COLUMBIA — March Madness, also known as the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, might be the biggest four-week long party of the year. The men’s tournament is known for its countless Cinderella stories and even more dramatic finishes. The women’s tournament might not be as closely watched, but in a world where CBS streams every men’s game live on its Web site and ESPN will broadcast each of the 63 women’s games on its networks, the women produce almost as much drama each March.
The madness officially starts up again this week. The women of the Big 12 Conference descend on Kansas City for the Big 12 Conference Tournament, running from Tuesday through Saturday at Municipal Auditorium.
The Big 12 tournament might be the most intriguing of them all, with five teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 20 and six more with a legitimate shot to make postseason play. The action starts Tuesday morning, and every game can be seen on TV. The opening round games will be telecast on Metro Sports, and FSN will host from the quarterfinals through Saturday’s title game.
Here’s a little on each opening round game, what each team has to play for, and what you can expect:
Eighth seed Iowa State vs. ninth seed Colorado, noon Tuesday.
The first game of the tournament pits the two North Division rivals in what might be the biggest bubble game of the tournament. The Cyclones come in at 18-11 overall and 7-9 in conference play, but lost four of seven to end the regular season. They lost their top scorers, Tocarra Ross and Nicky Wieben, to torn ACLs early in the year and have dealt with it nicely. Alison Lacey scores 14.5 points per game to lead the team.
Colorado (16-13, 5-11) leans heavily on two stars, Jackie McFarland and Brittany Spears. McFarland was named first-team all-conference for the second year in a row and the freshman Spears received honorable mention. Iowa State won both meetings this year, including a double-overtime win in Boulder, Colo. in January. As for the postseason, Iowa State needs to win to feel comfortable about making the NCAA Tournament, but a loss will leave them teetering on the edge. The Buffs are likely destined for a WNIT bid no matter Tuesday’s result, but an opening-round victory would secure that spot.
Fifth seed Oklahoma vs. 12th seed Missouri, 2:30 p.m. Tuesday
The Sooners come to Kansas City as either the most overrated or underachieving team in the conference. They began the season ranked No. 6, and haven’t dropped below 11th despite losing five conference games. Led by the Paris twins, Courtney and Ashley, Oklahoma tore through the conference awards and wants to make amends for finishing fifth by grabbing their third straight conference tournament championship. Courtney Paris was named Conference Player of the Year for the second consecutive year, Defensive Player of the Year, and leads the nation in rebounding. Danielle Robinson was the conference Newcomer of the Year and is joined on the honorable mention all-conference team by Ashley Paris.
Missouri rides the shooting of Alyssa Hollins, and can put up an ample fight when she’s on. Hollins, named honorable mention All-Big 12, scores 16.7 points per game and led the conference in 3-pointers made with 85. She has made at least four treys in each of the past five games. In the teams’ lone meeting this year, Oklahoma squeaked by the Tigers 64-57 in Columbia. Hollins scored 19 points in that game, and needs to scorch the nets again if the Tigers want a chance to pull the upset. The Sooners are easily in the NCAA Tournament and are merely playing for seeding position. Missouri’s season will end as soon as it loses in Kansas City, so it will take a miracle run to the title if Cindy Stein’s team wants to see the postseason.
Seventh seed Texas vs. 10th seed Texas Tech, 6 p.m. Tuesday
In a opening-round tussle between Lone Star State rivals, the Longhorns and Red Raiders will play for the second consecutive game. Texas comes to Kansas City on a three-game winning streak, including a 70-55 win over Tech on Wednesday. The Red Raiders won by 12 in the first matchup, played in Lubbock, Texas in January. Texas (19-11, 7-9) has missed the NCAA Tournament two years in a row for the first time in school history, and first-year coach Gail Goestenkors has instilled the winning attitude she brought from Duke, where she took the Blue Devils to the Sweet 16 in each of the past 10 seasons. Second-team all-conference guard Brittainey Raven leads the Horns with 15.5 points per game and senior guard Erneisha Bailey, a Kansas City native from Pembroke Hill High School, scores 7.3 points and grabs 4.7 rebounds per game.
