You might say it’s folly to read too much into the first weekend of Big 12 play … except for the fact that if you’re a fan of certain teams, it’s probably very hard not to do that.
Getting off on the wrong foot in the league shouldn’t necessarily be that big of a deal, considering how much can happen through the course of the season. However, there are some fans that are very hungry – ravenous, in fact – for a chance to believe that things are going to be different this time, that there is good reason to have their hopes up.
And Saturday, the two groups of followers who likely feel the most acute sense of desperation right now saw their teams face off in a conference opener that may be a harbinger: Did we see the start of “Well, here we go again,” for Kansas and “We’re going back to the Dance” for Texas Tech?
The Jayhawks were at home and had a double-digit lead, yet still lost 61-57 – thanks to going scoreless for the last 5:15 of the game. KU coach Bonnie Henrickson has never beaten Texas Tech, which is especially telling considering this hasn’t been the powerhouse Tech team of old for a while now.
This was Henrickson’s seventh Big 12 opener, and her Jayhawks have won only one of them: at home against Texas in 2006. The other league openers were all defeats: to Texas in 2005, Iowa State in 2007, Oklahoma State in 2008 … and then two simply dreadful losses at Kansas State in 2009 and ’10. Those scores were 72-39 and 59-35.
Nothing on paper would have suggested that the Wildcats were favored in those two games, let alone that they should have clobbered the Jayhawks both times. But those losses set a tone of disappointment that KU wasn’t able to overcome either season.
The Jayhawks have the longest NCAA tournament drought of any of the Big 12 teams; Kansas’ last appearance was in 2000. KU fans probably thought last season was going to be the turnaround year _ but injuries either doomed the Jayhawks or gave them an excuse, depending on how bitterly cynical your point of view is.
There are are some in the KU fan base who’ve grown quite cynical and consider this a make-or-break season for Henrickson. Lew Perkins, who brought Henrickson to Kansas from Virginia Tech, has retired as athletics director. It remains to be seen how much a priority women’s basketball’s success will be for the new head Jayhawk, Sheahon Zenger.
Meanwhile, Tech coach Kristy Curry has faced wrath from the fans in Lubbock as well, with the Raiders attempting to get back in the NCAA field for the first time since 2005. But Tech’s rally Saturday – behind 15 points each from Kierra Mallard and Teena Wickett – moved Curry’s team to 14-1 on the season and was an very energizing way for Tech to start Big 12 play.
Tech’s lone loss so far this season was at Penn State in early December. Tech should have plenty of confidence against visiting Missouri, which is up next, on Wednesday. This despite the fact that the Tigers upset visiting Texas in overtime Saturday. (That, no doubt, seriously ticked off Longhorns followers.) The stark reality for MU fans is that the Tigers have never won in Lubbock (0-8), although this will be coach Robin Pingeton’s first try.
While Tech fans can look at their team’s fighting spirit _ on the road, no less _ and think, “We really might have something here,” the doubts are sure to have mushroomed among KU backers. And next for the Jayhawks is what could be a treacherous trip to Colorado, KU’s last conference visit to Boulder.
The Buffaloes, of course, will be dealing with the likes of Stanford, UCLA, USC, Arizona State, etc., next year during league play. But new coach Linda Lappe wants to get at least some traction for her program in its final season in the Big 12.
After Colorado, the rest of KU’s schedule in January is this: at Nebraska, at home against Baylor and Oklahoma, then at Missouri and at Kansas State. The Jayhawks have to bounce back emotionally from the loss to Texas Tech very quickly. Because if they don’t, this season could get away from them almost before they know what’s hit them.
That’s how big those last five minutes might have been in Lawrence on Saturday.