Finishing below .500 in conference play normally ruins a team’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
For Missouri, going 7-9 in the Big 12 Conference and finishing in a three-way tie for seventh are main reasons it is heading to Tempe, Ariz., to face Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 10:30 p.m. Saturday.
Although Missouri’s strong finish and decent nonconference schedule helped it earn a spot in the field of 64, it is safe to say the Tigers would not be going to the NCAA Tournament if not for the strength of the Big 12.
The conference’s RPI ranking is No. 2 and six Big 12 teams are ranked in the top 17 of this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll. Given the conference’s competitive nature, Big 12 coaches argued the conference deserved at least seven NCAA Tournament bids throughout the season.
The coaches were not disappointed, for seven Big 12 teams earned a bid Sunday, the third time in the past four years the conference accomplished the feat.
“We’re elated to have seven this year and we probably would have fought for eight to get in,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson said. “I just think the league is that good.”
The situation was much different last season when the conference’s RPI ranking was No. 6 and five Big 12 teams made the NCAA Tournament. Missouri was 9-7 and finished sixth in the Big 12 in 2003 but did not earn an NCAA berth. Baylor was also shut out of the tournament last season despite finishing the regular season with 20 wins. Mulkey-Robertson said she is glad the conference got the respect it deserves this year.
“We were extremely disappointed last year when they only took five,” Mulkey-Robertson said. “I think we’ve got to continue to recognize that it’s not being too generous to one league but it’s being fair and saying, ‘Let’s put the best 64 teams in the tournament.’ If those 64 happen to be all from a few conferences, then so be it.”
Although Missouri, the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region, is glad to be a part of the NCAA Tournament field, its six Big 12 counterparts have serious national title aspirations. Five Big 12 teams are seeded No. 4 or higher.
Texas, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, hopes to return to the Final Four for the second straight year and avenge last season’s 71-69 loss to Connecticut in a national semifinal.
Kansas State shared the Big 12 regular-season title with Texas and is the No. 2 seed in the Mideast Region. The Wildcats have a potent balance of inside and outside talent that might lift them to their first Final Four.
Although Texas and Kansas State were favorites to challenge for the national title from the beginning of the season, Oklahoma is the hottest Big 12 team and is worthy of national title consideration.
The Sooners stormed through the Big 12 Tournament, winning four games in five days, including blowouts against Kansas State in the semifinals and Texas in the final.
The Sooners are the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region, and if they beat Marist in the first round Saturday, they will face the Missouri-Stanford winner Monday.
Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said she does not expect the same electric atmosphere in Tempe that her team experienced during the Big 12 Tournament in Dallas, but she doesn’t think that will slow her team’s momentum.
“The way our kids feel right now about themselves and the way we are playing we might just go out (and play) on the tennis court and be all right,” Coale said.
TICKETS: All-session tickets for the first two rounds in Tempe are available. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $10 for students and can be bought online at www.thesundevils.com or at the Arizona State ticket office at 1-888-786-3857.