By Will Parchman
Waco Tribune-Herald via Associated Press
Cinderella is glossing up her glass slipper. The Big 12 women’s tournament is here.
The conference’s annual postseason tournament kicks off at 6 p.m. Friday and dead ends into the conference championship game at 7 p.m. Monday. All nine tourney games over three days take place in the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
That’s a departure from years past, when the Big 12 twined the men’s and women’s tournaments together over the same long weekend in Kansas City. But attendance at the women’s games lagged behind the men’s enough that the conference opted to split the tournaments to optimize women’s attendance in a stand-alone event.
The conference will get a glimpse at how effective that measure is this weekend.
As it has been in recent years, the event is little more than a speed bump for top-ranked Baylor, easily the No. 1 seed with nothing more to prove before the NCAA tournament. But for a significant chunk of the tournament field, this weekend represents a vital postseason lifeline.
With all the upsets, unlikely stumbles and surprising final scores in the Big 12 during the regular season, the problem could be picking a dark horse. Especially judging by what the Lady Bears have seen in some hardscrabble first halves.
“I’ve thought everybody we played of late, especially after we won the Big 12, I think everybody’s playing well,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “I think they’re trying to knock of the No. 1 team in the country. I think they’re motivated to play us and I think we’ve taken everybody’s best shot.”
The toughest task could be merely picking winners behind the Lady Bears, who are easy money to win this tournament for a third consecutive year. Baylor kicks off its tournament Saturday at 1:30 p.m. against the winner of the Texas-Kansas State game at 6 p.m. Friday.
Aside from Baylor, which went 18-0 in conference for a second consecutive year, everybody in the Big 12 has at least six losses. That’s only the second time that’s happened in the last decade.
Iowa State captured the No. 2 seed by finishing 12-6 in conference, a win better than Oklahoma and Texas Tech, but its perch as the conference’s second-best team is a precarious one. Headed into the final weekend, the Cyclones had everything to play for, and yet they dropped an inexplicable 61-58 loss to TCU in Fort Worth.
The Horned Frogs finished the regular season comfortably in the Big 12 cellar at 2-16. What does it mean that the conference’s supposed second-best team lost to its supposed worst team just a week ago? That’s to be determined this weekend.
TCU faces No. 7 seed Kansas in the play-in round Friday at 8:30 p.m., and the winner faces Iowa State in the quarterfinals. That could well be the Horned Frogs’ second crack at an upset of the Cyclones in as many weeks.
“I didn’t know this until yesterday that we don’t have another Big 12 team in the top 25,” Mulkey said. “If there are that many teams better than the Big 12 this year, it’s going to be an exciting NCAA tournament.”
Elsewhere, in the meaty center of the conference, there are two prime matchups out of the box. In the two quarterfinals already set that bookend Saturday’s action, No. 4 seed Texas Tech squares off against No. 5 Oklahoma State at 11 a.m., and No. 3 Oklahoma faces No. 6 West Virginia at 8:30 p.m.
Both games are near impossible to predict. Oklahoma and West Virginia split the regular-season set, and while Tech swept the Cowgirls, both games were decided by single digits.
While every Big 12 team aside from Baylor is angling to improve its NCAA tournament seed, Kansas perhaps has the most to prove. In ESPN analyst Charlie Creme’s most recent bracket, the Jayhawks were on the wrong side of the bubble. Kansas State, TCU and Texas likely need to win the conference tournament to gain entry.