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Big 12 Preview: Once again, Baylor leads the way

The Big 12 Conference, led once again by Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma, is getting ready to kick off the 2015-2016 season. Catch up on everything you need to know about the conference and the upcoming battle for the Big 12 Championship.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Big 12 Conference is one of the nations' best basketball conferences — there's no doubt about it.

With perennial powerhouses like Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma, it's easy to see why the league consistently boasts some of the best talent in the women's collegiate basketball world.

And with the 2015-2016 season rapidly approaching, the excitement surrounding the conference continues to grow. While turnover, new rules and other changes are making headlines, a lot in the conference has stayed the same, too.

But the best part about the Big 12 Conference is that it's still anyone's race. And this year is no different.

So now, without further ado, here is your Big 12 Conference women's basketball preview.

No. 5 Baylor Lady Bears

Coach: Kim Mulkey | 16th season

Last season: 33-4 (16-2 Big 12, 1st in Big 12; lost in Elite Eight of NCAA tournament)

Baylor has a death-grip on the Big 12 Conference — and they don't seem to be letting go anytime soon. The Lady Bears have won five straight conference regular-season and tournament titles, and made it to the quarterfinals of last year's NCAA tournament.

This season, the Bears return three starters from last year's team, including All-American and last year's Big 12 Player of the Year Nina Davis. The forward averaged 21.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last season. They also return point guard Niya Johnson, who led the nation in assists per game with 8.9 and set a Baylor and conference record with 322 assists last season, and guard Alexis Prince, who averaged 8.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game last year.

But perhaps it is the newcomers that make the fifth-ranked Lady Bears so dangerous. Duke transfer Alexis Jones is now eligible for play, and 6-foot-7 freshman Kalani Brown — the top-rated center in ESPN's 2015 recruiting class — and 6-foot-4 freshman Beatrice Mompremier — who played on the 2014 USA Under 18 National Team — seem prepped and ready to impact the Baylor inside game.

As of now, Baylor seems to be in control of the conference. And unless someone can find a way to slow them down, the Lady Bears should find themselves in a position to win their sixth straight conference title.

No. 12 Texas Longhorns

Coach: Karen Aston | 4th season

Last season: 24-11 (9-9 Big 12, tied for 3rd in Big 12; lost in Sweet 16 of NCAA tournament)

In a season that was supposed to lead them to a conference championship, the Longhorns were simply too inconsistent in conference play to make it happen.

While they did end up finishing second place in the Big 12 tournament and were ranked as high as No. 3 at one point, the Longhorns won just half of their conference games and were upset by Iowa State, Texas Christian and West Virginia.

But Texas seems to be in good shape heading into the 2015-2016 season. The Longhorns return Second Team All-Big 12 honoree Kelsey Lang, led the team with 10.3 points and added 6.2 rebounds per game last season. Also back is senior forward Imani Boyette, who was named First Team All-Big 12 and earned the Honda Inspiration Award last year.

The 6-foot-7 center's time was limited last year after missing the first eight games of the season due to a leg injury. Still, Boyette averaged nearly 10 points and 7 rebounds per game, leading the Longhorns to its Sweet 16 appearance since 2004.

Perhaps the best addition to the Longhorns, though, comes in the form of Lashann Higgs. Higgs, a freshman guard from Round Rock, Texas, was listed as an ESPN five-star recruit and was a consensus high school All-American. Higgs was named the Big 12 Preseason Freshman of the Year, too, and is already having a big impact on the floor.

"As an add on to the team, I think I can help in a lot of different ways," Higgs said. "I like to score, and I just like to help my team in anyway possible, whether it's scoring, passing, distributing — anything."

Texas Christian Horned Frogs

Coach: Reagan Pebley | 2nd season

Last season: 18-14 (9-9 Big 12, tied for 3rd in Big 12; lost in 2nd round of WNIT)

A third place conference finish wasn't quite enough for an NCAA tournament bid for the Horned Frogs last season, as they were bumped to the WNIT. But with the addition of six newcomers to the team, this young Texas Christian squad isn't going to want to waste any time if they hope to make this year's ‘Big Dance.'

First-team All-Big 12 guard Zahna Medley led TCU last season with 15.6 points per game and 129 total assists, and guard Veja Hamilton returns after averaging 11.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.

But it was the inside game where TCU struggled. Currently, the tallest player on the TCU roster stands at just 6-foot-3. The hope is that the newcomers — five of which stand over six feet — can help revamp the inside game and round out the Horned Frog lineup.

