KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas women's basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson had never been as unsure when filling out her Big 12 preseason poll as she was this year.
"I did it with a pencil and eraser," Henrickson said. "You finally just say you gotta pick somebody somewhere."
Surely Henrickson wasn't the only coach who sent in a marked-up ballot. With twins Courtney and Ashley Paris of Oklahoma now playing in the WNBA after leading the Sooners to the Final Four last season, no team jumped out. And when the numbers were added up, they revealed a rather surprising result: Henrickson's Jayhawks, who have not finished higher than tied for seventh in the Big 12, were picked to finish tied for second with Texas, behind only Baylor.
"I would have been a little disappointed if we had not been in that group of four or five," said Henrickson, who is entering her sixth year. "But there is so much work to be done."
Indeed. The Jayhawks are picked above established programs such as Iowa State, which went to the Elite Eight last season, and OU, which made it all the way to the Final Four. KU received three first-place votes, a staggering number for a program that hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2000 and has only a run to the WNIT championship game last season to claim as postseason experience.
"We got a big ol' bull's-eye," Henrickson said.
The league coaches were happy to slap the bull's-eye on KU's back. Can the Jayhawks handle it? There is reason to believe that they can. Their top player, senior guard Danielle McCray, is the Big 12 preseason player of the year. They return all of their principal talent from last season and add highly regarded point guard Angel Goodrich, a redshirt freshman who missed last season with a torn ACL, and six newcomers who should add depth if nothing else.
Plus, it just seems like the perfect time for a team like KU to be rising in the league hierarchy.
"In a league, over time the perfect storm comes together," Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said. "Everything is in line for them. If they stay healthy, I don't think there's any reason to not believe they will challenge and be there at the end. It's a combination of their team is really, really good, and maybe there is not a dominating team. I do think the timing for them is really good."
Fennelly points to four teams receiving first-place votes — the Sooners were not one of them — as evidence that nobody is really sure which team will emerge. OU coach Sherri Coale said she was a "little bit" surprised to see her team, which returns three starters from a Final Four season, picked to finish fifth in the poll.
"But I don't ever put too much stock in the preseason rankings," Coale said. "In 2006, we were picked to finish fourth and didn't have one first-place vote, and we ran the table and went undefeated. One's on paper; one's on the court. Wait and see."
That type of success in Big 12 play is something the Jayhawks won't be able to fall back on. Henrickson knows what has to change for KU to take advantage of its window of opportunity.
"There are going to be nights that we're not gonna play well, and we've gotta find a way to win," Henrickson said. "We've not done that. Sometimes, you've just gotta struggle and find a way to win. (That's) your seniors. Your seniors are going to take you as far as you can go."
Certainly, that is the case for the Jayhawks. Coale, whose team faced KU twice last season, said McCray was a different player the second time they met, in the Big 12 Tournament.
"It's like somebody told her, 'Hey, you're really good,' and she listened," Coale said. "She's got it figured out now. She's going to have a long career in the sport of basketball. She can do too many things. As she goes, they will go."