Texas Tech (16-14, 4-12) is led by Dominic Seals, a transfer from South Plains College. Seals won the conference’s Newcomer of the Year award and was named second-team all-conference. The 6-foot-2 junior averages 13.8 points and 8.4 rebounds, the only scorer in double figures for Tech. While the Longhorns are on a three-game winning streak, including a win over Oklahoma, a win would ensure a spot in the NCAA field. Tech also likely needs a win or two to reach the postseason, but it would be headed for the WNIT. A loss probably leaves the team on the outside looking in.
Sixth seed Nebraska vs. 11th seed Kansas, 8:30 p.m. Tuesday
In the final opening round game, two North Division teams will battle in a virtual home game for the Jayhawks. Kansas has the shortest trip to Municipal Auditorium, just 40 miles from Lawrence, Kan. In the regular season, Nebraska won by 20 in Lincoln, Neb. but the Jayhawks took a 62-61 victory in February’s rematch at Allen Fieldhouse. The Huskers (20-10, 9-7) are led by junior forward Kelsey Griffin’s 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. The Alaska native received first-team all-conference honors for the second consecutive season. Forward Danielle Page was named to the second team after scoring almost 13 points per game.
Kansas (15-14, 4-12) had only one player acknowledged by the conference, as Danielle McCray scored honorable mention. McCray leads the team in both scoring (14.7 ppg) and rebounding (7.0 rpg). Kansas has lost five in a row since beating Nebraska, and probably needs to win two in a row in Kansas City to be considered for the WNIT field. The Huskers are locked into the NCAA, but can improve their seed with a strong showing at the conference tournament.
The top four seeds – Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M
No. 1 seed Kansas State has been the darling of the conference, and possibly the NCAA, all season. The Wildcats were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 preseason poll after finishing last a season ago. With a 13-3 record in Big 12 play, Kansas State became the first team to go from worst to first in conference history – men or women. Coach Deb Patterson was named Coach of the Year and two players, Kimberly Dietz and Shalee Lehning, were named first-team all-conference after no players appeared on the preseason lists. Kansas State will play the winner of Iowa State and Colorado at noon Wednesday.
Second-seed Baylor had a chance to grab a share of the conference title and the No. 1 seed, but lost to Oklahoma State on Thursday. The Bears still finished 12-4 in conference and will reach their fifth straight NCAA Tournament. They lost Jhasmin Player to a knee injury on Feb. 2, but were deep enough to stay near the top of the standings. First-team all-conference recipient Angela Tisdale poured in 16.0 points per game to lead the team. Rachel Allison averaged 12.7 points and 8.6 rebounds to join Tisdale on the first team. Baylor will look to break out of a two-game losing streak against the winner of Texas and Texas Tech at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
No. 3 seed Oklahoma State comes to Kansas City with the highest scoring offense in the Big 12 at 76.5 points per game. The Cowgirls finished 11-5 in the conference, their best record in Big 12 history. 5-foot-5 sophomore Andrea Riley led the conference in scoring at 22.8 points per game, and can fill it up at will. Coach Kurt Budke has done a marvelous job turning around the Oklahoma State program from an 0-16 record during his first year in 2006 to this season’s Top 20 finish. The Cowgirls will face the winner of the Nebraska-Kansas game at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Fourth-seed Texas A&M charges into the Big 12 Tournament with the most momentum in the league. The Aggies struggled to a 1-4 start in conference play before rattling off 10 wins in their final 11 contests, including their current six-game winning streak. A&M forces a league-high 21.6 turnovers and finished second in scoring defense by giving up only 55.7 points per game. Junior Takia Starks leads the offense by scoring 17.2 points per game, while Danielle Gant pumps in 15.2 points and grabs 7.7 rebounds per game. Both players were named first-team All-Big 12, while A’Quonesia Franklin made the second team. The Aggies will put their winning streak to the test against Oklahoma or Missouri in a quarterfinal game at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.