Destynee Hives-McCray, who transferred to TCU from SMU last season, has perhaps made the transition the easiest.

She averaged nearly 10 points per game last season at SMU, the second best on the team. In the Horned Frogs' exhibition game last Sunday, Hives-McCray added 11 points and eight rebounds.

"[Hives-McCray] has that experience that the other newcomers don't have [yet]," said TCU coach Reagan Pebley. "She understands pace of play, physicality and the mentality that you need to embrace."

Texas Tech Lady Raiders

Coach: Candi Whitaker | 3rd season

Last season: 15-16 (5-13 Big 12, 10th in the Big 12)

After going winless in the Big 12 two years ago, the Lady Raiders seem to be moving in the right direction. Last season, in Candi Whitaker's second year at the helm, the team won five conference games and 10 nonconference games.

However, plenty of questions still remain. Texas Tech shot just 36.6 percent last season, and returns just two starters from last season. Senior guard Rayven Brooks, who averaged 7.5 points per game last season, dropped 18 points in the Lady Raiders' exhibition game last week and seems poised to step into a new leadership role on the team.

And while they still have a lot to work on to bring them up from the bottom of the Big 12, Brooks said they are just taking things one step at a time.

"I feel like we are trying to focus on executing our plays well," Brooks said. "We are just working well together."

No. 17 Oklahoma Sooners

Coach: Sherri Coale | 20th season

Last season: 21-12 (13-5 Big 12, 2nd in Big 12; lost in 2nd round of NCAA tournament)

After finishing second in the Big 12 last season, Oklahoma boasts a very similar team this year.

The sooners return four starters from last year's squad — including three double-digit scorers. Texas A&M transfer and last year's Big 12 Newcomer of the Year Peyton Little averaged 12.6 points per game, and senior forward Kaylon Williams averaged 12.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game last season for the Sooners.

But it's the younger players on the team that excites coach Sheri Coale the most. Seven of the 13 players on the roster are underclassmen, something that Coale said she is excited about.

"We've had fantastic workouts up until this point," Coale said at the team's media day on Oct. 5. "We have what we call ‘experienced youth', which is a coach's dream when you have young, hungry players that are still eager to learn and full of energy. Yet, they have some experience so they know what they are doing."

Redshirt junior guard Maddie Manning, who averaged 4.7 points and almost 14 minutes off of the bench, is looking forward to an expanded role this season.

But more importantly, Manning is just excited about returning to the floor and another chance at a Big 12 title.

"I'm ready for all of us to get on the court and showcase everything we improved on during this offseason," Manning said. "The whole team put in a lot of work and really made some improvements in some big areas. It's going to be fun to show."

Oklahoma State Cowgirls

Coach: Jim Littell | 5th season

Last season: 20-11 (9-9 Big 12; tied for 3rd in Big 12; lost in 1st round of NCAA tournament)

The Cowgirls boasted the league's top defense last season, holding teams to just 58.7 points per game. But this year, it looks like Oklahoma State will need to find a few replacements to keep their defensive streak alive.

Six different players transferred from the program during the past offseason, including starting point guard Roshunda Johnson. And while it has taken some extra work to compensate for the lack of experience, coach Jim Littell said that he's been very impressed with what he's seen so far out of his new team.

"We've had to go longer than we normally do because we have a lot of new faces," Littell said. "But their intensity level, their focus, the attitudes, the passion that they're playing for, I really like this team."

Oklahoma State does return one key player from last year's team, though. Senior guard Brittney Martin is back after averaging a team best 13.4 points and 8.8 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game last year. Martin was a unanimous All-Big 12 pick last year, and was named to the league's all-defensive team.

Martin has taken on a much bigger role this season, and Littell has noticed.

"Brittney is playing better than she's ever played at this point, but she's also practicing better," Littell said. "I think she realizes that the expectations for her are going to be very high and her preparation, her attitude, her leadership has been outstanding and her play has gone to different levels. We've been very happy with what Brittney has done."

Iowa State Cyclones

Coach: Bill Fennelly | 21st season

Last season: 18-14 (9-9 Big 12, tied for 3rd in Big 12; lost in 1st round of NCAA tournament)

Last year was a rollercoaster ride for veteran coach Bill Fennelly. The Cyclones were able to beat conference champion Baylor once and Texas twice — both when the Longhorns were ranked in the top 10. But Iowa State was swept by Kansas, ended the season on a three-game losing streak and lost in their first game in both the Big 12 tournament and the NCAA tournament.

