Much like on the men's side, the Big 12 is arguably the best conference in college basketball. Every team has at least 12 wins and a winning records. All but one team have an RPI inside 100 (thanks, Tech). Both WBBState.com and RealTimeRPI.com rank the Big 12 as number one.
However, one challenge with covering women's hoops in the Big 12 is that every coach knows that they will get a boost in playing in conference and so do not schedule the toughest competition. The best non-conference SOS was Oklahoma at 42, next comes Texas, Baylor, and Kansas at 81, 85, and 86, respectively. The next best? West Virginia at 167. After that? Iowa State at 224. It goes without saying that this lack of overall quality opponent made it challenging to assess what the Big 12 would look like this year. I tried my best to assess where everyone stood at the start of conference play, but at the time, I felt that the only solid teams were Baylor and Texas and beyond that, it was really hard to get a feeling where everyone stood, and in turn challenging to determine how Baylor would fare.
So now is an excellent time to step back and see where we stand as a conference, what that means for Baylor as well as the Big 12 for the rest of conference play, the conference tournament, and the Big Dance.
Let us look first at Baylor. At the start of the season, I felt some uncertainty about the team. I did not, nor can I recall ever, doubt Coach Mulkey. However, this was the first team in 5 years that did not have an all star player. Sure, Nina Davis played quite nicely behind Odyssey Sims, but last year was still the Sims show and I didn't know how much Davis would be able to step up and be a difference maker for this team. Well, not only has Sims stepped up, but this team has come together and become the best performing team that I have seen in quite a while. While Davis is solid, there does not seem to be the temptation to get the ball to her and sit back as there has been in the past with Sims and Griner.
As a result, this team is one of the most complete teams in the Big 12 this year. Teams can try to hone in on Nina Davis to slow down Baylor, as West Virginia and Kansas State did, and someone else will step up, be it Khadijiah Cave, who did against West Virginia or Alexis Prince, who did against Kansas State. Teams can try to outrun us, as TCU tried, but find that they just cannot run as long or as fast as Baylor. There doesn't seem to be a strategy that will work on this team for two halves. Sure, you can look at the fact that Baylor lost to Kentucky, but I would counter that the game was lost because of Baylor's youth coupled with it being the second game of the season, not an incredible strategy by Kentucky.
So next we look at the conference. While there is depth in the conference in that no teams are dragging down the conference, there hasn't been that stellar team with which to spar either. Prior to this week I would have picked Oklahoma to be that team, and still think they are a solid #2, but with back-to-back losses at Texas and at West Virginia, they don't have quite the shine they did with their perfect record. Outside of Oklahoma, no team has a winning record in-conference. Everyone is beating up on one another, home courts are being defended, and Baylor is the only team to come out unscathed thus far. The conference is full of mid-tier competetion.
Of Baylor's remaining schedule, a trip to Austin, both Oklahoma games, and traveling to Iowa State stand out as the biggest challenges. While I'm not convinced that Baylor will make it through the back half of the schedule unscathed, I think that the games we are most likely to lose are either at Oklahoma or one of the 4 remaining road games where a fluke loss happens like it did at Kansas last year. Having said that, I do think that most likely we do survive but Oklahoma makes the game in Norman far closer than we would like.
So what does this all mean in terms of the Big Dance? I think that going into West Virginia and getting a close win will be a great lesson on perseverance when the tournament rolls around. West Virginia has been playing lights out at home so this will be needed experience. Taking down Texas at home will be another key game. Yes, Texas lost Nneka Enemkpali during that game, but Baylor was playing a solid game even before she went down. And Texas is the caliber team we should face up to the Elite Eight. Our two Kansas games have been close and could be excellent preparation for early round games to make sure we don't let lower seed teams sneak up on us. As to the remainder of the schedule, how we play against Oklahoma and how much Hilton Magic shows up will tell us more about preparedness for the tournament.
If we want to look at an example of how to excel in the tournament in spite of the conference, look no further than... no I can't type this... UConn. UConn is currently the #2 team in the nation but sits in a conference that is ranked #12 according to Women's Basketball State. Last year the conference wasn't in much better shape, outside of Louisville, and yet UConn managed to win the national title with no game being closer than 15 points. Now, an argument could be made that UConn is successful because they consistently pull in top recruiting classes, but with National Signing Day for football having just passed, we can think of far too many examples of schools that squandered top-level talent.
In turn, while Baylor has not had the same recruiting success that UConn is known for, the 2012 recruiting class ranked eighth nationally and the 2013 recruiting class ranked ninth nationally. The 2014 recruiting class, while small, included the #13 wing and #16 post. These players have the talent to complete at the top tier regardless of the competition and Coach Mulkey is a talented enough coach to coach these players with the proper fundamentals to take on any caliber of talent.
This leads us, finally, to my expectations for the tournament. I tend to agree with Charlie Creme that this year, there seems to be a clear delineator between the top 12 teams and the rest of the field. As a Baylor fan, that means that I anticipate Baylor to really face its first challenge in the Elite Eight. Looking at the four team Creme predicts to be the four 4 seeds (UNC, Duke, Stanford, and Mississippi State), each team has been shown to be vulnerable this year and lost some matchups that they probably should not have lost, which bodes well for our potential Sweet Sixteen matchup. That leads us to the Elite Eight. I can say that while there are 12 solid teams this year, I will be disappointed if the team doesn't make it to Tampa Bay for the Final Four. Looking at the teams that would be potential opponents, I feel that there isn't a team that Baylor doesn't match up well against. From there, it will largely depend on how the draw goes, but just making it to the Final Four is a great accomplishment and I don't want to get even further ahead of myself than I already have.
So there you have it. The basketball we have seen thus far has been great and I only expect great things to continue for the remainder of the year!