By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
West Virginia University’s women’s basketball team begins its winter-long quest of the Big 12 championship at 8 p.m. today at Kansas.
Unlike a season ago, when WVU joined the Big 12, the Mountaineers come into the conference season brimming with confidence and feeling as if they can win the title.
Last season the championship was assumed to belong to Brittney Griner and her Baylor Bears and they did not disappoint, going through a second consecutive undefeated league season, finishing with only one blemish on their record and that coming in the national championship game.
While Baylor rode its star inside player, WVU had to go through the season without its, Asya Bussie suffering a knee injury in pre-season that sidelined her for the entire year, a disaster at the time but now a blessing for she is back at full strength to lead an experienced WVU team into the season.
“It’s wide open,” WVU coach Mike Carey said. “I think it’s tough. There’s a lot of teams who are the same kind of teams. Whoever can stay focused can win.”
What Carey is sure of is that there will be no dominant team.
“I don’t think anyone will go undefeated in this conference like Baylor did the last couple of years. That’s not going to happen,” Carey said. “I think you could have three, four, five losses and still have a great opportunity to win the conference this year.”
With it being wide open, Carey believes his team that comes in riding an 11-game winning streak after losing the opener to Ohio State has a strong chance to win the title.
“I think there are four or five teams who can win the conference … and I believe we’re one of them,” Carey said.
His players are of the same feeling.
“The past few years Baylor has separated itself from the rest of the teams, but this year it’s wide open,” senior center Asya Bussie said.
WVU did all it could to get itself ready for conference play, although the schedule could have been more difficult.
“I told the team the other day everyone needs to step it up now. It’s the second season,” Carey said. “I need to step it up. The coaches need to step it up; the players need to step it up.”
Kansas is a particularly difficult test for WVU to open against. First off, it’s on the road, as is the second game on Saturday at Oklahoma State, but playing on the road doesn’t normally bother WVU. Last season the Mountaineers were 7-5 on the road, including a 72-56 victory at Kansas.
That was no easy task, either, as the Jayhawks went to the Sweet 16 last season.
“I said it several times last year that I thought we were more focused on the road than we were at home,” Carey noted. “Hopefully we’ll continue to do that and be focused at home.”
Since then, though, they were hit hard by graduation, losing three starters, and are a different type team this year, going more to its big inside player Chelsea Gardner.
“They are looking to go into the 5 a little more than they did last year,” Carey said. “The point guard did a lot of the scoring last year.
“They play a lot of man, a lot of 2-3. I was kind of surprised, they’re probably a little more athletic than we are at every position. They get up and down the floor, go inside-out a lot. It’s going to be a big challenge.”
Kansas comes into the game sporting a 7-5 record.
WVU has balanced scoring, led by Bussie at 14.5 points a game with Bria Holmes scoring 14, Christal Caldwell 12.4 and Taylor Palmer 12.7 off the bench.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.