Big 12 Preview: Cyclones will be chasing Lady Bears

NCAA Women’s Final Four - National Championship
If DiDi Richards is able to play at full strength this season, watch out for Baylor. | Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The No. 4 Baylor Lady Bears have won the Big 12 regular season 10 years in a row and return a trio of stars (NaLyssa Smith, Queen Egbo and DiDi Richards) picked to make the preseason all-conference team. The Texas Longhorns are predicted to finish second behind Baylor, but the No. 15 Iowa State Cyclones may disagree with that.

A spinal cord shock injury suffered by Baylor Lady Bear senior DiDi Richards in a practice three weeks ago gave the women’s basketball community a scare, but last year’s national Defensive Player of the Year is expected to make a full recovery. Whether or not she will be at 100 percent on the basketball court this season remains to be seen, but Baylor should probably be the favorite to win the Big 12 either way. Before Richards’ injury, the Lady Bears were predicted to finish first by the league’s head coaches.

Every year since their first national championship in 2005, the Lady Bears have been to at least the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and they’ve been to at least the Sweet Sixteen every year since 2009. All that is on the national stage. In the Big 12, Baylor is flat-out dominant and it’s going to be hard to change that even if Richards misses some time or isn't 100 percent.

The Texas Longhorns and Iowa State Cyclones were picked to finish second and third, respectively.

Texas returns potential No. 1 overall WNBA Draft pick Charli Collier and is hoping that new head coach Vic Schaefer can bring back the glory days of the 80s, when the team reached seven Sweet Sixteens in a row and won it all in 1986. Schaefer is a proven winner who took the Mississippi State Bulldogs to two national title games.

The Longhorns took one of the 10 first-place votes in the preseason coaches poll away from the Lady Bears, while the Cyclones received none. But one could make the case that Iowa State returns more talent than Texas and it definitely brings in a better recruiting class.

Rewind: A look at where the Big 12 left off

The Big 12 did not even get to start its conference tournament last year after Baylor took home the regular season crown with a 17-1 record. The global COVID-19 pandemic forced everything to shut down on March 12, the day the tournament was scheduled to begin. The Lady Bears’ only conference loss came to the Cyclones in the last game of their regular season on March 8.

Baylor’s Lauren Cox won the conference’s Player of the Year award despite missing some time with a foot injury. Richards was named Defensive Player of the Year for the Big 12 and the country. Te’a Cooper, who spent just one season with Baylor and has now graduated, was named Co-Newcomer of the Year along with Natasha Mack of the Oklahoma State Cowgirls. Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee took home Freshman of the Year, Baylor’s Queen Egbo earned the Sixth Player Award and Baylor coach Kim Mulkey was Coach of the Year.

Highlights: DiDi Richards shows off her defense

The 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the pandemic, but five Big 12 teams made Swish Appeal’s hypothetical bracket, including Baylor as a 3-seed. The other teams included in the hypothetical bracket were: Texas (7-seed), TCU (8-seed), Iowa State (9-seed) and West Virginia (13-seed).

Team-by-team analysis

Here’s where each team stands entering the 2020-21 season, in order of the preseason standings predicted by the Big 12’s head coaches:

1) Baylor Lady Bears

Baylor is just a year and a half removed from its third national championship and is expected to be among the best teams in the country again with a No. 4 preseason ranking in the AP poll. Returning stars NaLyssa Smith, Queen Egbo and DiDi Richards are deservedly garnering attention, though not one of them has reached superstar status yet.

Baylor lost Big 12 Player of the Year Lauren Cox, star guard Te’a Cooper and 3-point specialist Juicy Landrum to graduation but should be in good shape with the additions of DiJonai Carrington (transfer from Stanford), Sarah Andrews (No. 12 Hoop Gurlz recruit) and Hannah Gusters (No. 16 recruit).

Smith has been named Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year, while Andrews is the Preseason Freshman of the Year and Carrington is the Preseason Newcomer of the Year. Not a bad list of awards to start the season.

2) Texas Longhorns

The Longhorns lost four contributors to graduation: WNBA draftees Joyner Holmes and Sug Sutton, starter Jada Underwood and key bench player Lashann Higgs. They are left with two of their starters from last year: Charli Collier and Celeste Taylor. Collier, a junior, is an inside-out scorer at 6-foot-5 and had a breakout sophomore season. She is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft if she comes out as a junior, but still has room for improvement and a lot left to accomplish in Austin. Taylor is now a sophomore who will need to play a bigger role this season. Kyra Lambert, a graduate transfer from Duke, will likely be the starting point guard and will look to complement Taylor in the backcourt.

Texas also adds the No. 86, 90 and 97 recruits in Ashley Chevalier, DeYona’ Gaston and Shay Holle, respectively.

3) Iowa State Cyclones

Cyclone junior guard/forward Ashley Joens was one of the best scorers in the NCAA last year and returns as arguably the best player in the Big 12. In 2019-20, the Cyclones never cracked the Top 25 and their triumph over Baylor at end of the season was a shocker. But expectations are high for Iowa State this year — it is the No. 15 team in the preseason AP poll, while Texas is unranked.

A key element to the Cyclones’ success will be the play of senior forward/center Kristin Scott, who is the team’s next-best player after Joens. Scott dealt with back spasms on and off last year but is well-rested from quarantining. Iowa State hopes she can be at her best all season. The Cyclones return their top four scorers in Joens, Scott, senior guard Rae Johnson and sophomore guard Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw.

