Baylor takes aim at repeating
Riding a 40-game win streak with all five starters back, Lady Bears are favorites again
Season Preview: Brittney Griner
Baylor's women's basketball team offered spectators plenty during a perfect season in 2011-12. There was the consensus national player of the year in center Brittney Griner. An exceptionally quick point guard, Odyssey Sims, with both great scoring potential and a natural zest for defense.
Destiny Williams, an eloquent team spokeswoman who also works the boards ferociously. The shouldn't-be-overlooked tandem of Jordan Madden and Kimetria "Nae-Nae" Hayden, who hurt foes on both ends of the court.
And the maestro of it all was coach Kim Mulkey, who set the tone for a group of players who never seemed the least bit rattled by not just the hope, but the expectation that they would win it all. Even a flare-up of Bell's palsy during the NCAA tournament didn't seem to rattle Mulkey in the least. She downplayed it, even cracking jokes at her own expense.
Baylor won its second national championship, went 40-0 and became the seventh team in the NCAA era of women's basketball to have a perfect season. So, yes, Baylor provided viewers with a little of everything. Except suspense.
Sure, the Lady Bears had two games decided by just five points: against Connecticut in December and Texas Tech in February, both in Waco, Texas. The other single-digit victories were by seven at Texas A&M (February), by eight at Texas Tech (January) and by nine at Tennessee (November).
Going undefeated is not a goal; it wasn't a goal last year. The goal for our basketball team is to win championships.” -- Kim Mulkey, whose defending NCAA champion Lady Bears have won 40 consecutive games
But you'll note the months that are missing any semblance of a truly close game for Baylor: March and April. The postseason was not a pulse-pounding thrill ride for Baylor fans. It was more a scenic, comfortable, enjoyable cruise.
In other words, Baylor managed to make something very difficult look pretty easy. And with all five starters back, led by Griner, Mulkey knows exactly what the potential pitfall is for 2013.
"You have to talk about complacency," Mulkey said. "You have to talk about hunger."
Which is why Mulkey also talks about history. It tends not to be a favorite subject of a lot of athletes; they're often too busy playing to pay close attention to what happened before their time.
Fortunately for the Lady Bears, they have part of that history walking right among them daily. Mulkey, in her freshman and sophomore seasons at Louisiana Tech, won the AIAW title in 1981 and the first NCAA title in 1982. Then in 1983 and '84, her Lady Techsters had their season ended in the Final Four by another team to repeat as NCAA champ: Southern California.
And as a coach, first at her alma mater and then at Baylor, Mulkey has faced two other programs that have won back-to-back titles: Tennessee and UConn. So you can call Mulkey a definitive expert on repeating.
She understands that for Baylor this season, it's not as simple as just saying, "We can't have a letdown!" She has to provide an amended goal to add some fuel -- something different for a group of kids who already have national championship rings.
What could that be? You tell them they've reached one admirable level of their sport. But there's something more elite: doing it two seasons in a row.
"Going undefeated is not a goal; it wasn't a goal last year," Mulkey said. "The goal for our basketball team is to win championships."
But if the Lady Bears join UConn (2008-09, '09-10) as a program to register back-to-back perfect seasons, all the better.
"You definitely have them in your mind," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said of how Baylor hovers a bit over all the programs hoping to contend this season. "You know at some point, to get as far as you want to get, you're going to have to cross paths with them. I think they're the clear favorite."
That wasn't the case in the 2006 NCAA tournament, when Baylor was the reigning national champion but had graduated some key players and really wasn't expected to repeat.
In fact, it was Frese's young Maryland squad that ended Baylor's run that year, beating the Lady Bears in the Sweet 16 on the way to winning the NCAA title. But despite four standouts from that championship squad returning for 2007 and '08, the Terps didn't make it back to the Final Four.
Because even when you have similar ingredients, the recipe does change year to year, and there's no guarantee you'll get the final product you want. But Baylor appears to have a pretty good chance.
The right combination
Leading the charge for Baylor is Griner, who will be going for her own personal repeat of collecting multiple kinds of "player of the year" hardware. The 6-foot-8 senior has emphasized rebounding for this season, particularly on the offensive glass, in hopes of improving even more on her 9.5 average last season.
Griner averaged 23.2 points in 2011-12. And while she talks rather light-heartedly about her improvement in range, that's a stark reality Baylor's opponents have to face: Griner is more comfortable all over the court, making her -- and her teammates -- even more of nightmare to stop.
"I look at us playing against them last year," said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, whose Lady Vols lost to Baylor near the start of the season and then again in the Elite Eight. "We would do a great job on Griner, but while we were trying to do that, players like Odyssey Sims were hitting the 3. They were maintaining their lead and hitting big shots while we were focusing on Griner.
