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Big 12 is queen bee with 7 ranked teams

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — When it comes to strength in numbers, no league can match the Big 12 in women's basketball this season.

Seven Big 12 teams are ranked in the Top 25 for the third straight week, with six in the top 15 in the latest poll.

"I think it is the best league in the country," Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said, "and I don't think it's up for debate anymore when you see what our teams have done."

Passionate Big East fans would love to debate Fennelly. No. 1 Connecticut looks unstoppable, after all, and No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 9 West Virginia join the Huskies in the top 10 and are among five ranked Big East teams.

Unbeaten and third-ranked Nebraska is the nation's surprise team and the only Big 12 squad in the top 10. But then comes Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Texas and Oklahoma State all in a row from Nos. 11 to 15. Iowa State checks in at No. 20.

If conference RPI is the trump card, the Big 12 holds it. This week's report lists the Big 12 first, with the Atlantic Coast Conference second and the Big East third.

There's not only strength but balance in the Big 12.

Just this week, an unranked Kansas team playing without its top two offensive players was tied with Nebraska in the final 6 minutes before the Cornhuskers pulled away for a 67-60 win, and unranked Texas Tech upset No. 13 Texas A&M 57-54 for its second conference win.

Last month, last-place Missouri came within a point of knocking off then-No. 13 Oklahoma and then stunned then-No. 10 Baylor 70-62 for its only Big 12 win.

"You have to play at such a high level every night," Missouri coach Cindy Stein said. "Every single mistake a team makes is so exposed in our conference because of the way teams play and the level of coaches. You make a mistake, you lose."

Coaches say three factors account for the Big 12's rise — facilities have been upgraded, top coaches have been hired and the programs are well promoted in their communities.

"You have, top to bottom, a collection of the best coaches in the country," Kansas' coach Bonnie Henrickson said. "You can't walk in to a game and say we're more talented, we'll win. There are great chess matches, quality coaching."

Women's Basketball Hall of Fame member Kim Mulkey won the 2005 national title and has averaged better than 26 wins in each of her nine seasons at Baylor. Gail Goestenkors arrived at Texas three years ago after leading Duke to four NCAA Final Fours and two championship games in her last nine years with the Blue Devils.

Texas A&M's Gary Blair has led three schools to the Sweet 16, Sherri Coale has led Oklahoma to six regular-season titles since 2000 and the 2002 NCAA final and Fennelly has kept the Cyclones among the nation's top programs for more than a decade.

"Good lord, we've got some pretty dandy ones in this league," Mulkey said of the coaches. "The players we're getting now are pretty tremendous, not only for my program but for all programs. We're all out there in the thick of things battling for the top recruits now."

Fan support is a big attraction. Average attendance is 4,957, putting the Big 12 on track to lead the nation for the 11th straight year. Iowa State is drawing better than 9,000 a game, and four other schools average better than 5,500.

"Kids want to come play here in front of 8,000 to 10,000 people when they take the floor," Coale said.

All of this is happening even though the Big 12 is well behind other conferences in landing McDonald's All-Americans, a hallmark of recruiting success. The Big 12 has signed just nine since 2006, far behind the Pac-10's 21 or the 19 who pledged to the Southeastern Conference, ACC and Big East.

But the Big 12 can boast of having had the nation's only four-time consensus All-American in Oklahoma's Courtney Paris, and Nebraska's Kelsey Griffin is bidding for national player-of-the-year honors this season. Baylor's 6-foot-8 freshman, Brittney Griner, is not only a YouTube favorite for her dunking ability, but has emerged as a game-changer.

"There isn't a freshman who probably will change the women's game more over the next four years," Fennelly said of Griner.

If conference strength is measured by NCAA bids, Fennelly expects the Big 12 to get as many as eight.

Four Big 12 teams — Baylor, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas A&M — made it to the Sweet 16 last season, with Iowa State reaching the Elite Eight and the Paris-led Sooners the Final Four.

Baylor remains the only Big 12 team to win a national title since the conference began play in 1996-97.

"It's just a tough league," Mulkey said. "It's a league that will bring you the highest of highs and the lowest of lows."

(This version CORRECTS Notre Dame's ranking to No. 4 sted No. 3)