championship hardware to its trophy case at the end of this year's conference tournament, which tips off conference tournament tips off Friday evening at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.
But this year, Baylor is neither invulnerable nor unbeaten. Though its 26-4, 12-2 record is pretty impressive (and a real testament to just how good Odyssey Sims is, even without Griner on the receiving end of her passes), both Kansas and West Virginia have demonstrated that an upset of the central Texas powerhouse is possible, and for that matter, a third conference opponent, Oklahoma State took the Bears to extra minutes before falling, 69-66, in overtime.
So even though a Baylor repeat is probable, it is not inevitable. And besides the league championship itself, there's a lot on the line that makes this year's event well worth watching. (All tournament games will be carried on one of several Fox Sports affiliates.)
What's on the Line? Besides an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament (not a real issue for either of them), regular-season co-champions Baylor and West Virginia could use a tournament title as an argument for a possible NCAA one-seed, especially if South Carolina is unable to win in the SEC. A tournament win for Baylor would help avenge an excruciating loss to West Virginia on Sunday. A victory for West Virginia would be a welcome follow-up to the Mountaineers' late-season surge and would surely earn them some national recognition in an atmosphere controlled by the reigning powers (Connecticut, Stanford and Notre Dame). If neither school gets a one-seed, winning the tournament should secure at the least a two-seed.
Oklahoma State could parlay a Big 12 tournament win into renewed vigor. After winning 17 of their first 18 games, the Cowgirls fell into something of a slump characterized by an alternating pattern of wins and losses, and even the victories in the second stretch were not very convincing. They are all but assured a ticket to the Big Dance, and are dynamic enough to be a sleeper among the bracket picks, but if they hope to go deep, they must return to their early season consistency.
The six schools who earned first-round byes in Oklahoma City are likely candidates for at-large NCAA bids, but Iowa State and Oklahoma are still riding the bubble and could be angst-ridden come Selection Monday should they fail to make a statement in the Big 12 tourney. And, of course, for the teams from the middle to the bottom of the conference pack, this weekend's conference tournament presents a winner-take-all scenario if they hope to extend their seasons.
First Round: Friday, March 8
No. 8 Kansas (12-17, 5-12) v. No. 9 Kansas State (11-18, 5-13) -- - 6 p.m. CST/7 p.m. EST (FCS)
If tournament seeds were based on surprises, Kansas would be a front-runner. After falling to the Lady Bears by 20 points in Waco, the Jayhawks scored a huge 76-60 upset just two weeks later on Jan. 19 when Baylor visited Lawrence. Kansas is talented enough to compete with the bulk of the conference pack, but this young (just two seniors) squad's lack of experience is evident in its inability to close out games: The Jayhawks went 5-11 in contests decided by 10 points or less.
Kansas lost some firepower after point guard Angel Goodrich turned pro last season. CeCe Harper took her place and ranks fourth in the conference in assists at 5.4 per game, including a double-double (14 points, 10 assists) in Saturday's 79-87 loss to Iowa State and 19 points against West Virginia (60-67) on Tuesday. Harper is not a true point guard, though, and the lack of one can be cited as the cause of some of the Jayhawks' mishaps.
Kansas will bring a ferocious post game, backed by Chelsea Gardner. The 6-3 junior forward leads the Big 12 with 13 double-doubles and holds a top-five spot in points (16.6 ppg), rebounds (6.3 rbg), field-goal percentage (.567) and blocks (1.9 bpg). No matter how many defenders converge on her position, Gardner's superior hand-eye coordination helps her find ways to score. Send too many down low, and Natalie Knight can make defenders pay from the three-point line. Knight's 42.8 percent accuracy from beyond the arc is second in the Big 12.
Despite that 5-13 conference record, in-state rival Kansas State has two upsets to its credit, having earned wins over Iowa State (80-74) and Oklahoma (86-78) at home, but its total offense is ninth in the conference while its defense ranks eighth. Highlighting the Wildcats is freshman Leticia Romero, a native of Spain. The 5-8 guard is dynamic enough to create plays for herself as well as her teammates, leading the team with 14.2 points per game, while doling out more than 4.7 assists per contest. But there are few options if she is neutralized, as has been known to happen: Romero scored just five points on 2-of-8 shooting in Monday night's 46-51 loss to TCU.
Prediction: The Jayhawks and Wildcats split their regular-season series, with each game decided by nearly identical single-digit margins. Kansas is inexperienced, but possess more versatility. Kansas State's upset wins were the result of higher than average scoring, an unreliable path to victory. Slight edge to the Jayhawks, who would relish another shot at Baylor.
