Oklahoma coach hopes for NCAA title
IRVING, Texas (AP) -- Only one first team All-American is returning to the court for Big 12 play this season and Oklahoma's favorite status rests squarely on her shoulders.
Senior guard Stacey Dales hopes she can lead Oklahoma, last year's Big 12 champions, to San Antonio for the NCAA Final Four tournament in March. A Final Four bid for Oklahoma, which many say is likely, would represent the first since the conference's 1996 inception.
The Sooners lost to Washington in the third round of last year's NCAA tournament.
Dales and coach Sherri Coale were among Big 12 players and coaches who discussed their championship hopes Wednesday at the Big 12 Women's Media Day.
Unlike last year's freshman-laden teams, Big 12 play this season will be dominated by upperclassmen -- a change that coaches think will increase the caliber of an already tough conference.
"We finally have the seniors and the veterans who have been through the Big 12 that can offer their leadership," said Colorado coach Ceal Barry.
Iowa State is the only exception, with four starters gone.
Still, speculation abounds about when a Big 12 team will advance to the Final Four -- something that hasn't happened although the league always has a dominant presence in the NCAA tournament.
"It's a dog fight every single night in the Big 12 tournament," Coale said. "They just get worn out. It's a marathon they have to endure and they're just worn out when they get to the Sweet 16.
"If we're going to say we're the best, one of us has to get in the Final Four and we have to win a championship."
Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp, who finished last year second in the Big 12, is optimistic about her season despite a particularly tough schedule.
"This is one of the most difficult non-conference schedules I've seen," said Sharp, whose Lady Raiders will open the season Nov. 3 at Duke. "It's become something of a monster, but our goal is to be the best we can be in March. We're geared up and excited."
After an injury-plagued season last year, Texas coach Jody Conradt believes her team's luck will turn around this year.
"We focused our recruiting this year on finding perimeter shooters so that we could have an inside and out attack. We were not very effective on the second half of that last year," said Conradt, whose team finished seventh in Big 12 play last season. "Injuries changed our style of play dramatically. We were struggling and were worn down physically. This year we've got more depth and that will help get us back up to a more uptempo game."
Iowa State, which finished third in the conference last year, will need to find depth in its freshman class after losing four starters. Angie Welle, last year's Big 12 tournament MVP, says this year's freshman class will step up to that challenge.
"I think the biggest key will be to stay focused and be ready to go every single game," Welle said. "If we keep that mentality, we can win the conference. I think we have a class that can do that. We have better and better players every year."
Baylor senior Danielle Crockrom said last year's trip to the NCAA tournament, the first for Baylor, was a learning experience. Baylor ended the season sixth in the Big 12.
"It was unbelievable for me," Crockrom said. "I wasn't sure how far Baylor could go, but Coach Kim (Mulky-Robertson) believed in us so much. I was honored to be a part of that turnaround. It was indescribable."