The Cyclones also welcome a fantastic recruiting class with four prospects in the Top 100: Lexi Donarski (No. 14), Aubrey Joens (No. 52), Emily Ryan (No. 70) and Kylie Feuerbach (No. 71). Aubrey Joens is the younger sister of Ashley Joens and it seems that good days are ahead for them and the Cyclones, who haven’t made the Sweet Sixteen since 2010.

4) Kansas State Wildcats

Ayoka Lee, a 6-foot-6 center, won Big 12 Freshman of the Week 12 times last year so it was no surprise when she was named Freshman of the Year for the conference. She averaged 15.7 points and 11.4 rebounds for the Wildcats on the season, leading them in both categories by slim margins ahead of Peyton Williams. With Williams and Angela Harris graduated, the door is open for Texas Tech transfer Sydney Goodson and returner Rachel Ranke to become Lee’s co-stars. Both are guards who will try to replace the 4.3 assists per game that Harris averaged last year.

5) West Virginia Mountaineers

The Mountaineers’ leading scorer Kysre Gondrezick and third-best scorer Kari Niblack headline the team’s roster, which has lost guard Tynice Martin to graduation. West Virginia needs Niblack to turn into a co-star behind Gondrezick to compete with the best teams in the Big 12. Niblack will likely be more of a focal point on offensive with Martin gone so her 10.3 scoring average should go up, but she also needs to do better on the glass — the whole team does. Niblack led the Mountaineers with just 6.9 boards per game in 2019-20.

6) Texas Tech Lady Raiders

Second-round WNBA Draft pick Brittany Brewer leaves behind some big shoes to fill. But the addition of Vivian Gray, a projected first-round pick, gives Texas Tech fans reason to be optimistic. Gray, a transfer from Oklahoma State who averaged 19.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.6 steals last year and has been granted immediate eligibility with the Raiders.

Even more optimism should be inspired by the depth that the Lady Raiders have this year. Chrislyn Carr and Lexi Gordon backed out of the transfer portal when last year’s head coach Marlene Stollings was fired and they will now play for new head coach Krista Gerlich. Both will be major contributors for Texas Tech this year and transfers Najé Murray (San Diego State/Cal) and Emma Clarke (Colorado) could become key players as well. Alexis Tucker, Jo’Nah Johnson and Andrayah Adams, who each scored at least 6.8 points per game last year, round out a very good eight-player rotation. If everything goes right, the Lady Raiders have a good chance at finishing higher than sixth.

7) Oklahoma Sooners

The Sooners return Taylor Robertson, who is predicted to be on the All-Big 12 Team, but the loss of Ana Llanusa for the season due to injury is huge. Llanusa, a 6-foot senior guard, averaged 15.4 points for Oklahoma last year, trailing only Robertson and Madi Williams. The latter will be back to help Robertson and has a chance to be on the all-conference team as well if she can keep her rebounding numbers up. However, the Sooners may have trouble keeping up with the star power on other teams without one member of their big three.

8) Oklahoma State Cowgirls

The Cowgirls enter this season lacking scoring depth. Last year it was basically Vivian Gray and Natasha Mack doing all the scoring and with Gray transferring to Texas Tech there is a lot of pressure now on Mack’s shoulders. She averaged 17.6 points last year and the next-best scorer after her was Ja’Mee Asberry with just 6.8. Asberry is also back and the Cowgirls hope that 6-foot-1 freshman wing Taylen Collins can step in and contribute right away. Collins is the No. 77 recruit in the nation.

Mack, a senior, also recorded 12.5 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per contest last year and is projected as the No. 3 pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft.

9) TCU Horned Frogs

Lauren Heard is in a similar situation to Mack. The senior guard, who led the Horned Frogs in scoring en route to a second-place finish in the Big 12 last year, had to part ways with the team’s next three scorers in graduating seniors Kianna Ray, Jayde Woods and Jaycee Bradley. Heard, who averaged 18.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, four assists and 2.1 steals per game last year, can only hope that George Washington transfer Kayla Mokwuah will be granted immediate eligibility so that she can help out.

10) Kansas Jayhawks

The Jayhawks are a little underrated here in last place. They return their top two scorers, Aniya Thomas and Zakiyah Franklin, and five of the six players who significantly contributed in the category. The other three are Tina Stephens (who led the team in rebounding), Holly Kersgieter and Brooklyn Mitchell. Second-leading scorer Mariane De Carvalho graduated, but she is the only contributor that has left. Look for Kansas to compete against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU.

Preseason nods

As voted on by the Big 12’s head coaches:

Player of the Year: NaLyssa Smith (Baylor)

All-Big 12 Team: Queen Egbo (Baylor), DiDi Richards (Baylor), NaLyssa Smith (Baylor), Ashley Joens (Iowa State), Ayoka Lee (Kansas State), Taylor Robertson (Oklahoma), Natasha Mack (Oklahoma State), Lauren Heard (TCU), Charli Collier (Texas), Vivian Gray (Texas Tech)

Key conference dates

Dec. 2: Big 12 season start (Iowa State vs. TCU)

Must-see Big 12 matchups

Jan. 3: Iowa State vs. Texas. Battle between the two biggest threats to Baylor.

Jan. 16: Iowa State vs. Baylor. Can the Cyclones upset Baylor in a regular season game like they did last year?

Feb. 3: Kansas State vs. Texas Tech. Battle between two very good teams that could be fighting to make the tournament or fighting for seeding.