KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ask a different coach, and you’ll get a different answer to define this year’s Big 12 women’s basketball tournament.
Iowa State’s Bill Fennelly called it a celebration.
Kansas State’s Deb Patterson called it a showplace.
Oklahoma’s Sheri Coale called it compelling.
And all 10 schools can call it a finale. The 16th annual tournament, which tips off tonight with two first-round games at Municipal Auditorium, will be staged for the 11th and most likely final time in Kansas City.
The tournament will shift to the American Airlines Center in Dallas in 2013 and the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City in 2014 when the Big 12, for the first time next year, stages its women’s tournaments the weekend before the men’s tournaments in Kansas City.
The expectations of better attendance and attraction of shinier venues led to the switch south.
“Ticket sales have been dwindling in Kansas City for the last several years,” said Dru Hancock, Big 12 senior associate commissioner, “and our women’s coaches continue to maintain that Municipal is not really as high quality of an arena as they could have somewhere else.”
Average attendance at venerable Municipal has hovered in the 4,200 range during the past two years, and revenues did not meet the $500,000 guarantee to the Big 12.
“There’s a sense that we need to try something a little outside the box,” Hancock said. “There’s not complete unanimity to move it away from the men’s tournament, because a lot of folks like them together. But there’s a sense to try this event as a standalone entity.”
If the decision to keep the men’s and women’s tournaments a week apart proves successful, it’s possible the women could play in the Sprint Center in the future.
But, if this is it for Big 12 women’s basketball in Kansas City, what a way to go out.
This week’s tournament features the No. 1-ranked and only undefeated team in Baylor (31-0), led by all-American Brittney Griner. It also includes the defending NCAA women’s tournament champion in Texas A&M (20-9), which is led by Tyra White, one of the heroes of the Aggies’ victory over Notre Dame in last year’s NCAA title game.
Because the Big 12 is ranked No. 1 in the country in RPI and eight of the 10 teams have RPIs in the top 52, as many as six and possibly seven 10 Big 12 teams could earn NCAA bids based on this week’s performances.
“This will be a celebration of the best league in the country, some of the best teams in the country and some of the best players in the country,” said Fennelly, whose fourth-seeded Cyclones will face No. 5 Kansas State in an 11 a.m. Thursday quarterfinal pitting two most-ardent fan bases for tournament games in Kansas City.
“We call it Hilton South,” Fennelly said, comparing Municipal to the Cyclones’ homecourt, Hilton Coliseum. “Some of the fondest memories I have in my time at Iowa State happened in Kansas City. It’s sad to see we’re not going to be back there, but it’s a place that has embraced our tournament, embraced our league, and we should all be grateful for the time and effort of all the people in Kansas City who put on a great event and provide so many great memories for the student-athletes who have played there.”
The action tips off at 5 tonight with a game between two teams squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, eighth-seeded Texas (18-12) and ninth-seeded Texas Tech (18-12). They’ll be followed by another bubble team, No. 7 Oklahoma State (16-11) vs. No. 10 Missouri (12-17).
“The coaches in this conference understand the strength of this league from top to bottom … and there is no bottom to this league,” said Texas coach Gail Goestenkors, whose Longhorns have won three straight, including a win over Texas A&M in the regular-season finale.
Tonight’s winners will advance to a monster round of quarterfinals that will include the five teams that should be locks for the NCAA Tournament — Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Iowa State and Kansas State.
“Every game in this tournament will be incredibly competitive,” said OU’s Coale, whose team earned the No. 2 seed over Texas A&M based on the fifth tie-breaker, a draw out of a hat. “Thursday’s games will be compelling … there are incredible implications for the NCAA Tournament based on what happens this week.”
A major question facing Baylor is whether it’s better to lose a game in the Big 12 tournament or bear the burden of going into the NCAA Tournament unbeaten.
“I don’t know that winning or losing in Kansas City will affect us in any way,” Bears coach Kim Mulkey said. “We understand how difficult it will be in Kansas City, and we understand how difficult it will be to win six games to win it all in the NCAA. We will come to Kansas City with the intention of winning one game at a time, and if you can win three, you win another championship, cut down the nets and move to the next and last part of your season.”
Those nets will have some sentimental value coming from the last Big 12 women’s tournament to be played at historic Municipal Auditorium.
“It’s sad for us from Kansas State,” Patterson said. “We’ll miss Kansas City. It’s a tremendous venue and location for our fans and our program, but I understand the desire of the Big 12 to expose the league throughout the communities that represent our league and our recruiting bases. I would envision at some time in the future, the tournament will rotate back to Kansas City …
“I really hope the high school and the junior high-age and elementary-age young people and families will make themselves part of this week. It’s very special to be able to watch the very best do what they do in intercollegiate athletics. This is going to be a showcase for women’s basketball.”