By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
After years of lingering in the shadow of the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball program, West Virginia University’s Mike Carey and his Lady Mountaineers finally have escaped to the Big 12.
“It’s amazing. All those years we were in with Connecticut winning national championships, and we come to the Big 12 with Baylor who won the national championship and has all five starters back,” Carey said moments before taking his team onto the court for its first practice of the 2012-13 season.
“I don’t know. Like I said, we played Baylor two years ago at Baylor, and the atmosphere was unbelievable, just as good as Connecticut’s, so I don’t really see a drop-off there.”
Baylor not only has all five starters back, but one of them is one of the greatest players in the history of women’s basketball, 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner, who led them to an undefeated national championship last season.
It has to be difficult going into season after season hoping you can win a championship, trying to win a championship but deep down knowing that the championship goes through Connecticut or through Baylor and that the chances are you won’t win.
“You know what? I know I’m going to sound like every basketball coach, but that doesn’t ever cross my mind,” Carey said. “There were games we went into Connecticut that I expected to win, and I was very disappointed we didn’t win those games.
“I’m looking forward to playing Baylor. You may think I’m crazy, but I am looking forward to playing Baylor. Any time you have an opportunity to play against players of that caliber, as a coach or as a player, you should look forward to that opportunity,” Carey said.
He offered up a game from last year as an example.
“No one thought we were going to go to Notre Dame and beat them when they were No. 2 in the country, but we did,” Carey recalled. “I never go into a game thinking we aren’t going to win. I expect to win the game and if we don’t there’s consequences the players are going to pay.”
The Mountaineers figure to be one of the top contenders in the Big 12, a conference that is somewhat different from the Big East.
“The big difference is playing each team twice, home and home,” said Carey.
But there is also a difference in style of play.
“There’s a lot more size in the Big 12. Everybody has 6-5, 6-6, 6-7. Everyone has two or three post players, unlike the Big East. The guards are a little bit taller. There are probably more shooters, not as many athletic guards as there are in the Big East,” Carey said.
“We’re not going to change. We’re going to continue to recruit what we recruit. We’re going to continue to play the style we play.”
And then he added a comment that lets you know the attitude Carey brings into the Big 12.
“In my opinion, they have to adjust to us just as much as we have to adjust to them,” he said.
WVU has its two big players in Ya Ya Dunning and Aysa Bussie, who was named preseason honorable mention All-Big 12. They are among 10 returning players to go with five freshmen.
Taylor Palmer is back as a scorer, Jess Harlee as a defender and rebounder and as the team leader, while Brooke Hampton will run the team from the point.
“I thought we had great leadership this summer. Ya Ya Dunning and Jess Harlee did a great job of leadership,” he said. “I think we’re in better shape. I think we’re stronger. Everyone is real positive.”
It is the attitude that Carey likes best.
“There was not a time when I didn’t hear a basketball bouncing on the court and the light being on. It was great. Now I can’t watch it, but I could hear it. No one can stop me from hearing it,” Carey said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.