2019-20 Big 12 Preview: Baylor the clear favorite, but the battle below them will be fierce

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 09: Baylor Bears Forward Lauren Cox (15) dribbles around Texas Tech Red Raiders Forward Brittany Brewer (20) during the BIG12 Women's basketball tournament between the Baylor and the Texas Tech on March 9, 2019, at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, OK. (Photo by David Stacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 09: Baylor Bears Forward Lauren Cox (15) dribbles around Texas Tech Red Raiders Forward Brittany Brewer (20) during the BIG12 Women's basketball tournament between the Baylor and the Texas Tech on March 9, 2019, at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, OK. (Photo by David Stacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Lady Bears can (and should) repeat as conference champs, but it’ll be much harder this season

The 2019-20 preseason Big 12 Conference poll doesn’t suggest a significantly different outcome compared to last season. It says that Baylor will win it all, perhaps by a landslide; Texas and a few others are going to give everyone good competition; and the bottom teams — well, they’re still at the bottom.

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But as in any conference as spread out as the Big 12, wins-wise — last season saw an undefeated team at the top and a two-win team at the bottom — it’s less about complete parity, and more about how those teams not at the top of the standings distinguish themselves. Because there’s a lot to be excited about besides the fight for the top of the standings.

Sure, the Lady Bears are the clear favorite to repeat. But if that prediction ends up panning out, the assurance that second place is wide-open is equally clear. Just look at last season, where Iowa State was projected to finish sixth but found themselves the conference tournament two-seed instead.

With six Big 12 teams earning postseason bids last season — four NCAA, two WNIT — finishing in that top six once again will be crucial for getting to play more games after the conference tournament. And with how some of these teams are looking going into this season, that top-six is, similarly, wide-open.

Before jumping into this season’s outlook, let’s re-orient ourselves with a quick look at last season’s standings:

  1. Baylor (18-0, 31-1)
  2. Iowa State (13-5, 25-8)
  3. Texas (12-6, 23-9)
  4. West Virginia (11-7, 20-10)
  5. Kansas State (11-7, 21-11)
  6. TCU (10-8, 20-10)
  7. Oklahoma State (5-13, 14-16)
  8. Texas Tech (4-14, 14-17)
  9. Oklahoma (4-14, 8-22)
  10. Kansas (2-16, 13-18)

Here are just a few of the significant storylines heading into 2019-20:

Can anyone slow Baylor’s roll?

As not just the defending Big 12 champions, but also the defending national champions, the target on the Baylor Lady Bears’ back is extra-big this season.

Preseason All-Big 12 Player of the Year Lauren Cox is expected to be back in playing shape after suffering a knee injury in the national championship game that, thankfully, didn’t require surgery. Starters Juicy Landrum and NaLyssa Smith also return; both, along with Cox, were voted to the Preseason All-Big 12 Team.

Despite the losses of Kalani Brown and Chloe Jackson to the WNBA, the Lady Bears have plenty of new firepower: graduate transfers Te’a Cooper (South Carolina) and Erin DeGrate (Texas Tech) as well as No. 12 freshman recruit Jordyn Oliver.

Baylor may not completely be able to repeat last season’s overall dominance with this group, though. This season’s non-conference schedule is a little weaker than last season’s, with a trip to UConn in January and a meeting with South Carolina in November’s Paradise Jam the only high-profile highlights. Both are teams the Lady Bears played — and beat — last season.

That said, the entire Big 12 also falls under the category of “teams that Baylor beat last season.” The Lady Bears finished 18-0 and won their conference games by an average of 23.2 points en route to their postseason triumphs.

But that’s not to say they weren’t challenged in Big 12 play. Although their dominance at home was unrivaled, Baylor had the tendency to become a different team on the road. Close wins at Oklahoma State, Texas and West Virginia were marked by abysmal field goal shooting and letting their opponents’ stars take over while watching their own stars (usually Brown) get shut down. With Cox in line to receive the attention down low this season that Brown got last season, finding points in the paint will be even more challenging in these games.

Texas, West Virginia prepare for big seasons

If all goes according to plan for the Longhorns and Mountaineers, the battle for the second seed will be between them — assuming neither picks up a major upset against Baylor.

