OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) The most dominant force in Big 12 Conference women's basketball this season has been the league's player of the year, Oklahoma sophomore sensation Courtney Paris.
Indeed, Paris figures to continue to be an inside force for the second-seeded Sooners in the Big 12 tournament, which starts Tuesday. But with the postseason here, the Big 12 teams that are playing the best are the ones with strong point-guard play.
"It looks like point guards have been putting their teams on their backs and carrying them, and that's what great ones do. They want to make plays. They want the ball in their hands at crucial times," Texas Tech coach Kristy Curry said.
After a midseason slump, 11th-ranked Oklahoma (23-4) has won five straight games after coach Sherri Coale installed freshman Jenna Plumley at the point. Oklahoma State, winless in Big 12 play last year, surged to an 8-8 league record, a sixth-place finish and the NCAA tournament bubble thanks in good part to another freshman point guard, Andrea Riley.
Fifth-seeded Iowa State (22-7) has won five straight and features the Big 12's assist leader in senior Lyndsey Medders.
Junior A'Quonesia Franklin helped top-seeded and 13th-ranked Texas A&M (23-5) go 5-0 this season against the league's next three seeds, Oklahoma, Baylor (24-6) and Nebraska (22-8). Junior Angela Tisdale has been a solid performer for an 18th-ranked Baylor squad only two years removed from a national title.
"I've never had a great team without a great point guard," Oklahoma State coach Kurt Budke said. "You're only as good as the leadership running your team."
Tuesday's first-round games will pit Colorado against Texas Tech, Iowa State against Kansas State, Texas against Missouri and Oklahoma State against Kansas. The top four seeds received byes and will play Wednesday against Tuesday's winners.
Unlike last season, when Oklahoma went undefeated against Big 12 opponents in both the regular season and tournament, league coaches think this year's event will be wide-open -- even though it will be held for the first time in downtown Oklahoma City, about 20 miles north of the Sooners' Norman campus.
"We don't feel like the top seed," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. "There are a whole lot of teams that have a whole lot more history and more success than we've had. We're just on this ride for as long as it will go. Our kids are playing well and we're doing it with defense first ... but we can't look past any one team, because everything this year is almost a first for us."
Texas A&M leads the Big 12 in scoring defense, allowing opponents an average of 53.7 points per game. The Aggies also are the league's top 3-point shooting team, at 37.6 percent, and have four players averaging between 10 and 14.2 points per game.
Oklahoma shared the regular-season title with Texas A&M and is a tournament co-favorite if only because of Paris, who leads the league in scoring (24 points per game) and rebounding (16 per game). She's had double-doubles in 55 straight games.
But even with Paris, the Sooners lost three of four games until Coale shuffled her lineup to include the 5-foot-3 Plumley, who at this time last year was playing for Oklahoma small-school prep power Frontier in the state's Class A tournament.
With Plumley starting, "we're playing faster," Coale said. "We're not turning it over quite as much and I think we have a swagger about us, sort of a childlike energy, if you will."
Kathy McConnell-Miller coached at Tulsa for seven seasons before taking the Colorado job before last season.
"I think Plumley is Sherri Coale's type of point guard," McConnell-Miller said. "She runs the team extremely well. She's smart. I remember her when I was at Tulsa, and would have done anything to get Jenna Plumley at Tulsa, not knowing if Oklahoma would take somebody of that size. When you play the way she plays, size is not a factor."
Plumley said she was nervous at first but that her confidence has grown.
"Now it's just all about coming out now and playing and being us, knowing how we play together," she said. "It's about holding one another accountable for the things that we know that we can realistically do."
Oklahoma State, which went 6-0 against Big 12 North opponents, won its final three regular-season games, spurring talk of a possible NCAA bid. Most league coaches surveyed Monday said they believe the Cowgirls (20-9) have done enough to make the NCAA field.
Riley, who is third in the league in assists and steals, "is the key to this engine," Budke said. "We knew when we signed her that she was a program-changer ... In these last eight games, there has been no point guard that has played better than Andrea Riley."
No matter a point guard's age, the good ones have some common denominators, Riley said.
"You can't many any mistakes," she said. "You've got to keep your head held high. You cannot have your head down. You've got to be a leader. It's a matter of confidence and maturity. We just want to lead our teams to victory every night."