Game Two: No. 7 TCU (17-13, 8-10) vs. No. 10 Texas Tech (6-23, 0-18) -- 8:30 p.m. CST/9:30 p.m. EST (FCS)
With a new head coach and no returning starters on this year's team, Texas Tech is considered to be in a rebuilding phase. Tech failed to win a single conference game this season, and rank dead last in the league in both offense and defense. They did cause a pair of scares, however, forcing overtime in a meeting with Iowa State (76-85, OT) and falling a single point short against Oklahoma State (62-63) on Feb. 23, so they could conceivably become a spoiler if they could just establish some degree of continuity. Junior guard Amber Battle represents a bright spot, ranking 6th in the conference in scoring at 16.2 points per game.
Texas Christian has a winning overall record (although not enough to get an at-large NCAA bid), but they're in the red in Big 12 outcomes. The Horned Frogs' strength lies in their defense, an extended 2-3 zone, anchored by 6-3 senior center Latricia Lovings. The Horned Frogs rank second in the conference in scoring defense and hold the 22nd spot in the nation in that category. Lovings leads the Big 12 in blocks with 3.9 per game (third in the country), and her 8.0 rebounds per game is good for fifth. Get past her, and you may have to deal with junior forward Chelsea Prince, who ranks third in the conference in steals at 2.1 per contest.
If TCU can make it out of the first round, it has potential to shake up the Big 12 order. The Frogs lost both regular-season meetings with West Virginia, but only by a combined total of eight points.
TCU's offense, which ranks eighth in the conference, is less harrowing. Sophomore guard Zahna Medley leads the Frogs, and ranks fifth in the Big 12, in scoring at 16.4 points per game, and junior guard Natalie Ventress can be counted on for another 11.5, but beyond that there's no one who averages as many as eight points per outing, and in this conference, that just isn't going to get the job done.
Prediction: TCU swept Texas Tech in the regular-season series without any significant threat (65-54, 72-57) and its defense should put a choke on Texas Tech a third time.
Quarterfinals: Saturday, March 8
Game Three: No. 4 Oklahoma State (22-7, 11-7) v. No. 5 Iowa State (20-9, 9-9) -- 11 a.m. CST/12 Noon EST (FSN)
Oklahoma State started out strong, going undefeated in preconference play against a respectable schedule. Once the Big 12 season got under way, however, the wins, while still plentiful, began to get harder to come by. The Cowgirls suffered losses to most of the league's elite teams, including two at the hands of West Virginia (67-71, 45-77), one at home to Iowa State (69-86), though they narrowly defeated the Cyclones on the road in Jan. (69-62), and one @Texas in the regular-season finale (68-75), though they also managed to split the series with the 'Horns, winning the home game 67-61 in the conference season opener.
The Cowgirls have gone won only four of their last nine contests, and even then had to claw out two of those "W"s by paper-thin margins @Texas Tech (63-62) and, somewhat more generously, against Kansas State (67-62), to close out the season. Translation: There's little momentum heading into the tournament, where a rough performance could permeate the Stillwater campus with doubt on NCAA Tournament Selection Day.
Still, OSU has the talent to get the job done. Fronting the team is 5-6 senior Tiffany Bias, who has started at point guard throughout her college career. A potential first-round WNBA draft pick, Bias holds the school record for most career assists and ranks second in the Big 12 this season with 6.1 assists per game. Her combination of speed, leadership and vision makes her a consistent threat.
Other players to watch include two sophomores -- 6-0 forward Liz Donohoe and 6-0 guard guard Brittney Martin (a match-up nightmare who leads the Big 12 in steals (2.3 spg) -- each of whom averages 11.7 points per game. The two also lead the team in on the glass, pulling down 6.4 and 7.9 (the latter good for fifth place on the Big 12 rebounding leaderboard) rebounds per game, respectively. Down low, the Cowgirls have Lashawn Jones, a 6-3 junior who shoots an efficient, and team-best, 53.2 percent from the floor, but who doesn't seem to pull the trigger often enough, averaging just nine points per game.
Iowa State reached No. 11 in the national polls before hitting a slump, losing seven of nine games, four of them back-to-back, and plummeting out of the AP rankings entirely, though they linger at No. 21 in the Coaches' Poll. Winning four of their last five games, the lone loss coming to Baylor (54-70) in the regular-season finale, helped shore things up a bit, and their early-season work, plus a substantial RPI (35) will put them in good shape for an NCAA bid and a reasonable seeding, especially if they do well this week in Oklahoma City. They're not a solid lock quite yet, however, and a major stumble in the tournament could see them flirting with an invitation to the WNIT or a dangerously low NCAA seed.
