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NCAA preview: Big 12 bites before balling begins

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When the NCAA women’s basketball tournament tips off on Saturday, the Big 12 will be solidly represented in the brackets. With seven teams in dancing and one of the strongest overall seasons for the conference, they will be a force to be reckoned with in their respective matchups. To pander to my constituents, errr the Big 12 fans of the world, I would like to point out some impressive statistics before we move on. As many know, the seven conference bids ties the Big East for most represented conference in the 2010 tournament and no Big 12 team is seeded lower than sixth for the second consecutive year. Since the beginning of the aughts, the Big 12 has made 69 NCAA tournament appearances, second nationally, and can boast a championship game appearance by Oklahoma in 2002, a final four berth by Texas in 2003 and a 2005 national championship by Baylor.

*I will be mentioning potential matchups, but am purely going with the seedings. As we all know in March Madness, it’s well...madness, and such things cannot be expected. The potential matchups are just for the sake of argument and to show one of the potential paths to advance in the tournament.

Thankfully for the other six, but not so lucky for Iowa State, there is only one Big 12 school in the Dayton region – also known as the ‘can anyone ever beat UConn’ region. Iowa State is hosting first and second round action at Hilton Coliseum and is making its fourth consecutive tournament appearance. The Cyclones are slated at the four spot, so if all goes according to seeds will meet up with the undefeated Huskies in the Sweet 16. Iowa State is led by Allison Lacey who has been ailing recently, missing not only the end of the regular season, but also the Big 12 tournament. With Lacey rested and healthy, this three point shooting squad could be deadly to their opponent. Their possible road to the final four would go through (13) Lehigh, (5) Virginia, (1) Connecticut, (2) Ohio State.

The Memphis region is the tournament home of 4-seeded Baylor and 6-seeded Texas. Baylor, on the top half of the bracket, is poised with a Tennessee waltz in the Sweet 16. Baylor is coached by Kim Mulkey, one of a select few that have both played (Louisiana Tech) and coached (Baylor) in the NCAA tournament and the only women’s head coach to have won a national tournament as both a player and coach. The main talk of the Bears squad revolves around freshman Brittney Griner. Griner’s size and shot blocking ability have already put her in the Big 12 record books with a single season record of 183 blocks. Along with the block party, she averages 18.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. More infamously as of late, the talk around Griner has hinged on her right hook after a nose-breaking punch to Texas Tech’s Jordan Barncastle and subsequent two-game suspension. Their potential road to the final four would go through (13) Fresno State, (5) Georgetown, (1) Tennessee, (2) Duke.

Texas will have a shorter time as the top seed in their matchups, as they’re expected to meet 2-seed West Virginia in the second round. The Longhorns enter the Big 12 tournament with three who average double-figure scoring, in Brittainey Raven (14.6 ppg), Kathleen Nash (12. 0 ppg) and Ashleigh Fontanette (10.2 ppg). Though they will face a tough task, there is one break to being the number six seed. Texas will be hosting their first and second round games in Austin, so the crowd and home-court advantage might help propel them past their second round foe when they are possibly the underdog seed. To get to the final four, Texas would potentially face (11) San Diego State, (3) West Virginia, (2) Duke, (1) Tennessee.

The Sacramento region sees another pair of Big 12 teams, 2-seed Texas A&M and 4-seed Oklahoma State. Stanford is in the top slot of this chunk of the bracket and many expect that one – or potentially both – of the Big 12 schools will have to take on the trees to keep their tournament dreams alive. Oklahoma State, led by senior Andrea Riley will have to start the tournament without their phenom who averages 26.6 points and 6.5 assists per game. In the 2008 tournament, Riley was suspended for her next NCAA tournament game after taking a swing – and missing – LSU’s Erica White in their regional semifinal game two years ago. The Cowgirls will rely on fellow senior Tegan Cunningham and freshman up-and-comer Toni Young, as well as working other ladies into Riley’s spot at the point in their meeting with Chattanooga as they hope to give Riley, the Big 12’s leading scorer, another shot to shine. Oklahoma State’s possible path to a final four berth would take them through (13) Chattanooga, (5) Georgia, (1) Stanford, (2) Texas A&M.

After an upset win of then undefeated Nebraska and a Big 12 championship final victory over Oklahoma, Texas A&M was rewarded handsomely with a 2-seed. The Aggies defensive strength and size were evident in these two games and these characteristics, along with their ability to alter shots and create steals should come in handy as they head to Seattle to play west coast teams in the first two potential matchups. It will go a long way for Danielle Adams and company if they plan to advance deep in the bracket. Texas A&M would potentially match up with (15) Portland State, (7) Gonzaga, (3) Xavier, (1) Stanford to get to the final four.

Last but certainly not least is the Kansas City region, just about as ‘local’ as you can get for the Big 12 in this year’s tournament. Sherri Coale’s Oklahoma Sooners have been hot to end the year and as the 3-seed will be looking to continue to streak over the likes of potential opponents Georgia Tech and Notre Dame. I have read musings pointing towards the luck of the Irish holding firm against Big 12 schools in multiple sports – time will tell if the talk of ND performances in football and men’s and women’s basketball will propel the 2-seed over the 3-seed for a slot in the Elite 8. OU is hosting the first and seconds rounds in Lloyd Noble Center and are coming off All-Big 12 Championship selections Danielle Robinson and Amanda Thompson. In the Big 12 tournament, Robinson averaged 17.3 points and 15 rebounds in their three games and Robinson scored an average of 21 points per game and had 4.3 assists per game in the Sooners run to the championship game. For OU to advance to the final four, they would potentially have to go through (14) South Dakota State, (6) Georgia Tech, (2) Notre Dame, (1) Nebraska.

The highest seeded and most powerful team in the Big 12 throughout the 2009-10 season has been the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Top seeded Nebraska has been overlooked by some throughout the year, but their one-loss record cannot be denied. While some are expecting the Huskers to be toppled early by physical play, there is a group of ladies led by Kelsey Griffin ready to prove the doubters wrong. Griffin is the team leader and all-everything for the Huskers, averaging a double-double in her senior season with 20.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game after returning from injury that kept her out of the 2008-09 season. Griffin, the Big 12 player of the year and Wooden Award finalist, is joined by Big 12 coach of the year and Naismith finalist, Connie Yori. Nebraska is the first team in the conference – men’s or women’s – to end the regular season undefeated. The path to the final four for the Huskers would possibly match Nebraska with (16) Northern Iowa, (8) UCLA, (4) Kentucky, (2) Notre Dame.

As always in March Madness, there are no guarantees. But one thing is certain after following the Big 12 conference this season. These ladies are excited and eager to face non-conference foes and prove their legitimacy and power to the rest of the nation. Starting Saturday, we will see just how stout the Big 12 conference will be in post-season play.