After the 13th Big 12 women’s hoops media day – set at Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, home of the 2009 league tournament _ here are 13 observations. Except … let’s go in reverse alphabetical order, since Baylor always gets to go first and Texas Tech has to be last in roll call.
Texas Tech: If there was one thing that had to drive Tech fans nuts last year during a 4-12 league record – and there was certainly more than one _ it was the team’s 25 percent shooting from behind the arc in conference games.
The only squad that was worse during league play was Oklahoma (24.4). And Tech didn’t have the Paris twins inside to make up for it like the Sooners did.
What in the name of Rene Hanebutt, Noel Johnson and Krista Kirkland happened at Tech? A newcomer-filled roster that only occasionally seemed to fit together on court helped contribute to the team’s dearth of chemistry. Thus, Tech didn’t move the ball particularly well much of the time: It was last in turnover margin (minus-5.19) and assist/turnover ratio (0.51) during league games.
Shooters have to get in comfortable rhythms and know when their shots are going to come in to offense if they’re to be most effective. Coach Kristy Curry thinks her group should be better at that this year, if for no other reason than they’re so much more familiar with each other.
Texas A&M: Coach Gary Blair looked like he had an ace in the hole during media day, and I suspect a large part of the reason he appeared so confident was that he’s really happy with the depth of his team.
More often than not, “depth” is a big asset in name only for hoops teams. There are plenty of people on the bench, but they’re not contributing much on court when it really matters. However, with Blair’s “bug-them-to-death” style of defense, the opportunity to sub in more players for energy boosts on defense is a tangible benefit of depth.
Also not to be underestimated are A&M’s breakthroughs in winning its first Big 12 tournament title and making the Elite Eight. As the gigantic, honking commemorative ring Takia Starks was wearing on Wednesday symbolized, A&M crossed a bridge last season.
Texas: Either because of the quick respect given to Gail Goestenkors or the desire to set her up … or both … the league’s coaches voted the Horns would finish second this season in the Big 12. In her second year in Austin after 15 seasons at Duke, Goestenkors has a greater comfort level with the whole landscape in the Jumbo Dozen.
However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be some of the famous GG eruptions. Brittainy Raven said the most ticked off she saw Double-G last year was a day after a 77-74 overtime loss to Kansas State in January. The Longhorns had started that game strongly and then fizzled. Raven said the coach wasn’t pleased to see the players sitting around the locker room casually chatting the next afternoon _ and they soon were running their tails off in practice.
“I really felt sorry for the practice players that day,” Raven said of the guys that work out with the team. “Because they had to do everything we did.”
Earnesia Williams said she thought she saw the most fire from GG after the Horns were walloped by UConn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. GG herself, though, recalled her brimstone coming out the most on Feb. 27, when the Horns were down in their game at Kansas in the second half.
She called a timeout and basically told them they could either save their season right then and there … or just throw it away. Texas rallied for that victory, which ended a three-game skid and started a five-game winning streak through the Big 12 quarterfinals, which was what the Horns needed to get an at-large bid.
Oklahoma State: Cowgirls media relations director Ryan Cameron has been with the team through many of its thin seasons, and he recalled those slow times at past media days. The uncomfortable periods where not many reporters or broadcasters had much reason to chat with his players, and so he passed the allotted media time by playing tic-tac-toe.
Wednesday, though, the combination of the Cowgirls’ Sweet 16 season last year and the proximity of Oklahoma-based media made it a very, very busy day for Cameron, coach Kurt Budke and players Andrea Riley, Shaunte Smith and Taylor Hardeman.
They were surrounded by reporters for their entire session, and then they made the radio-show rounds. Budke, asked about the Bedlam rivalry with Oklahoma, said the Sooners had been holding up their end of the deal for while, so it was time for the Cowgirls to do it.
They did last season, and one can only imagine what it would be like at Cox Convention Center in March if somehow OU and OSU end up in the Big 12 championship game.
Oklahoma: The Sooners’ postmortem of a 2008 season that ended in the second round – they missed getting a chance to play in the regional in Oklahoma City – always goes back to the idea that they were not the usual “sum-of-the-parts” team.