The Cyclones' chances lie with their perimeter shooting; they lead the conference in three-point makes, averaging about nine longballs per game. They hit 15 in an upset win over Oklahoma State (86-69) on Feb. 26. Iowa State can also kill an opponent at the free-throw line: Their league-best 80.4-percent shooting at the penalty stripe can also strike opposing teams from the free-throw line, hitting 80.4 percent, second in the nation only to Saint Joseph's (80.9 %). In last Saturday's 87-79 win over Kansas, Iowa State missed just once in 18 attempts at the line.
Six-three senior forward Hallie Christofferson is the Cyclones' catalyst. A finalist for the Wade Trophy and Wooden Award (and a midseason candidate for the Naismith Trophy), Christofferson's 18.5 points per game ranks third in the Big 12. What makes Iowa State even more scary are the players who supplement Christofferson's game: Three other double-digit scorers -- junior guard Nicky Moody (12.7 ppg), 5-8 freshman guard Jadda Buckey (11 ppg) and undersized freshman wing Seanna JohnsonSeanna Johnson (10.6 ppg) - give the Cyclones plenty of firepower and make it difficult for defenders to simply collapse on Christofferson. The two frosh are already making noise in the conference: Buckley leads the Big 12 in three-point shooting, making 44 percent of her shots. Johnson ranks fourth in the conference with 8.1 rebounds per game, ahead of Christofferson's 7.3 average.
Defense, hower, is a weak point for the Cyclones who rank last in the Big 12 in steals, eighth in blocks, and sixth in scoring defense, giving up 64.6 points per game to opponents.
Prediction: These teams split their regular-season series, with each winning its road game. In the first of their meetings, @Iowa State in early Jan., the game was reasonably close, with OSU heading home with a 69-62 "W" in its column. The second meeting, just 10 days ago in Stillwater turned into a 17-point (86-69) rout in favor of the visits. The Cowgirls may still feel the effects of allowing 15 triples by the Cyclone sharpshooters, and if Iowa State finds its perimeter shot again this Saturday, that, and ISU's plethora of offensive options could be too much for Bias and company to contain. With Oklahoma State sputtering as the Cowgirls enter the postseason, the advantage goes to Iowa State.
Game Four: No. 1 Baylor (26-4, 16-2) v. Game One Winner (Kansas v. Kansas State) -- 1:30 p.m. CST/2:30 p.m. EST (FSN)
Most teams that lose their centerpiece to graduation go through some turbulence the following year. On paper, at least, Baylor should have been one of those schools, after losing 70 percent of its offense from last season, including Brittney Griner.
Instead, Odyssey Sims has spent the entire season making fools of speculators who suggested the Lady Bears would head into hibernation this year. Joining the 2,000-point club this season, the 2014 Big-12 Player of the Year and Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award winner more than doubled her scoring from last year to lead the country with nearly 30 points per game, including 47 in a quadruple-overtime loss to Kentucky. The likely lottery pick of this year's WNBA Draft, Sims ignites Baylor's fast-break game, exploiting opponents who relax too quickly after scoring a basket. Sims will sometimes force unnecessary shots, but if Baylor needs a rapid-fire scorer or emotional jolt, the Texas native can deliver on both.
New threats have also emerged from Kim Mulkey's group. Freshman forward Nina Davis, recently crowned Big 12 Freshman of the Year, has been sensational, leading the conference in rebounds (9.0 per game) and field-goal percentage (.596). Her field-goal shooting ranks seventh in all of Division I women's basketball, and she relieved a struggling Sims with 26 points in Tuesday's win over Iowa State.
Mulkey's daughter, Makenzie Robertson, has spent most of her career riding the Baylor bench, but moving into the starting lineup, has emerged as a player in this her senior year. Robertson might not put a lot of points on the scoreboard (7.5 ppg), though she has been known to explode for double figures. But playing alongside Sims, scoring is not what the Lady Bears need most from Robertson, who carries a high defensive IQ and enough of a three-point shot (35.6 percent on 135 long-range attempts thus far this season) to keep opposing defenses honest. Filling out the starting backcourt lineup and fueling Baylor's offense, which ranks third in the NCAA, is another role player, Niya Johnson, who averages just 4.5 points per game but leads the conference in assists (6.5 apg) and has an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.8:1.
