NORMAN, Okla. – Without Brittney Griner in the Big 12, things have opened up again for Oklahoma.
Griner, who starred at Baylor for the past four seasons and helped the Bears to back-to-back undefeated records in the conference, has moved on, leaving the Sooners as the league favorite.
"I think this senior class, they had the disadvantage of playing their entire careers in the league with Brittney Griner, truthfully," Sooners coach Sherri Coale said. "They understand they have a bit of a window, maybe. It does make (the league) a little bit different."
With four starters returning, No. 11 Oklahoma seems to be in good position to take advantage.
The anchor of those returners is Aaryn Ellenberg, the senior guard from Las Vegas who averaged 18.7 points per game last season. Ellenberg has been a starter for her entire career with the Sooners but was thrust into an even bigger role last season when Whitney Hand went down with a season-ending injury early in the season.
"Vegas is a unique talent, obviously," Coale said. "Watching her grow over the past six to nine months has been really special. I felt like last year, when Whitney went down, Vegas sort of surrendered to the whole deal. It allowed her to go to another level."
Coale coached Ellenberg this summer at the World University Games in Russia, where the U.S. won gold.
Ellenberg has never been a very vocal leader but was forced to take on that role in that situation.
"I was the only guy there that knew coach Coale and how she liked to play so with everything that we did I was kind of a step ahead of everybody else," Ellenberg said. "She needed my help in bringing them along with everything that we were doing. I had to step outside of my comfort zone in that situation so it definitely gave me a little bit of an upper hand in bringing it back here."
When she returned, she told her teammates she had a goal to be an All-American.
"That's the first time all of us thought, 'She's for real and she's going to do it,'" senior guard Morgan Hook said. "Ever since she said that and got that out in the open, she just changed. She's not out there being the biggest talker or anything like that but she's doing the little things."
Last season, Oklahoma lost two key players to injury in the preseason before Hand was hurt early in the season.
The Sooners eventually pulled a pair of players from the volleyball team onto the roster just so they could have full practice. Still, OU made it to the NCAA tournament's regional semifinals.
This season, Oklahoma has bigger aspirations. Since 2000, the Sooners have won six Big 12 regular-season and four conference tournament titles. The last, though, came in 2009.
"There's history here and you want to be a part of it and we don't want to be the only class not to cut down a net," Ellenberg said. "There's a little bit of an urgency thing too. This is our last go-round."
The Sooners open the season Nov. 8 against Stetson in the Women's Preseason NIT.