Unlike the Jack Johnson song, they were not “Better Together.” They won games despite not being as cohesive a unit on the floor as they hoped to be. But then down the final stretch of the season, it caught up to them and they suffered what had to be a most excruciating loss for coach Sherri Coale: a first-round Big 12 tournament collapse against last-place Missouri.
OU got its act together then while preparing for the NCAA tournament, but Coale says now it was too little, too late. The Sooners still fell to Notre Dame in the second round.
The fit-looking Paris twins, Ashley and Courtney, say they think it’s going to be a very different group this year in Norman. The truth is, though, it probably doesn’t have to be THAT different … OU did go 11-5 in the league last year and beat the team that finished first in the regular season – Kansas State – on the Wildcats’ home floor.
Nebraska: The Huskers lost just one player from last year’s NCAA tournament team, but she was a gamer: forward Danielle Page. So from a continuity standpoint, Nebraska should be in good shape for 2009.
But the bad news is that star Kelsey Griffin’s senior season starts with uncertainty as she’s battling an ankle injury. Griffin is one of those players who’s dealt with more than her share of health problems, and it seemed to me that it has to drive coach Connie Yori a little crazy thinking about just how good this kid would be had that not been the case.
Then again … maybe not. Maybe Yori has just rolled as best she can with those punches. I say that because one of Yori’s players, Dominique Kelley, gave her a compliment that really got my attention Wednesday. It came during one of the two roundtables sessions, where broadcaster Brenda VanLengen asked the players (two groups of six, one from each team) various questions to which the kids gave some thoughtful answers.
In describing her coach, Kelley said of Yori, “I think she is the most laidback and low-maintenance person ever.”
Hmmm. Yori has the rep of “scrappy-as-hell competitor” going back to her playing days, and I have to admit I never would have picked “laidback” as adjective for her. Then again, I don’t see Yori on a day-to-day basis and Kelley does. But it was the phrase “low-maintenance” that struck me even more.
I consider that a pretty strong praise for anybody, but especially a head coach. Let’s just say plenty of them are on the opposite end of that scale.
Missouri: The Tigers are picked to finish last again, and that low-on-the-totem feeling is pretty familiar ground for the program.
If there’s some hope, though, it’s in looking back on what MU did last season in almost beating Oklahoma during the regular season in Columbia and then achieving that feat during the Big 12 tournament.
The Tigers should have won both those games; it was only poor execution in the final minute that prevented the first one. Considering the Sooners were an NCAA Tournament team that went 11-5 in the league and MU was the only Big 12 North squad that beat them, something was right about the Tigers last year … and could be again.
Coach Cindy Stein – yes, everyone is asking if this is her last year in Columbia if the Tigers don’t make some kind of move up the standings – said that the Sooners just seemed to bring out the extra aggressiveness in MU. Indeed, I thought I was seeing a different MU team last year during those two games against OU.
If nothing else, the Tigers do have a lot more height and bulk inside this year. But climbing back in this league for a program such as MU is like trying to go up a sheer-rock cliff without much to hold onto.
Kansas State: If the Wildcats’ last-to-first story in 2008 was one of the league’s best stories, the season-ending knee injury to Kimberly Dietz in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinal was one of the worst. Dietz was one of those players that everybody likes and roots for: A true teammate in the most complimentary sense of the word.
Without Dietz in the NCAA Tournament, Kelsey Nelson emerged from the depths of the K-State bench and was very impressive. With four starters back, the Wildcats are going to look a lot like last year in many ways, but what we don’t know is who else steps in with the consistent points Dietz provided.
K-State coach Deb Patterson did not indicate that she is expecting to have to bring along any of her four freshmen very quickly, thanks to the core group of Shalee Lehning, Marlies Gipson, Ashley Sweat and Kari Kincaid returning. But scanning the rest of the roster, it’s hard to see how the Wildcats won’t need at least one of the rookies to become a dependable option by the time league season.
Kansas: Speaking of point guards, the Jayhawks thought they had theirs in rookie Angel Goodrich, whom everyone near the KU program has been hearing about for years.