"They have exceptional players in all areas. Yes, there's Brittney Griner, but she's surrounded by awesome players and athletes. When we went undefeated [in 1998], we had Chamique Holdsclaw, who was absolutely awesome. But then you throw in Tamika Catchings, Kellie Jolly, Semeka Randall and Ace Clement. It's that chemistry and teamwork you have around a great player. We had it again with Candace Parker. It takes the pressure off the star to do everything, but then that player still does a lot."
Griner is a feared presence on both ends of the court. But away from hoops, Griner always describes herself as a "big kid"; she's a natural people-pleaser and happy-go-lucky spirit. Griner clearly wants to make folks laugh and put them at ease. She plays along in a mirthful mood when the media asks her about her favorite foods or which cars she likes or her predilection for risky hobbies, such as riding her longboard.
By contrast, Sims often speaks to reporters in a somewhat rushed monotone devoid of inflection. She's polite, but quite direct and succinct, generally, about what Baylor did right or wrong during a game. She's the point guard who always seems to be on guard, the one with the all-business demeanor. She was Baylor's second-leading scorer last season (14.9 ppg) and led the team with 174 assists.
Williams, who averaged 10.1 points and 9.1 rebounds last season, is sort of the team philosopher with a big-picture view of not just the Lady Bears, but life in general.
Hayden averaged 9.1 points and along with Madden combined for 255 assists to 140 turnovers. And Madden, especially, was often called on to be a "lock-down" defender for a variety of different types of scorers on opposing teams.
That's quite an arsenal to bring back with championship experience. Yet Sims said, "I think this team is more hungry now than it's ever been."
How is that possible, considering they have an NCAA title already in hand? The history angle, as mentioned, is something they grasp. But also, Baylor's veterans recognize they are in the process of handing off the program to the next group of standouts.
Sims has two more years, but the other four returning starters are seniors, as is top reserve Brooklyn Pope. They all can set a standard for a talented freshman class that won't have to feel a lot of weight on its shoulders.
"I think that our seniors probably are the best teachers on the floor more so than any of the coaches because they were freshmen at one time," said Mulkey, who was a rookie once, too, albeit quite a while ago. "So it makes for interesting practices."
Looking out for challengers
There's something else that is going to motivate Baylor this season: other teams targeting the champs. Among them will be UConn, which would have liked a second chance at the Lady Bears last season. The Huskies were stopped short of that by losing in the national semifinals to Notre Dame, which then fell to Baylor. This season, UConn brings in its own mega-watt freshman class to mesh with some high-caliber returning players. Baylor faces Connecticut in Hartford, Conn., on Feb. 18.
We would do a great job on [Brittney] Griner, but while we were trying to do that, players like Odyssey Sims were hitting the 3. They have exceptional players in all areas.” -- Tennessee coach Holly Warlick
UConn is quite a measuring stick, of course, in regard to dominant performances in the postseason. Baylor won its six NCAA tournament games last year by an average of 20.8 points. Toss out the 41-point drubbing of UC Santa Barbara in the first round, and Baylor still won the other five by an average of 16.8. And none of those games actually felt like they were very close or like the Lady Bears were in danger of losing.
So how did Baylor's 2012 NCAA tournament run stack up in terms of "don't even bother to get your hopes up" for opposing fans? Among the other six perfect teams, the only one besides Baylor that didn't have any NCAA tourney games decided by fewer than 10 points was UConn in 2008-09.
That was the first of the Huskies' back-to-back 39-0 teams. They won their '09 NCAA tournament games by an average of 25.2 points, including a 76-54 dismissal of Louisville in the final.
In 2010, the Huskies' margin of victory during the NCAA tournament was even larger (35.7) thanks to big blowouts in their first three games. But they did have one nail-biter that year: their 53-47 win over Stanford in an offensively challenged national final.
There wasn't that kind of intrigue at all for Baylor in 2012. Then in the offseason, there were a few bumps in the road. A week after Baylor won the title, the NCAA announced it was putting the program on a three-year probation and had accepted the school's self-imposed penalties for impermissible calls and text messages to recruits. (The NCAA has decided to stop trying to police that contact in men's basketball starting this year, and women's hoops might be next.)
Then there was some buzz over Griner's opting not to participate with the U.S. national team this summer as the squad tried to earn an Olympic berth. Also, Griner suffered a broken right (shooting) wrist while riding her longboard in May. That's all healed, and Griner joked that she might be an even better shooter now.
Griner was also a big topic of discussion during the WNBA season, because she's expected to be the top selection in next April's draft. The league already had its draft lottery, with Phoenix gaining the No. 1 pick.
Griner is not thinking about her likely relocation to Arizona next spring, though. She's going to enjoy her last year of college, and stay focused on winning another title -- something that would put Baylor into a different category of champions.
"It's those six games at the end that count," Griner said. "That's when we want to go undefeated."
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