The Cyclones were a guard-oriented team last season, and will continue to be again this year. They return Seanna Johnson and Nicole ‘Kidd' Blaskowsky, who averaged 11.7 and 7.7 points per game last year, respectively. And the Cyclones get guard Jadda Buckley back, who suffered a season-ending foot injury last year.

Fennelly made it clear at the team's media day that Buckley will need to be at the front of the offense this season, in an attempt to fill the shoes of Nikki Moody — who graduated last year.

"This is the first year in a long time where we don't have an incumbent point guard that, you know, is really, really good," Fennelly said. "I honestly believe Jadda Buckley could be the next one."

But it's the newcomers that bring hope for Fennelly and company. Freshman Bridget Carleton, who competed for theCanadian National Team, is already making an impact this season. Carleton scored 19 points in the team's first exhibition game this season, and played 36 total minutes in the game.

Fennelly knows that for this year's team to be successful, implementing Carleton and fellow freshmen TeeTee Starks and Meredith Burkhall into the game plan will be critical. But so far, Fennelly has been nothing but impressed with what he's seen.

"You could not find three better people," Fennelly said. "I've had freshmen that were good players that maybe don't buy into what we're all about and that's part of dealing with young people. ... It's going to be fun to watch them develop."

Kansas Jayhawks

Coach: Brandon Schneider | 2nd season

Last season: 15-17 (6-12 Big 12, 9th in Big 12)

Chelsea Gardner, a two-time All-American honorable mention and All-Big 12 First-Team selection, is gone. Gardner, who led the Jayhawks over the past four seasons, was selected as the 21st pick in the 2015 WNBA draft this summer.

And now without the team's cornerstone gone, the Jayhawks are looking to rebuild. Nine newcomers fill up the Kansas roster this season, and the Jayhawks only return two players that averaged more than five points per game last season.

And even though he is in his first year as head coach, Brandon Schneider said that the team is in a good place — no matter what people might see from the outside.

"A lot of times you go into a program and you inherit a mess," Schneider said. "That's not the case at all here. We have terrific kids and they work really, really hard, and they want to get better. ...They recognize that we need to get better and they have a burning desire, I think, to improve."

Of the returning members of the team, only Caelynn Manning-Allen stands above 6-foot-2. While the Jayhawks will seek a stronger inside game early on, Schneider has a back up plan for the team's lack of size inside.

"I think the hardest from a position standpoint is that we don't really play a true power forward," Schneider said. "Our offense is a lot more four out and one in, so to compare it to football, we wouldn't play a tight end or a full back. We really spread it out."

Kansas State Wildcats

Coach: Jeff Mittie | 2nd season

Last season: 19-14 (7-11 Big 12, 7th in Big 12; lost in 2nd round of WNIT)

Offensive struggles plagued the Wildcats last season. They averaged less than 60 points per game last year, the second-worst in the league, and shot less than 30 percent from behind the three-point line.

But on the bright side, Kansas State continuously found a way to slow down their opponents. They allowed just 58.2 points per game as a team last year, the second-best in the conference.

Junior Breanna Lewis returns after a strong sophomore season last year, where she averaged 11.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots per game — the best on the team in all three categories. She also set a school record 97 blocks last year and was named to the All-Big 12 Second Team.

Senior Bri Craig and sophomore Kindred Wesemann look ready to take over in the backcourt for the Wildcats, attempting to replace the team's two top guards, Haley Texada and Ashia Woods, who graduated last season. But in order for Kansas State to move up the Big 12 standings, their offense is going to need to see significant improvements.

West Virginia Mountaineers

Coach: Mike Carey | 15th season

Last season: 23-15 (7-11 Big 12, tied for 7th in Big 12; lost in WNIT championship)

After getting edged out of the NCAA tournament last season, West Virginia was able to make a late run in the WNIT — making it all the way to the championship game. And even though three of the starters from last year's team are gone, the Mountaineers return some of the best players in the league.

Senior guard Bria Holmes averaged 18.8 points per game last year, and is a two time first-team unanimous All-Big 12 pick. This season, Holmes has already garnered Preseason All-Big 12 honors.  Lanay Montgomery, a 6-foot-5 center, is also back after blocking 124 shots last season, the best in the Big 12.

But only five of the Mountaineer's 15 scholarship players are returning from last season, making West Virginia the fifth youngest team in the country.

With the 11 newcomers on the team, coach Mike Carey said he understands how important it is to develop depth on the team.

"We have to develop a point guard," Carey said. "We have to establish a backup center. Those are two areas we need to shore up. We have more numbers this year, where we will be able to rotate some more. Especially at the guard positions."