With the Big 12 regular season behind us, the conference championship is set to get underway this Thursday in Oklahoma City.
The standings are about what we figured they would be heading into the season, with the exception of a few teams underperforming in the middle tier of the conference.
We know for sure that Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas will make the NCAA Softball Tournament, but can another team get in, and if so, who? Also, who are some players to watch in the Big 12 Tournament, and what will the championship game look like?
Let’s dive into the top five storylines to follow this week in the Big 12 Softball Championship Preview.
Can The Big 12 Get Four Teams into the NCAA Tournament?
The easy answer to this question would be no, but that’s not any fun. We know that the top three teams in the conference are in, there’s no question about that. However, is there another team capable of making a run and getting an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament? If I had to choose one team to make their way into the bracket, it would be Baylor. The Bears are currently 28-23 and just lost their final series of the season to the Texas Longhorns, but they also did something else in that series. They whooped Texas on Saturday, 17-3, and actually outscored the Longhorns 23-19 on the weekend.
Something else you might not remember about BU is that they took Oklahoma to the wire in Game 3 of their series with the Sooners. The Bears held a 1-0 lead on the No. 1 team in the land going into the seventh inning before the Sooners were saved by a walk-off three-run shot by All-American Tiare Jennings. Baylor is scrappy and capable of playing themselves in, but it would take beating Oklahoma in the second round to do so.
How Will Texas Tech Respond to Head Coaching Change?
Just a couple of weeks ago, Texas Tech was swept by the Texas Longhorns in a three-game series in Lubbock and afterward saw its head coach Sami Ward, and her entire coaching staff, let go. Now, the Red Raiders must face that same Texas team again, but this time it will be under interim coach Brooke Reed. Can the Red Raiders harness their frustrations and find a way to upend Texas? It’s not likely, but anything can happen in a single-elimination tournament.
The thing I will be watching for is body language, win or loss. Can this group of girls pull together after a disappointing season and be competitive against a good Texas team? I expect that much out of them, and who knows, they did upset Texas in a similar situation last season.
Can Oklahoma State Find Their Footing Again?
The Cowgirls have played the toughest stretch of softball in the country over the past two weeks, playing No. 4 Florida State and No. 1 Oklahoma in back-to-back road series. In that stretch, OSU has gone 0-5 and has been outscored 22-6 by two of the nation’s top teams. It is possible that their backloaded schedule could cost them the opportunity to be at home through Super Regionals in a couple of weeks, but a good showing in this tournament would go a long way in making sure that doesn’t happen.
I still believe that this Oklahoma State team is among the nation’s best, they’ve just lost a little bit of offensive firepower against some strong pitching staffs this year. Plus, not having Miranda Elish at 100% over the last two weeks seriously hindered OSU’s offensive firepower. Get her and the rest of the lineup’s bats hot again, and this team will roll right back to Oklahoma City in June. Expect the Pokes to show some resolve this week and come out firing on all cylinders against Kansas on Thursday.
How Will the New Format Look?
Last season, the Big 12 Softball tournament used Pool Play to determine spots for the championship games. (1) Oklahoma, (4) Baylor, and (6) Texas Tech made up Pool A, while (2) Oklahoma State, (3) Texas, and (5) Iowa State made up Pool B and Kansas was left out as the last-place team. The winner of each pool advanced to the championship game, while the second- and third-place teams from each pool played in games to determine third- and fifth- place respectively.
This season, the conference opted to take a more traditional, single-elimination tournament approach. Oklahoma, as the one-seed, will sit out of Thursday’s action, while the other seven teams play in the first round. Then, in the second round the winner of the (4) vs. (5) game will face OU, while the winners of the (2) vs (7) and the (3) vs (6) games will play to determine who will play in the championship game on Saturday. This format is much cleaner, simpler, and easy to follow, and it allows all teams in the conference to have a shot. This year’s format should be much better, but i guess we won’t know for sure until we see it.
Oklahoma vs. The Field
Oklahoma will come into this tournament as heavy favorites, and for good reason, but if one had to choose, would it be wise to bet on the Sooners or the field? This is a case of making sure not to overthink things; it would be very hard to imagine a team other than Oklahoma lifting the Big 12 trophy into the air on Saturday. The Sooners were 17-1 in conference play, and essentially walked through everyone that they played.
Now, as I mentioned before, single-elimination tournaments can get funky, but the fact that Oklahoma only has to win two games to get the job done gives me confidence that they will get it done. The Sooners outscored their potential second-round opponents, Baylor and Iowa State, by a combined margin of 56-9 this season. Patty Gasso’s teams typically shift into another gear come postseason, and if they do that, it’s going to be very hard to dethrone them. As good as Oklahoma has been this season, that is a scary thought for the rest of the conference. OU looked great against Oklahoma State last weekend, securing their 10th consecutive regular-season title, and I think we see them claim their fifth-straight tournament title this year as well.