KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Krista Gerlich played back when the Big 12 was one of the top women's basketball conferences in the country, leading Texas Tech to the national championship a few years before the Southwest Conference dissolved and it was absorbed by the league.
The Lady Raiders were back in the Elite Eight in 2000 and 2003, the same year that Texas made it to the Final Four. That was about the time that Sherri Coale had turned Oklahoma into a mainstay, making the national semifinals three out of four years and taking the Sooners to the championship game in 2002, and Iowa State was making deep March runs.
Then there was Baylor. After five years of building, Kim Mulkey coached the Lady Bears to the national championship, then won titles again in 2012 and 2019 before leaving three seasons ago for LSU, where she just won a another title.
That was then. These days, the Big 12 is fighting for a bit of relevance.
The league hasn't had a team reach the Final Four since the Lady Bears' last national title. Six qualified for the NCAA Tournament last spring, none was seeded better than fourth and none made it out of the opening weekend. Fifth-seeded Iowa State was upset by No. 12 seed Toledo, which was promptly beaten 94-47 by Tennessee in the next round.
“There is such great women's basketball in our conference,” countered Gerlich, whose Lady Raiders won 20 games and went to the WNIT last season. “Really elite coaches — high-level coaches, and I think it's important to be a part of a conference that can showcase women's basketball. Texas Tech has a rich history in women's basketball and we want to showcase that.”
Making some new history would be even better.
The Big 12 will have to come from off the radar to do it. The Pac-12 landed six schools in the preseason AP Top 25, including fourth-ranked UCLA and No. 5 Utah. The SEC had five, headlined by the reigning champion Tigers at No. 1. So did the Big Ten, with national runner-up Iowa at No. 3, and the ACC, which has Virginia Tech and Notre Dame in the top 10.
The Big 12 managed only two in the poll: No. 13 Texas and No. 19 Baylor.
“You have to go live it,” Longhorns coach Vic Schaefer said. “You have to go earn it in March. What someone thinks about you in August and September and October is nice, but it doesn't mean anything. We're trying to go earn it.”
The four newcomers to the Big 12 — Cincinnati, Houston and UCF from the American Athletic and BYU from the West Coast — have some work to do in their new league after each of them failed to finish at .500 last season.
The Bearcats fired Michelle Clark-Heard after finishing 9-21 last season and hired Katrina Merriweather, who led Wright State to the NCAA Tournament and spent the past two years at Memphis. Houston slipped to 15-16 after consecutive winning seasons, UCF's Sytia Messer is coming off a 14-15 finish in her first season at a program that has had some recent success, and BYU will try to get back to the NCAA Tournament in Amber Whiting's second season.
Kansas State forward Ayoka Lee is back after missing last season with a knee injury. Two years ago, the 6-foot-6 Lee set the women's Division I record for points in a single game with 61, and finished with 22 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
SPEAKING OF WELCOME
Merriweather isn't the only one taking over a new program. Mark Campbell was hired by TCU after leading Sacramento State to the NCAA Tournament, and Mark Kellogg by West Virginia after two NCAA trips in eight seasons at Stephen F. Austin.
“I’ve learned with young people, don’t limit them,” said Campbell, whose Horned Frogs were 8-23 a year ago. “I think the sky’s the limit with this group, a really talented group, and that really enjoys each other.”
RICH GET RICHER
Not only is Texas favored to win the league, led by preseason player of the year Rori Harmon, the Longhorns also have the preseason freshman of the year in Madison Booker, who won gold with the U.S. at the FIBA under-19 World Cup last summer.
This will be the final season in the Big 12 for the Sooners and Longhorns, two of its most successful programs. Both depart for the SEC next season, when Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah are due to arrive from the Pac-12.