Baylor won't know who to strategize for until late Friday night, but if regular-season marks are applied, they will likely hope for Kansas State, whom they pummeled in both meetings (92-63, 71-48). Kansas, on the other hand, leveraged accurate shooting and frequent trips to the free-throw linepulled into a 76-60 upset over Baylor in Lawrence. Though the Lady Bears gave the Jayhawks tit-for-tat in a 75-55 rout in Waco, Kansas is less likely to stand in awe of the Big 12 powerhouse now that it know its A-game is good enough to beat Baylor.
Prediction: Sims accounts for more than 35 percent of Baylor's firepower. The freshman Davis provides the next 16.8 percent of the offense. But after that, things drop off sharply, with no other double-digit scorer on the roster and only a few who can be counted on for as many as six-to-seven points per game. So do you multi-team Sims and try to force the rest of the Bears to beat you? Or do you clamp down on the role players and try to make Sims do it all on her own? Opponents have tried both options and only a handful have met with any success whatsoever. However, to the extent that anything has worked at all, the latter option seems to have met with more success. Very few teams in the country have the talent required to defend Sims, whether one-on-one or by committee. However, in each of Baylor's four losses this season, Sims attempted at least twice as many field goals as any of her teammates.
That said, one can't forget about Davis, who led all players in both scoring (26 points) and shot attempts (19, to Sims's 16) in this Tuesday's 70-54 win over Iowa State, one of the better teams in the league. And in the Bears' 69-66 overtime win against Oklahoma State in late January, it was Robertson who came up big with a game-high 18 points to go with along with Sims's 17 and Davis's 16. So Baylor does have other scoring options, even though it doesn't often have to use them. Limiting the dimensions of the Lady Bears is an easy concept to brainstorm, but difficult to execute against a school with such a high comprehension of postseason stakes. Baylor should advance out of the quarterfinal round over either prospective opponent.
Game Five: No. 2 West Virginia (27-3, 16-2) v. Game Two Winner (Texas Christian v. Texas Tech) -- 6 p.m. CST/7 p.m. EST (FSN)
West Virginia enters the tournament riding a 10-game winning streak and having forced a share of the regular-season Big 12 title by beating Baylor, 71-69, on the road Sunday. That victory, by the slimmest of margins, was secured that victory thanks to some timely three-pointers and a clutch drive by Averee Fields after Asya Bussie and Bria Holmes fouled out. Although the Mountaineers might rather have replicated the 16-point thumping (62-78) they experienced at the hands of the Bears in Morgantown earlier in the season, their signature win at Waco was a testament to the tenacity of the West Virginia defense, which gave up only 57.8 points per game this season.
There are no clear-cut stars on Carey's team, but because of that, many fail to appropriately value the contributions each role player makes to her team. West Virginia exerts length, depth and athleticism. Six-four center Bussie bounced back in a big way after missing her junior season with an ACL tear. She anchors a strong Mountaineers' interior, putting up 13.2 points per contest and holding down top 10 spots in the conference for both rebounds (7.7 rbg) and blocks (2.1 bpg).
West Virginia's guards are no less skilled. Christal Caldwell, a senior, and Bria Holmes, a sophomore, highlighted their outside game in the win over Baylor, with Caldwell knocking down three of her five longrange attempts and Holmes draining three out of four; both must be respected outside the arc.
One notable vulnerability of this talented but somewhat underrated squad arises at the free-throw line: The Mountaineers sank just 10 of 22 from the charity stripe against Baylor on Sunday, and that weakness at the line can leave a game open through the pivotal final minutes.
Prediction: Assuming TCU advances, this quarterfinal matchup could become an entertaining defensive duel. West Virginia swept both TCU and Texas Tech in the regular season, but two close games with TCU (66-62, 61-57) will have experts thinking twice about the outcome. Texas Tech, on the other hand, stood on the receiving end of two resounding drubbings (70-51, 69-37). West Virginia will likely move on to the semifinal round regardless of opponennt, but the Mountaineers would probably feel more comfortable about that prospect if Texas Tech can knock off TCU in the opener.
Game Six: No. 3 Texas (20-10, 11-7) v. No. 6 Oklahoma (18-13, 9-9) -- 8:30 p.m. CST/9:30 p.m. EST (FSN)
Texas won its last three games to close out the season, including a 65-58 victory over nationally ranked Oklahoma State on Monday night. Texas is young, but deep. And long -- in fact, the Longhorns are the tallest team in the conference, with a front court anchored by 6-7 sophomore Imani McGee-Stafford, 6-5 freshman Kelsey Lang and 6-2 junior Nneka Enemkpali. Not surprisingly, Texas holds the highest rebounding margin in the Big 12 at +12, and its proficiency on both sides of the glass puts the 'Horns in great position to scoop up misses from opposing teams and create second chances on offense.
