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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Commentary: Final Four missing 1 thing: the Big 12

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— Connecticut, Tennessee and LSU made the women's Final Four once again this season. ESPN executives must be jumping for joy. All is right with the world.

Oh, there's always one headache. Stanford clips must be hastily edited into some upcoming commercials. Get stellar guard Candice Wiggins ready for her much-deserved close-up.

But don't kid yourself. The powers-that-be have a proven successful formula, and it's almost a reality: UConn + Tennessee = Ratings.

Big 12 coaches, players and fans must be sick of watching the same two teams on national TV every week, every year. There's only one way to earn respect and TV time. You've got to generate headline-grabbing victories in the NCAA Tournament.

We can bang the drum until our arms give out about the strength of the Big 12.

A league-record eight teams made the NCAA field of 64. Five teams finished in the top 16 of the Associated Press Top 25 poll. The league boasts All-Americans, million-dollar coaches and the largest attendance figures of any conference in the country.

TV executives should be aching to schedule Big 12 women's games. Texas vs. Test Pattern will generate ratings. Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas State all draw eyeballs, too. If Oklahoma State's Andrea Riley challenged anyone to a steel cage match, I'd watch that.

Alas, here's the rub. Only two of the league's eight teams reached the NCAA regional semifinals.

At least they were two completely different teams. Texas A&M; and Oklahoma State both gave fans some new storylines and faces. If one or two three-pointers fall the right way, the Aggies would be headed to the Final Four.

Think about this for a moment. If A&M; had gone on to win the national title, the Aggies would have beaten Duke, Tennessee, LSU and probably UConn along the way.

It doesn't appear A&M; will drop off considerably despite the losses of seniors Morenike Atunrase, Aqua Franklin and Patrice Reado. Tyra White should return from a major knee injury. Takia Starks and Danielle Gant also make a dynamic 1-2 scoring punch.

All of the Big 12's current household names were bounced in the second round of the NCAAs. All have reasons for optimism next season.

Texas is rebuilding under Gail Goestenkors. Few coaches could have squeezed the talent out of the Longhorns quite like Goestenkors did in March.

Baylor was done in by its depth, or lack thereof. At least five new players are on the way.

Oklahoma has the Paris twins for one more season. But a quick word of advice for three-time All-American Courtney Paris: If you don't take control of this program and start demanding more accountability from your teammates, who will?

Kansas State is thriving in the post-Kendra Wecker era. Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly will always find somebody who can shoot three-pointers. Nebraska's Connie Yori may be the league's most underrated coach.

Oklahoma's 2002 Final Four run was a good story. Same for Texas in 2003. Baylor's 2005 national title was an inspiration. The Big 12 has been shut out since.

Until this league becomes a Final Four regular, the nation won't see how strong the Big 12 truly is.

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