KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — It seemed almost fitting that Texas and Oklahoma, two schools that so often feel attached at the hip, would share the regular-season Big 12 women's basketball championship this season.
Sure, the Longhorns and the Sooners have one year left in the league before departing together for the SEC, but it goes beyond that: They're tradition-rich women's programs that endured several years of mediocrity, recent coaching changes and quick rebuilds to find themselves back in the upper echelon of college hoops.
"These kids have a four-year career and I don't think it's fair to say, 'Hey, let's get through the year and the best is in front of us,' and all that," said Texas coach Vic Schaefer, who has led the Longhorns to consecutive Elite Eight trips after replacing Karen Aston. "I think the standard is the standard."
In Austin, that standard is measured in championships.
The No. 15 Longhorns won their first Big 12 Tournament title in nearly 20 years last season, and will begin defense of it Friday as the top seed against the winner of No. 8 seed Texas Tech and No. 9 seed Kansas State, who play a first-round game Thursday at Municipal Auditorium.
The other first-round game pits No. 7 seed Kansas against 10th-seed TCU with the winner earning a date with the second-seeded and No. 14 Sooners on Friday.
The two quarterfinals will feature No. 4 seed Oklahoma State facing fifth-seeded West Virginia, precariously riding the NCAA Tournament bubble, and No. 3 seed Iowa State playing sixth-seeded Baylor.
If the seeds play out, the Longhorns would play the Sooners on Sunday for the championship, having beaten them by an average margin of 21 points in their two meetings during the regular season.
The Sooners' share of the regular-season title was their first since 2009; their Big 12 tourney drought dates to 2007.
"The goal is always win the Big 12," Sooners senior guard Taylor Robertson said, "because you want to compete for championships. We we're able to do that a few years ago. But we kept getting better each year, and we believed in each other. And we knew if we stayed and we put in the work we'd have a chance to do something like this."
Oklahoma's leading scorer, Madi Williams, banged knees with an Oklahoma State player in the regular-season finale last weekend and it's unclear whether she will play in Kansas City. Williams is averaging 15.7 points.
"I can tell you I know she's doing everything she can and she really wants to play," Sooners coach Jennie Baranczyk said. "We're also keeping her future in mind for everything. She'll be back at some point. I just don't know when."
ONE MORE TIME
This will be the last Big 12 tourney for Iowa State's Ashley Joens, the league's player of the year. She could have been a top WNBA pick last season but chose to return for a fifth season that was granted by the NCAA for the COVID-19 season.
"We've got a lot left to do. It's kind of a new season," said Joens, the Cyclones' career scoring leader. "You have to go out every game and if you lose, you're done. You give it all you can and leave everything on the court."
The Mountaineers are trying do solidify their spot in the NCAA Tournament with a couple of wins this week. Kansas could also take some of the stress out of Selection Sunday with a win or two. Kansas State likely needs a run to the title game, and maybe win it, for the Wildcats to have a chance at making the field of 68.
Then there are Texas and Oklahoma, who are trying to earn top-four seeds for the NCAA Tournament. That would give them the opportunity to host first- and second-round games in front of their home fans.
Oklahoma State is poised to return to the NCAA tourney after going 9-20 under Jim Littell last season. But judging by the way the Cowgirls felt after losing to Oklahoma last weekend, their improvement to 20 wins and counting hasn't been enough.
"We're a pretty damn good team," said Jacie Hoyt, who took over after turning Kansas City into a mid-major contender. "We've beaten almost everyone and the teams that we haven't beat, we were right there."