Lots of uncertainty as Big 12 tourney opens
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Were it some coach other than Nebraska's Connie Yori, you might just think it was sandbagging. But few folks in the business are as straightforward as she is plus what she says just makes a lot of sense.
The Huskers are undefeated and the top seed in the Big 12 tournament; they'll open play in Friday's quarterfinals. Still, Yori doesn't see Nebraska as the "favorite."
"We are not built to play three games in three days," the Big 12 coach of the year said. "Because we play full-court defense. We expend a lot of energy -- that's who we are. In order to do that for three games in a row, that's hard.
"We're not a half-court execution team. So I think it will be a huge challenge for us, because of our style, to win the Big 12 tournament."
Two games in three days -- which is the NCAA tournament setup -- is a different story. Yori is not concerned about that.
But three in three just might tax her Huskers -- including Big 12 player of the year Kelsey Griffin -- too much. This is all new ground anyway for Nebraska, which has never won a league tournament title in the Big 12 or Big Eight eras.
Further, no North Division team has won the conference tournament since Iowa State did it in 2001. This year, for the first time in Big 12 history, the top two seeds -- Nebraska and Iowa State -- are from the North Division.
Although the Huskers come in feeling fully healthy, the Cyclones don't. Senior point guard Alison Lacey is not expected to play in Iowa State's quarterfinal game Friday because she's recovering from pneumonia.
Iowa State released a statement that Lacey's status beyond the quarterfinal is uncertain, although she is expected to be ready to play in the NCAA tournament if the Cyclones get a bid (which, of course, they will).
If Lacey is absent the entire Big 12 tourney, it seems unlikely the Cyclones can really make a run at winning. Thus, if neither of the top two seeds is the so-called favorite, who is?
Well, would it be crazy to say No. 3 seed Oklahoma? Nope. Despite all the graduation and injury losses, the Sooners still tied with Iowa State for second place in the league at 11-5. (The Cyclones won the head-to-head matchup as the tiebreaker.)
How about Texas A&M, which is the No. 4 seed (the same spot from which the Aggies won this title two years ago in K.C.)? All three of Texas A&M's leading scorers, by the way, are from Kansas City (Danielle Adams, Tanisha Smith and Tyra White).
Who outside the top four seeds -- they have first-round byes -- might challenge to win the title? It would be a stretch for any of them. That would mean four games in four days. Only one team outside the top four has won the title previously, and that was Oklahoma as a No. 6 seed in 2004.
However, back then the tournament still had a rest day between the semifinals and final. Now, it no longer has that.
No. 5 seed Texas has had its ups and downs, although the Longhorns did close the regular season with a victory over Baylor. However, that came with Brittney Griner suspended for a punch thrown in Baylor's game at Texas Tech on March 3.
Speaking of Baylor, the No. 6 seed, Griner is suspended for one more game -- the opener Thursday night against No. 11 Colorado. She didn't come to Baylor's open-to-the-media practice. Asked about it after the workout, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey did not explain Griner's absence but just repeated that Griner was suspended for the first game of the tournament. Mulkey didn't seem very pleased to be talking to any of us reporters, you might say.
Being the fierce competitor she is, Mulkey seems to be taking an "us against the world" attitude. And even though Melissa Jones (injury to right lower leg) apparently is out of the Big 12 tournament, Baylor shouldn't be underestimated. This is the program that won the league tournament last season -- although the personnel is quite different.
Lastly, the only other team that merits a mention as having an outside shot at the title is No. 7 Oklahoma State. Despite its season-ending 95-62 smackdown at Oklahoma in the regular-season finale, the Cowgirls and Andrea Riley do have title-game experience. They made it to the championship game in 2008.
The Big 12 is not the only big show in women's basketball still going on. The Pac-10 tourney, in which Stanford is nearly a prohibitive favorite, will be contested through the weekend, too.
But the Big 12 should provide a bit more drama because several teams are trying to improve their NCAA tournament position. Plus, despite the Huskers' 29-0 mark, as Yori said there is still a feeling that Nebraska might have its troubles here.
Then again, so might everybody else.