The Big 12 was the best “top-to-bottom” conference in the country this year in terms of competitive games. And, hey, if you don’t believe that, just ask the Big 12 coaches. They wouldn’t steer you wrong.
Seriously, I really think it probably was the “best” league this year _ if you define “best” in terms of top to bottom. That’s based on watching both the regular season and the Big 12 tournament. The only team that mailed it in for the league tourney was No. 12 seed Colorado. Even No. 11 Missouri nearly upset No. 6 Texas – and would have if the Tigers hadn’t inbounded the ball like an elementary-school team in the last minute and a half.
But there are always debates about this league-strength stuff and how that really should be defined. The Big East obviously has the strongest team in UConn. Plus, seven of that league’s teams made the NCAA field. The ACC has two No. 1 seeds in Maryland and Duke. The SEC, which also has seven in the field, frequently has more teams alive into the Sweet 16 than any league, so we’ll see if that holds true again.
All that said, does the Big 12 have a better chance to get a Final Four team this season than it did last year? Well, I think so. After all, the league has a No. 1 seed in Oklahoma and two No. 2s in Baylor and Texas A&M – albeit the Aggies are in the same region as overall No. 1 UConn. I’ve written a fair amount about all three of those Big 12 squads for ESPN.com the last couple of days, so please check out that site for more on that trio.
As for the other three Big 12 teams in the NCAA field …
Texas is a No. 6 seed and doesn’t have a the brightest outlook, frankly. The Longhorns have not been very good for the last month, losing six of their eight games since Feb. 18. In fact, the only thing keeping Texas from being in a complete free-fall is Missouri … the Longhorns’ two wins in that dismal stretch were both against the Tigers.
The weird thing to me is that this plunge started right when it looked like the Longhorns had clicked. They had just rallied to win at Iowa State on Feb. 15, and that was their fifth victory in a row. Since then, Texas has plummeted. And the Horns did not get an easy NCAA opener: Mississippi State played very well in the SEC this season, even in the games the Bulldogs lost.
If the Horns get past Mississippi State – which is definitely an “if” – then Texas would have to play No. 3 seed Ohio State on its home floor in Columbus. Unless the Buckeyes somehow lose in to Sacred Heart in their opener … and we have learned with Ohio State in recent years that it’s best to never say never.
Kansas State is a No. 5 seed and will face the Colonial Athletic Association champion again in NCAA tournament play. The Wildcats previously did that in 2002, when they fell to Old Dominion in the Sweet 16. But … for the first time since 1992, the CAA champion is NOT the Monarchs. Their 17-year reign ended, and the Drexel Dragons won the tourney and automatic bid.
K-State could play No. 4 Vanderbilt in the second round … those teams met out in Seattle in the 2005 second round, but their seeds were switched. The Wildcats had lost Megan Mahoney in the Big 12 title game to an Achilles injury, which happened on the Saturday night right before selection Sunday.
That was a weird game with Vandy – K-State was getting pummeled, and it looked like it was over. Then Kendra Wecker led a late rally, including making what I think was the most amazing play I saw in her career. She blocked a Vandy shot out of bounds – but then leaped to save the ball back to one of her teammates. It was near the end of the game, and at the time was a life-saver for the Wildcats … who then did not execute well in their last possession that mattered, taking a layup when they needed a 3-pointer.
At any rate, it seems to me that this is the first time since 2002 that the Wildcats go into the NCAA tourney with nothing really “bugging” them. In 2003, they were a No. 3 seed and at home for the early rounds, but Laurie Koehn had missed 10 games that season and the team had almost zero depth. Should the Wildcats still have beaten No. 11 Notre Dame in the second round? Oh, absolutely. But …
I wrote my preview story for that game saying it had a dangerous “feel” to it _ regardless of the disparity in seeding – and I recall driving to Manhattan on game day with this almost eerie certainty that Notre Dame would win. Coach Muffet McGraw was just two years removed from an NCAA title at that point, and she is really good at making defensive decisions that bring out the best in her team. That’s what happened that night.
In 2004, K-State was a No. 2 sent to face No. 7 Minnesota on the Gophers’ home court in the second round, and the Wildcats were steamrolled. Minnesota went on to the Final Four that year. In 2005, Mahoney was injured and missed the tournament. Last season, that happened to Kimberly Dietz, only hers was a knee injury.
K-State has dealt with Shalee Lehning’s energy-sapping mono in the past month, but she seems close to back to normal. Maybe the Wildcats are due some good karma in the tournament. I will be going to the Raleigh region for ESPN.com, so maybe I’ll see K-State in the Sweet 16 there. But Vandy, remember, won the SEC tournament with a victory over Auburn, so another matchup with the Commodores – if that happens – will be tough for the Wildcats.
But, honestly, of the draws K-State could have gotten, this one should give the Wildcat fans at least reasonable hope. Which was not the case last year when the Wildcats had to face Louisville in the second round.
Which brings us to Iowa State, which is a No. 4 seed. And if the Cyclones win their first-round game against East Tennessee State, they will face No. 5 seed Tennessee _ if the Vols beat Ball State. If Tennessee loses to Ball State, the world will probably come to an end.
But what about if Tennessee loses in the second round and is out before the Sweet 16 for the first time? I’ve tried to compare Tennessee all season in my mind to teams like Iowa State, attempting to figure out how good the Vols actually are. Despite their 10 losses, Tennessee is still loaded with talent. I would think in most people’s eyes, if No. 4 Iowa State meets No.5 Tennessee, the Vols certainly will be seen as favorites.
I’ll have more a lot more to say about the Cyclones and their potential Tennessee matchup in an upcoming post. I unfortunately have found that although it’s very inconvenient, sleeping is required even after the bracket is released.