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With Griner and all starters back for 40-0 Baylor, Big 12 women's race likely for 2nd place

With Brittney Griner and all the starters back from Baylor's 40-0 season, the race in the Big 12 likely will be for second behind the Lady Bears.

It is no surprise that Baylor is the overwhelming favorite to win the league again — and perhaps a second consecutive national title.

"I think all of us will make the most of our opportunity to step on the floor and tip it up and play against arguably the best team in America," Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson said Thursday during the league's media day. "But there are a handful of us that it will be a dogfight to finish either right around them in second, third or fourth."

The only women's team in the Big 12 that didn't have a winning record last season was Missouri, which is now in the SEC with Texas A&M, which won the national championship representing the Big 12 two seasons ago. League newcomers West Virginia and TCU both have at least four returning starters after having winning records last season.

This will be the senior season for the 6-foot-8 Griner, the two-time All-American who was the AP player of the year last season.

Through her first three years at Baylor, Griner has averaged 21.6 points and 8.6 rebounds a game with a Big 12-record 594 blocked shots. She is the first NCAA player with 2,000 career points and 500 blocked shots.

"Griner makes them special and unique," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said the goal isn't and never was to go undefeated. The only goal is to win championships, including six games in the NCAA tournament.

The Lady Bears can't win 40 games again since there is no possibility for them to play that many games this season.

But can somebody keep them from winning every game again?

"They're coming off an undefeated season last year, and certainly they're the team to beat in our league," said Coale, who returns all five starters. "But they're human. ... If we had to play five out of seven, it might not go our way. But you have to be better for 40 minutes one night. So yeah, it's possible."

Mulkey has put together a challenging non-conference schedule for her team, including Kentucky in the second game. The Lady Bears play at Notre Dame and host Tennessee before Christmas, and go to Connecticut on Feb. 18 in the middle of conference play.

Bob Bowlsby took over as the Big 12 commissioner earlier this year after serving as athletic director at Stanford, which lost to Baylor in the NCAA national semifinal game in Denver last April.

Bowlsby said it was a very good Stanford team that did as good a job as anybody against Griner.

"What came through loud and clear is the Baylor team was a lot more than just Brittney Griner. This was a really good team with a dominant player and a lot of lot really good players around her.," Bowlsby said. "They certainly have the nucleus that would indicate that you could keep a string going. They have a chance to be among the most dominating teams of all time."

Baylor got the maximum nine first-place votes in the preseason voting by league coaches, who weren't allowed to vote for their own team. Baylor has won the last two Big 12 titles.

The preseason vote had Oklahoma and West Virginia tied for second, followed by Kansas, which returns four starters from a team that won two games in the NCAA tournament. The rest of the picks, in order, were Texas, Iowa State, defending WNIT champion Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Kansas State and TCU.

"We got away from Connecticut (in the Big East), and now we're going to play Baylor and Oklahoma, and Texas, and all of these schools. It's a great league," West Virginia coach Mike Carey said. "From top to bottom, it's the No. 1 RPI league in the country."

The media day activities were held on the floor at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, where the women's conference tournament will be held in March. For the first time since the league started play 16 years ago, the event won't be held in the same city as the men's tournament.

"I've seen a lot of different models and if any league can pull this off and do it in first-class fashion and turn out the crowd, it's the Big 12," Bowlsby said.

"We're the best basketball conference in the country," he said. "We've demonstrated that in a variety of ways, not the least of which is having the defending national champions in our conference. ... We've led the nation in RPI the last five years, and there's no indication that we won't be every bit as good or better in this coming season."