Darren Hellwege, sports commentator
Colorado and Nebraska are gone. Texas A&M’s out the door and Missouri may well follow. Four schools from Texas and Oklahoma are going to the Pac-12…oops, no, wait a second, they’re coming back now. It’s the kind of confusing, bewildering, and, for some, enraging situation that can cause friction even among long-time friends like Baylor women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey Texas A&M’s Gary Blair.
Conference realignment dominated the conversation as the coaches and top players in Big 12 women’s basketball met at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., Wednesday for the annual Media Days, an opportunity for the media to get a preview of the 2011-2012 season. Coaches and athletes nine of the 10 league schools were there. Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly missed the event due to treatment for what the school has called an “invasive cancerous lesion” on his vocal cords.
While most coaches avoided direct controversy and danced around whatever unhappiness they may hold about the changes, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey perhaps demonstrated how deep the anger some feel about the shifting sands of who is and is not in the Big 12, particularly between Baylor and Texas A&M.
Asked if the Lady Bears would continue to play against the Aggies in non-conference play in the future, Mulkey said, “I remember Texas A&M’s president with these quotes, ‘it’s like a marriage, when it’s over it’s over.’”
Mulkey continued, “Who wants to be in a relationship that’s over and has no value for you? And that stuck with me. And my feeling is this,” she continued, “If a man wants to divorce me, and says our relationship has no value to him, and then asks if he can sleep with me, the answer is ‘No!’”
Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson was asked about the potential end of the rivalry with Missouri, which might leave to join the Southeastern Conference. She said, “I think this rivalry belongs in the Big 12. It’s been good for us and it’s been good for them (Missouri) moving forward we’d like it to be what it is.”
Asked later if she would schedule a non-conference game with Missouri, Henrickson firmly re-stated her earlier point. “This rivalry belongs in the Big 12. It should be in the Big 12. Institutionally, I think we all feel the same way.”
Fortunately, there was also some basketball discussed on Wednesday.
Texas A&M’s Blair: “We’re looking forward to defending the national championship. You don’t talk about winning another until you defend it the way a champion should.” Blair mentioned that he expected leadership contributions from senior Tyra White, and from highly-touted transfer Kelsey Bone, who joins the Aggies after leaving the program at South Carolina. Both the Aggies and Baylor are ranked in the top 10 in most preseason polls.
Texas Tech, which has climbed from 5-11 two years ago to 8-8 last season, should see continued improvement said coach Kristy Curry. “That comes from being more consistent, night in, night out, and from accountability, doing the little things that make a difference every day.”
Baylor’s Mulkey mentioned that her stars, Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims, gained a lot on and off the court by participating with USA basketball teams. “Every time they have a basketball in their hands, they get better.” That’s a frightening prospect, given that both Griner and Sims are on the preseason All-Conference team, and Griner was a unanimous All-American last season.
Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale has to replace three-time All-American Danielle Robinson, now playing for the WNBA San Antonio Silver Stars, but looked to the future as she talked up her outstanding freshman class. “They want to do things right. They want to be good. They want to play well,” Coale said. The Sooners also welcome back to full health Whitney Hand, who missed most of the 2009-2010 season and much of last season with a major knee injury.
Losing a superstar to the WNBA is no news to Coale’s cross-state rival. Oklahoma State coach Kurt Budke watched one of the best players in OSU history, Andrea Riley, leave for the pros (Tulsa Shock) and gave the monumental task of replacing her to a freshman, Tiffany Bias. “I think she had a very solid year. But I’ve already seen in practice her leadership, the ball handling, the moves to the basket, her shot is better, I think you’re going to look up and see Tiffany Bias be 15 points a night, minimum.” The OSU coach will count on younger players like Bias for leadership—the Cowgirls’ roster has only three juniors and not a single senior.
Texas coach Gail Goestenkors has no such problems. While the former Duke coach hasn’t been as successful as Longhorns fans would have wanted, she’s looking for a big year with the boost coming from three talented seniors. “Ashley Gayle, Ashleigh Fontenette, and Yvonne Anderson have been with me through their careers, so they know what I want, what I need, what I expect.” The team also adds former Big 12 all-freshman player Cokie Reed, who missed all of last year with an injury.
Kansas State’s Deb Patterson said the new round-robin format of Big 12 play will establish the Big 12 as the number one competitive conference in the nation. “I mean, even before you play a game, you look at the matchups top to bottom and it’s mindboggling.” Coach Patterson also said that while they have “great respect for Missouri and the matchups we’ve always had,” she expects new rivalries to emerge should Missouri leave for the SEC. The Wildcats return what Patterson called a “solid core” of players in Mariah White, Jalana Childs, Brandy Brown and Brittany Chambers.
Kansas’ Bonnie Henrickson teams have been to four consecutive WNIT’s but haven’t seen NCAA tournament play since 1999-2000. Asked if this was the year the Jayhawks break through, she said the difference with this year’s club was the “maturity standpoint and the experience standpoint.”
Here’s my prediction for the season’s standings.
1. Baylor Ridiculously athletic and talented, Griner could be best ever in women’s hoops.
2. Texas A&M Defending NCAA champs still have a lot of skill in their final year in Big 12.
3. Texas Goestenkors on hot seat, but unlike most in league has luxury of strong group of seniors.
4. Oklahoma Probably too young to finish much higher, but there’s a lot of size and strength here and getting Hand back will be big.
5. Texas Tech Once powerhouse, Tech may be building to dream year with 12 returning from last year’s 22-11 team, only two are seniors.
6. Iowa State Nine returning from team smarting from upset loss in NCAA first round. They’ll be playing with a lot of heart with coach Fen’s illness an inspiration. No tougher place for road teams in the league.
7. Kansas State Like Texas and Tech, experienced team with eight returning letter winners led by guard Chambers.
8. Oklahoma State Barely topped .500 last year, Toni Young is a monster and sophomore Bias and strong freshman class have future looking bright in Stillwater.
9. Kansas Four starters back from 21-win season but only one victory over ranked teams. That a team this strong is ninth says a lot about competitiveness of this league. They have to play better on the road.
10. Missouri Pingeton looking to the future, Tigers need some real breaks for this team to rise above the cellar. Starting freshman at point guard could look brilliant in a couple of years.
(The Big 12 has changed to a double round robin format for conference games this season. The teams will play each other twice for a total of 18 games. The team or teams with the highest winning percentage will be the regular season conference champions.)
The Big 12 Media Days continue at the Sprint Center on Thursday with the men’s teams being featured, including new University of Missouri coach Frank Haith. Haith will be accompanied by seniors Marcus Denmon and Kim English.