What is somewhat surprising, however, given its height advantage is how few points the Horns manage to put on the scoreboard. Not one of these bigs has broken into the league's top 10 in scoring. Enemkpali leads the team with 12.5 points per game, McGee-Stafford chips in 10.7, Lang only 5.8.
From the backcourt, 5-10 senior Chassidy Fussell, who struggled with injury early in the season, averages 10 points, giving the Longhorns, just barely, a third offensive weapon. Fussell can at times be streaky, but she is also quite capable of racking up points quickly if she finds a rhythm.
Things drop off sharply from there, however, leaving the biggest team in the league with a mediocre offense at best; the Horns rank just sixth in the Big 12 in scoring offense, averaging just 69.5 points per game.
That makes Texas another team that prefers to win with defense, an area in which it excels. Texas ranks No. 1 in the Big 12 in field-goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 34.4 percent. The Horns are third, right behind TCU and West Virginia, in scoring defense, giving up just 59 points per game, and third as well in three-point field-goal percentage defense, holding their adversaries to just 28.8 percent from downtown. Beating them will take more than containing their top scorers.
Oklahoma was the preseason pick to win the Big 12, but a constant search for leadership complicated those plans.
The Sooners start four reliable double-digit scorers, led by 5-7 senior guard Aaryn Ellenberg (18.7 ppg), one of the few Big 12 players to cross the 2,000-point milestone. Joining Ellenberg in the three-guard starting lineup is 5-10 junior Sharane Campbell who is good for 12.4 points per outing, who can energize the team with her hustle plays, and 5-10 senior Morgan Hook, who adds 11.3 points per game while also serving as the team's primary facilitator, doling out more than five assists per outing.
Representing the interior Nicole Griffin, another big who seems to under-realize her height advantage, contributing just 10.4 points and 5.9 boards per game despite her 6-6 frame.
And then there's that pesky fifth spot in the starting rotation, which the Sooners have auditioned no fewer than five players this season in an effort to fill. At times, head coach Sheri Coale has turned to 6-3 forward Kaylon Williams, a redshirt sophomore who has made 15 starts in 31 games this season, while on other occasions she has toyed with a four-guard lineup, turning to 5-9 freshman Gioya Carter for 18 starts. Neither they, nor anyone else who has been slotted into the lineup for a game or two, has packed much of a whallop, however, and while the indecision might provide Coale with flexibility to play the match-ups, it might also have contributed to this team's leadership woes.
Prediction: Each team successfully defended its home court in the regular-season meetings between the two, and both teams were quite close. Texas needed overtime to win, 79-74, in Austin, while Oklahoma came out on top by a single point (64-63) in Norman. In a match-up between the Big 12's second-ranked offense (Oklahoma) versus its third-ranked defense (Texas), the edge in the postseason would normally go to the defense, but the Longhorns may not have enough offensive firepower of their own to make those defensive stops meaningful. Oklahoma in an upset.
Obviously, from this point forward, everything rides on which teams have made it through to the semifinals and beyond. We'll be back with a meaningful analysis of those pairings as the tournament outcomes unfold, but for now, here's a glance at the rest of the schedule:
Semifinals: Sunday, March 9
Game Seven: Game Three Winner (Oklahoma v. Iowa State) v. Game Four Winner (Baylor v. Kansas/Kansas State) -- 2 p.m. CST/3 p.m. EST (FS1)
Game Eight: Game Five Winner (West Virginia v. TCU/Texas Tech) v. Game Six Winner (Texas v. Oklahoma) -- 4:30 p.m. CST/5:30 p.m. EST (FS1)
Championship Game: Monday, March 10
Title Game: Game Seven Winner v. Game Eight Winner -- 8 p.m. CST/9 p.m. EST (FS1)
All games at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, OK. All times listed are Central Time.
Friday, March 7 (TV: FOX College Sports)
Kansas vs. Kansas State - 6:00 p.m.
TCU vs. Texas Tech - 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 8 (TV: FOX Sports Net)
Oklahoma State vs. Iowa State - 11:00 a.m.
Baylor vs. Kansas/Kansas State - 1:30 p.m.
West Virginia vs. TCU/Texas Tech - 6:00 p.m.
Texas vs. Oklahoma - 8:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 9 (TV: FOX Sports 1)
Semifinal 1 - 2:00 p.m.
Semifinal 2 - 4:30 p.m.
Monday, March 10 (TV: FOX Sports 1)
Championship: 8:00 p.m.
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