With No. 1 Baylor women still loaded, Big 12 Conference seemingly a race for 2nd place
There is no way Brittney Griner and Baylor can win 40 games again this season. As for winning another national championship, why not?
Every starter returns, including preseason All-Americans Griner and junior point guard Odyssey Sims, from last season's undefeated title team that was the NCAA's first 40-game winner.
The simple math of fewer games this season won't let them get to the 40-win mark again.
Top-ranked Baylor is so talented, so deep and so tall behind the 6-foot-8 Griner, they've seemingly relegated the Big 12, considered the toughest conference in women's basketball, to a race for second place.
"It's not in our books to go undefeated, but it's hard not to think about it after going 40-0," said Griner, one of five Baylor seniors. "It'd be nice to do it again, but our main goal at the end, win those six games and get a national championship."
Griner has career averages of 21.6 points and 8.6 rebounds a game with a Big 12-record 599 blocked shots, 64 shy of breaking the NCAA mark. And don't forget the seven dunks.
Sims had 174 assists last season while averaging 14.9 points a game. Destiny Williams, a 6-1 senior, averaged 10.1 points and 9.1 rebounds.
"Last season, we didn't care about 40-0. Our deal was to get back to where we lost," said Williams, referring to the Lady Bears' loss to eventual NCAA champ Texas A&M in a regional final in 2011. "Our goal was to get back there and take it a step further. ... We have to do the same thing this year."
Coach Kim Mulkey has given the Lady Bears a challenging non-conference schedule.
They play sixth-ranked Kentucky in the second game, and also have games before Christmas against Tennessee and Notre Dame, that one a national title game rematch. Baylor plays out of conference only once after New Year's Day, at Connecticut on Feb. 18.
"If I can't get their attention, that schedule will get their attention," Mulkey said. "Then you make sure you keep them focused to the extent that they're still hungry, they're not complacent, they still have goals, they still have individual goals that will make our team better, and you just challenge them."
The rest of the Big 12:
OKLAHOMA: Coach Sherri Coale, who has more Big 12 wins than any other coach, returns all five starters after the Lady Sooners finished second in the Big 12 last season. The only senior is All-Big 12 guard Whitney Hand (13.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg), but there are two other double-figure scorers returning in junior guards Aaryn Ellenberg (14.6 ppg) and Morgan Hook (10.9 ppg). Oklahoma also added junior college transfer Portia Durrett, a 6-1 forward.
WEST VIRGINIA: Big 12 newcomer West Virginia, which went from the same conference with Connecticut and Notre Dame to the same league with Baylor, was set to return its entire starting lineup. But the Mountaineers, a regular in the NCAA tournament, lost 6-4 senior center Aysa Bussie (12.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg) to a season-ending knee injury the second day of practice. Coach Mike Carey said the injury at least gave his experienced team time to respond and learn new roles.
KANSAS: Coming off its first NCAA tournament appearance in 12 years, and winning two tournament games, the Jayhawks return four starters. All-Big 12 senior forward Carolyn Davis (16.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg) returns from an ACL injury sustained Feb. 12, and senior guard Angel Goodrich (14.0 ppg) set a Big 12 record with 250 assists last season. Coach Bonnie Henrickson said her players were back in the gym within 24 hours after a season-ending loss to Tennessee.
TEXAS: Former assistant Karen Aston returns as the new coach after the Longhorns failed to advance past the first round of the NCAA tournament the past four years under Gail Goestenkors, who had led Duke to four Final Fours and 10 consecutive seasons getting into the round of 16. All-Big 12 guard Chassidy Fussell (16.3 ppg) is one of only two returning starters. Plus, Aston is putting in a new system so she "can almost liken this to coaching 14 freshmen."
IOWA STATE: The Cyclones return three starters, their top scorers — Chelsea Poppens (14.2 ppg, Big 12-leading 10.6 rpg), Hallie Christofferson (10.2 ppg) and Nikki Moody (10.0 ppg). Along with the 6-2 Poppens and 6-3 Christofferson, Iowa State has 6-6 Anna Prins. Coach Bill Fennelly has to replace two starting guards, but said "if our guards can just know what color jersey to throw it to, defend a little bit, they can play with Chelsea, Anna and Hallie."
OKLAHOMA STATE: After losing to Missouri in the first round of the Big 12 tournament, only four days after a 21-point win over the same team, the Cowgirls rebounded to win six games in a row for the WNIT championship. Their 22-win season came after coach Kurt Budke, assistant Miranda Serna and two boosters died in a plane crash. The 23rd-ranked Cowgirls return four starters and their top six scorers, including Liz Donohoe and Tiffany Bias (13.1 ppg each).
TEXAS TECH: This is the 20th anniversary of the Lady Raiders' only national championship. Texas Tech is offering $93 season tickets, a nod to the year of the championship, and will wear throwback uniforms for a Feb. 17 game when the title team will be honored. Coach Kristy Curry returns four starters from a team that won two games in the WNIT, and the only Big 12 team Baylor failed to beat by double digits twice. There are five senior guards, including starters Casey Morris (10.1 ppg), Monique Smalls (8.5 ppg) and Christine Hyde (7.9 ppg).
KANSAS STATE: Coach Deb Patterson has an interesting mix with the Wildcats — six experienced players and seven newcomers. Kansas State has been to five of the past six NCAA tournaments. With the graduation of Jalana Childs (14.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and four other seniors, the Wildcats lost 57 percent of their scoring and 56 percent of their rebounding. Senior guard Brittany Chambers (14.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg) will be counted on to lead them.
TCU: The Frogs have played in the postseason 11 consecutive seasons (nine NCAAs and two WNITs, including last season), but they go into their first Big 12 season with five sophomores and four freshmen. Coach Jeff Mittie knows it is a daily challenge for his team to learn how to play at the higher level in a league that is very physical and has big front lines. Guard Whitney Williams (5.4 ppg) started her career in Big 12 with two years at Iowa State. Their first Big 12 game is Jan. 2 at home against Baylor.