Big game, already a huge season
First-year coach Jennie Baranczyk's Sooners atop a resurgent Big 12, finding success it took even her hall-of-fame predecessor several seasons to enjoy
The Sooner women are at Kansas State Sunday and it ought to be a good one.
More than that, it’s a big game in the conference, with NCAA Tournament implications, too.
The Big 12 is threatening to be strong in the way it hasn’t since the early 2000s, when Oklahoma and Baylor were at the top, Iowa State was right there, Texas Tech remained terrific under the legendary Marsha Sharp, as did Texas under under the more legendary Jody Conradt and Kansas State and Colorado were really good, too.
OU’s first trip to the Final Four, under Sherri Coale in 2002, all seven of the aforementioned programs received NCAA Tournament bids and all seven No. 4 seeds or better, giving the conference seven of the first 16 slots in the tourney. Few remember, but it was league rival Colorado the Sooners had to beat to get to their original Final Four.
It was a glorious time for women’s hoops in these parts and we may be heading back to those times, even if the pollsters are a touch late to the party.
Right now, ESPN women’s hoops bracketologist Charlie Creme has six of the Big 12’s 10 teams in the field of 64: Iowa State a No. 3 seed, OU a No. 4, Baylor a No. 4, Texas a No. 5, Kansas State a No. 6, Kansas a No. 9.
In the polls, it’s the Cyclones No. 7, Sooners No. 14, Longhorns and Lady Bears tied at No. 15, Wildcats No. 30 if the AP media poll were carried out to each team receiving votes and Kansas No. 35.
It’s great, it’s cool.
It could mean, too, even should those those six teams beat up on each other, they’re unlikely to lose standing with the NCAA selection committee; a state of affairs the Big 12 men are enjoying, all but maybe coach Porter Moser’s Sooners, who can’t score or take care of the ball, but that’s another column.
The conference’s success is also serving to make OU’s first campaign under coach Jennie Baranczyk that much more impressive.
Likewise, looking at Baranczyk’s inaugural season through the prism of Sherri Coale’s 25-year tenure yields still more reason to be impressed.
Coale inherited a program with attendance in the tens, not even the hundreds, but not one that hadn’t enjoyed success.
In 1993-94, coach Burl Plunkett’s Sooners missed the NCAA Tournament, yet won the WNIT. The next season they reached the tourney and the Sweet 16, too. The next, his last, OU was 11-6 before falling apart, losing eight of its last nine.
Coale arrived and won five games, then eight, then 15, reaching the WNIT, before beginning a run of 18 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including three trips to the Final Four and eight Sweet 16 appearances between 2000 and 2011.
Under Baranczyk, who took over a program that had gone 8-22, 12-18 and 12-12 its previous three seasons, OU’s on an even steeper arc than Coale’s fourth team, the one that began the streak of 18 Big Dances with a Sweet 16 appearance.
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The Sooners will walk into Manhattan 16-2 and 5-1 in league play, tied atop the conference with Iowa State, which beat them on Jan. 5 in Norman.
Should OU win, it will be three victories from the program’s first 20-win season since 2016-17 with 12 regular-season games remaining.
The last time the Sooners claimed 16 of 18 triumphs to begin a season was 2008-09, when Coale’s Sooners began 24-2, reached No. 2 in the polls and finished in the Final Four.
Baranczyk’s Sooners are second in the nation in scoring at 88.4 points per game and lead the nation at 20.8 assists per outing, rates they’ve maintained despite losing Ana Llanusa, who was averaging 17.3 points, to a season-ending injury in game No. 10.
They’re not just doing it without Llanusa, but without an All-American point guard like the great Stacey Dales, who piloted Sooner squads famous for getting up and down the court and scoring in bunches, yet none that averaged any more 81.9 points, while no band of Sooners have averaged more than the 84.5 coach Maura McHugh’s* squad averaged through the 1984-85 season.
* Can we just spend a moment on Maura McHugh? Nobody remembers her, yet over seven seasons, finishing in 1987, she went 142-70 with four 20-win seasons, taking the program to its first Sweet 16 in 1986, even hosting a first-round NCAA tourney game that season against Vanderbilt. Almost 20 years later, she was a head coach in the ABL and WNBA, too. The top-four scoring teams in program history netted 84.5, 83.7, 83.2 and 82.6 points. All were McHugh’s, in 1984-85, 1983-84, 1982-83 and 1985-86.
Beyond all that, Baranczyk’s Sooners have played only one bad game, their loss to the Cyclones, after which the coach told media she and her staff had put too much into the players' heads in preparation, keeping them from playing loose and free.
After falling 81-71 to Iowa State, OU has responded by topping Kansas 82-68, Baylor 83-77, TCU 100-71 and West Virginia 88-76.
Kansas State’s 14-4 and 4-2, with victories over Oregon, which owns OU’s first loss, and Baylor and fell by just three to Iowa State.
The Wildcats are allowing 56.2 points, more than 32 less than the Sooners are scoring.
It ought to be a good one.
Already, it’s been a fantastic season.