COLUMBIA — The strength of the Big 12 Conference in women's basketball has caused plenty of problems for Missouri this season.
Seven teams from the conference are ranked in the AP Top 25, led by No. 3 Nebraska, which at 24-0 is one of two undefeated teams in the country.
Missouri (11-13, 1-10 in the Big 12) at Iowa State (19-5, 7-4)
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Hilton Coliseum, Ames, Iowa
RADIO: KWWC/90.5 FM
The NCAA women’s basketball bracketology feature on ESPN.com predicts the Big 12 will receive nine bids to the NCAA Tournament, which is two more than the next closest conference. Nine bids would be the most the Big 12 has received. That means 75 percent of the teams in the Big 12 are projected to play in the NCAA Tournament.
“Incredible,” said Missouri coach Cindy Stein, who has seen her team struggle with the Big 12's competitiveness. “I have not seen a conference this good from top to bottom in a long time. It’s a credit to our league and the great coaches in our league. It’s a handful every single night.”
The league has lots of depth. Texas A&M is fifth in the Big 12 standings yet is still ranked No. 15 in the nation. Texas Tech is 3-8 in conference play, which is good for 10th place, but is still projected to be in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 10 seed.
“It talks about the strength of our league when you’ve got ranked teams that have a number of losses,” Stein said. “But they (the losses) are all to the Big 12 teams.”
In nonconference play, the Missouri women’s basketball team went 10-3 with two of those losses coming to Top-10 opponents. All three of Missouri’s nonconference losses were by single digits. The Tigers entered the conference portion of their schedule brimming with confidence.
Then Missouri entered the Big 12 gauntlet. The results have not been good. The Tigers are 1-10 against conference opponents. Missouri’s lone victory was over then-No. 10 Baylor in January. Missouri’s 10 conference losses have come by an average of 10.6 points. The grueling schedule allows Missouri to take a shot at ranked opponents nearly every night.
“It makes the competition higher,” senior Toy Richbow said. “Everybody wants to be the one that knocks down that nationally ranked team.”
If a few possessions had gone the other way, Missouri could easily be 5-6 in conference and in the thick of the race for an NCAA Tournament bid. A one-point loss to Oklahoma after leading with a minute to play. A two-point loss to rival Kansas. A loss to Texas A&M on the road after being within one point with under three minutes to play. A four-point loss to Nebraska after blowing a six-point lead because of five turnovers on Missouri’s last five possessions. The Tigers just haven’t been able to close out games.
“We play in a tough league and we know that,” Stein said. “I know we’re better. But we still have to prove it in the win column and that’s what we’re determined to do. We’re not giving up on the season.”
“Every game, we’ve proven we can play with anybody,” Richbow said. “It’s just all a matter of executing and then actually pulling out the W. Most definitely this is a team that can get to NCAA (Tournament) or has the talent to be there.”
That’s a lofty goal. For the Tigers to make the NCAA Tournament, they would have to win the Big 12 Tournament, which means beating several ranked teams in a row.
“I think we have the talent,” junior Shakara Jones said. “Each game has been a battle and we’ve been in a lot of games.”
For now, Missouri will just focus on beating No. 13 Iowa State on Saturday. The Cyclones beat Missouri 65-39 on Feb. 7 at Mizzou Arena.
“It was a pretty disappointing loss when we played them here,” Richbow said. “I don’t think we played up to our potential. We just need to go check our mentalities and get pumped up.”