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Someone must have told Connie Yori a long time ago that laughing is good for you.
Back Yori into a corner and ask the Nebraska women’s head basketball coach how her team can be picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 this season when the Huskers return four starters and what was the deepest lineup in the league last March, and you don’t get an answer.
You get a laugh. Not a giggle or a snicker . . . a fully sustainable Connie Yori laugh.
"It’s real simple why we’re picked to finish eighth," Yori said after the healthiest laugh you’ve ever heard. "Everybody’s great, and everybody returns just about everybody."
She laughs again and then keeps going. "Everybody’s saying that Big 12 football is great, and Big 12 men’s basketball is great, and they are," Yori said. "But in women’s basketball, we were the No. 1 league in the country last year, and we return an average of four starters per team this year. That’s everyone, not just us. We were a few possessions away from reaching the Sweet 16, and we’re picked eighth in the preseason, but we’re not alone. There were several other surprises in those preseason picks."
Nebraska Women’s Basketball: Quality and Quantity
Nebraska returns 12 letterwinners from the team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA before losing at Maryland. The only player the Huskers lost was Danielle Page, who just completed a full season in the WNBA following her graduation from Nebraska last May.
Junior forward Cory Montgomery, one of the Big 12’s best off the bench last season, is expected to replace Page. The Huskers also return junior point guard Yvonne Turner, who made the Big 12 All-Defensive Team and was arguably the most improved player in the league during the season.
Dominique Kelley and Kaitlyn Burke return as a pair of sophomores who split time at shooting guard last season. Kelley started a school-record 33 straight games as a true freshman, while Burke actually played more minutes off the bench. Both Kelley and Burke had productive summers and could give Nebraska its best backcourt in Coach Yori’s tenure at Nebraska.
Nebraska was the only team in the Big 12 to play 10 players in all 16 regular-season Big 12 games in 2007-08. Those same 10 also played in all of NU’s postseason games.
Big 12: Great Players, Great Coaches, Great Fans
With all that talent and all that depth, you would think Nebraska would rank higher in the preseason analysis. But Yori has another robust laugh before making a point. "K-State won the regular-season league championship last year. They also return four starters, and they’re picked to finish seventh," she said. "You think our situation is unbelievable? What about theirs? How does that happen?"
Believe it or not, Yori has one more giant-sized laugh before repeating an answer she’s already given. "It’s real simple," she said. "What happened to K-State happened because everybody is great. This league is great. The players are great. The coaches are great. And the fans are great."
With apologies to Muhammad Ali, the next question seemed an obvious one. The league, the players, the coaches and the fans may all be great, but are they the greatest?
Yori put an extra half a second into her next laugh, enough time to put gloves on her hands and passion in her voice. Here’s what she had to say about:
The Big 12: "Last season, the Big 12 became the first conference in history, men or women, to go a perfect 8-0 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Everybody advanced to the second round. Even though our league was extraordinarily young, Oklahoma State went to the Sweet 16, and Texas A&M went to the Elite Eight. A&M is a legitimate Top 10 or Top 15 team this season, and they’re picked to finish fifth in the conference. Three of our four conference teams that didn’t qualify for the NCAA were invited to the WNIT, and Colorado made it to the Final Four in that tournament. If you want to know how slight the margin of error in our league is, I’ll give you an example. Two years ago, Kansas State had a pretty good team, and they had a key injury to one of their starters. They finished 12th in the league. Last year, they were healthy, and they finished first with the same players. That’s what the margin of error is in this league. We’re the greatest conference because our RPI – the standard the NCAA uses to measure overall strength – says we’re the toughest . . . by a very wide margin."
Great players: "Oklahoma is the preseason No. 1 team in the league because Courtney Paris was the National Player of the Year two years ago. She’s also a two-time, first-team All-American. Our league is loaded with talent, and we happen to have one of the best players in the conference. Kelsey Griffin has been named first-team All-Big 12 two years in a row. She’s been out since August with a bone bruise on her ankle, and there’s a 40 percent chance now that she might have to redshirt. That’s a huge question mark for us. There’s a big difference between having an injured starter and having an injured two-time All-Big 12 player. We’re in the position of thinking of what we can do if she plays and what we’ll have to do if she can’t. It affects us offensively, defensively and emotionally. There’s already so much talent in this league, and there’s going to be even more in the future. Look at the top 50 players in the country in the ’09 recruiting class. Probably half of them are going to end up in the Big 12. That’s frightening (another loud laugh here). What that means is we’re not getting any weaker. We just keep getting stronger."
Great coaches: "We have the greatest conference in the country, and we have the greatest coaching in the country in women’s basketball. It’s just amazing where our coaches are coming from. Gail Goestenkors took Duke to an NCAA title game and four Final Fours before coming to Texas. Bonnie Henrickson won 20 or more games at Virginia Tech for seven straight seasons before coming to Kansas. Kristy Curry coached Purdue to five Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships and an NCAA championship game before coming to Texas Tech. Gary Blair led Arkansas to a Final Four and four NCAA Sweet 16 appearances before taking over at Texas A&M. Those coaches all left great programs, elite programs to come into our league. When you get the best coaches from the ACC (Goestenkors), the Big East (Henrickson), the Big Ten (Curry) and the SEC (Blair), you know you’re coaching in the greatest conference in the country. And we haven’t even talked about coaches like Sherri Coale at Oklahoma (five Big 12 regular-season championships, four conference tournament titles and five Sweet 16 appearances), Kim Mulkey at Baylor (2005 national champions, seven 20-win seasons and six NCAA teams) and Bill Fennelly at Iowa State (back-to-back Big 12 Tournament champions, an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16 teams). Look what Deb Patterson has done at K-State and how Kurt Budke came in from Louisiana Tech to turn around Oklahoma State. No other league in the country is being coached like our league is being coached – from top to bottom."
Great fans: "How many years in a row has the Big 12 led the nation in attendance? Nine straight? Last year, Big 12 women’s basketball teams drew more than a million fans. I think those attendance figures are directly related to the coaches who have come into our league and the players they’re recruiting. Everything rolls together when you’re talking about attendance. The league has established an incredible reputation recognized by just about everyone involved in women’s basketball. We’re bringing in all of these high-caliber coaches, and they’re recruiting some of the best players in the country. Oklahoma leads the nation in attendance, and Iowa State is always right up there. Texas Tech and Baylor draw well, and a lot of us are pleased with where we are and where we appear to be going. At Nebraska, we’re averaging more than 5,000 fans for conference games at home, but we think with the kind of basketball we’re playing, it’s reasonable for us to start drawing around 7,000. That depends, of course, on continuing to play the way we’ve been playing, getting even better and staying healthy. We’re a great draw for family entertainment. Our kids represent the Nebraska uniform extremely well both on the court and off. We’re strong academically, and we reach out to the community. We have a tremendous group of young women in our program, and they’re great role models for families who bring their children and watch us play. We have kids from all over the country and beyond, and we have great diversity. When you look at the quality of basketball, the reasonable price and the type of young women who play for us, I just don’t know how you can top that."