The Longhorns have perhaps the most exciting newcomer in Celeste Taylor, the conference preseason Freshman of the Year who was New York’s 2019 Gatorade Player of the Year. She’ll join the returning core of Sug Sutton, Joyner Holmes and Jada Underwood. Texas also returns Lashann Higgs, who was granted a hardship waiver to play this season after tearing her ACL in the team’s fourth game last November. In 2017-18, her last full season, Higgs averaged 12.8 points per game and was third in scoring behind now-WNBA players Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty-Williams.

Although Texas has established their home court as a tough place for visiting teams to play, especially against in-state rivals, they experienced a bit of a slide at the end of last Big 12 season and lost four of their last five games at the Erwin Center. But with so much to look forward to this season, perhaps an improved home record — and maybe completing an upset against Baylor — is one of them.

West Virginia, on the other hand, is balancing the old with the new in a big way. Lucky Rudd leads the charge for the returners; this list also includes sophomores Kari Niblack and Madisen Smith, who both received All-Big 12 honors at the end of last season. In addition to two freshmen, most notably No. 51 recruit Kirsten Deans, the Mountaineers add four junior college transfers. Two of them, Blessing Ejiofor and Dekeriya Patterson — who were teammates at Chipola College in Marianna, Florida — have previous Division I experience at Vanderbilt and LSU, respectively.

However, the Mountaineers may be without Tynice Martin, who was suspended indefinitely on Aug. 3. Martin was charged with domestic battery in August and awaits her next court date. She was the team’s top scorer last season and, in spite of her suspension, was voted to the 2019-20 Preseason All-Big 12 Team.

Sooners poised to ascend

Oklahoma’s 2018-19 season was, by all measures, disappointing. They missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years — and a postseason tournament at all, for the first time since their last losing season 21 years ago — a far cry from their relatively recent postseason dominance.

This season, they’re projected to finish seventh. But given the right circumstances — thanks to the experimenting last season by 22-year head coach Sherri Coale that saw six returning players start 15 or more games — they could go much higher than that.

Despite losing 2018 Big 12 Freshman of the Year Shaina Pellington to transfer, the Sooners’ young core remains intact, led by Preseason All-Big 12 Team pick Ana Llanusa. In addition to returning a bevy of sophomores and juniors (Llanusa is the latter), they’re the only team in the Big 12 with two 2019 HoopGurlz recruits: Liz Scott and Gabby Gregory.

While Oklahoma won’t be contending to take back their mid-2000s reign at the top of the Big 12 right away, their ability to attract new high-level talent remains encouraging. And with some quality conference wins last season at West Virginia and against Oklahoma State, expect the Sooners to keep adding to that total.

Big 12 x USA Basketball

  • Brittany Brewer (Texas Tech) and Peyton Williams (Kansas State) were both on the Pan American Games team that won a silver medal.
  • Queen Egbo (Baylor), Ashley Joens (Iowa State) and Celeste Taylor (Texas) represented the United States in the FIBA U19 World Cup, where they won gold. NaLyssa Smith (Baylor) also made the team, but withdrew from the roster.
  • A team of Kansas State players — Jasauen Beard, Rachel Ranke, Christianna Carr and Ayoka Lee — won the USA Basketball 3×3 East Regional. One week later, a team from Oklahoma — Mandy Simpson, Gabby Gregory, Madi Williams and Taylor Robertson — won the South Regional. Qualifiers for this spring’s USA Basketball 3×3 National Championship will have a chance to represent Team USA in the inaugural Olympic 3×3 tournament in 2020, should the United States qualify.

More newbies to watch

  • Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw (Iowa State): A five-star recruit who is already in line for some starts this season, if not winning the starting point guard position
  • Angela Harris (Kansas State): A graduate transfer and former standout point guard at Houston; the “only NCAA Division I player entering 2019-20 with 1,000 or more points, 185 or more 3-point field goals made, 200 or more rebounds, 200 or more assists and 200 or more steals”
  • Jaycee Bradley (TCU): A transfer from South Dakota in her first year of eligibility after sitting out last season; was a starter on the 2017-18 Yotes squad that went undefeated in Summit League play
  • Alexis Tucker and Maka Jackson (Texas Tech): A four-star recruit and the No. 15 junior college transfer, respectively; both headline head coach Marlene Stollings’ first true recruiting class

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