With her out for the season with an ACL, the Jayhawks are back to the same options that they had last year. Senior Ivana Catic is a solid veteran, but she’s not going to be able to do the things that KU hoped for from Goodrich. So it’s even more incumbent on players like Danielle McCray, Sade Morris and Krysten Boogaard to aggressively get to the basket. They are not going to have the table set for them the way Goodrich was expected to be able to do.
KU lost forward Taylor McIntosh, who was dependable if not productive on offense consistently. Ultimately, the Jayhawks now really don’t look that much different from a personnel standpoint. For them to have something different from the 4-12 mark they’ve had the last two seasons of Big 12 play, the team has to get more consistent perimeter shooting, among other things.
It doesn’t seem as if Kansas has gotten any so-called “lucky” breaks in recent years, and Goodrich’s injury was just the latest example of a good plan gone awry. So maybe something unexpectedly fortunate will happen for the Jayhawks now.
Iowa State: The Cyclones know all about overcoming bad breaks because they had two starters lost to ACL injuries last year … and still made the NCAA tournament’s second round.
With all five starters back and actual post depth (a rarity in Ames), coach Bill Fennelly has what could be one of his better teams in a while. That’s if everyone plays with the kind of focus they did last year when the Cyclones were so short of bodies and options.
Fennelly said last year was so difficult not just because of the injuries, but because there were times the players he had left really gave all they had and just couldn’t win games. But that same effort – reapplied this year with a healthier squad- could make Iowa State the top North team and one of the Big 12’s best overall.
Sherri Coale put it this way, “You know, I think Iowa State is going to be awful good. They’re just so hard to play.” And for what it’s worth, Oklahoma State guard Andrea Riley picked the Cyclones as one of her most difficult opponents because of how they switch on screens and can be so tough to get a read on defensively.
Colorado: There’s no team more affected by the loss of one player this season than the Buffs are by Jackie McFarland’s graduation. She became the program’s identity during her career, and that’s now left to someone like sophomore Brittany Spears.
Add in CU losing guard Whitney Houston to a knee injury for this season, and it’s hard to see the Buffs making a push for the top half of the league in 2009.
Her favorite is “The Cowboys,” which is one of Wayne’s later films (1972) and is about a cattle rancher who loses his men to the lure of a gold rush and then has to take on youngsters to help him. In the process, they are forced to grow up quickly into true cowboys.
The Buffaloes may not be facing a dastardly group of cattle rustlers like the Cowboys were in that film, but maybe they could take this message from Richards’ favorite flick: When tested, sometimes you find out you’re stronger than you think.
Baylor: And … guess who found her inner strength in this past year? Baylor’s irrepressible Jhasmin Player, the heartbeat of the team who went down with an ACL injury at Kansas State last February.
Player, a classic extrovert, said the worst part of rehab was just being alone in the training room. She is back for this season, although she’s pushing harder to play more than coach Kim Mulkey might be entirely comfortable with just now. Mulkey wants Player to be fully ready to go when she does get into game action.
Player’s injury meant that Mulkey really only had seven players to work with for the latter part of last season, but that didn’t stop Baylor from finishing 12-4 (second) in the league. Baylor brings back all its starters except point guard Angela Tisdale, but that’s a big “except” because her value was quite immense last season.
Mulkey said that sophomore Kelli Griffin, freshman Cherrish Wallace and Player are going to see some time at point guard. That’s a new role for Player, but she’ll do anything that’s asked of her. As is the case for so many ACL victims, Player learned how much she missed basketball during her rehab time.
Mulkey had her hands tied in some respects last year in terms of strategy because of her short bench. She now has a lot more choices she can make, and it’s noteworthy that was a similar situation for her in 2005, when she won a national championship. Mulkey always seemed to push the right button that year.
Big 12 Overall: A lot of the league’s best players are back from last year, when the Big 12 won all eight of its first-round NCAA tournament games. However … only Texas A&M survived to the Elite Eight, and as always, that will be the true measuring stick for the conference this season: How far will the league go in the tournament?