Baylor coach Kim Mulkey is quick to point out this isn’t the same Lady Bears team that won the national championship last spring.
Still, the expectations for them in the Big 12 never change.
Even after the departures of three-time All-Big 12 center Kalani Brown and Final Four MVP Chloe Jackson, the Lady Bears are the overwhelming favorite to win the conference title for the 10th season in a row.
Mulkey, going into her 20th season as Baylor’s coach with three national title, did acknowledge during the league’s media day that the Lady Bears have the talent to be a very good team that could defend its Big 12 and national crowns.
Baylor has the league’s preseason player of the year in 6-foot-4 senior forward Lauren Cox — “One of the finest and greatest players I’ve ever coached,” Mulkey said. Te’a Cooper, a graduate transfer from an SEC school making the transition to point guard for Baylor like Jackson did last season, is the preseason newcomer of the year.
Cox is among nine returning letter winners, including two starting guards in senior Juicy Landrum and junior Didi Richards. Cox suffered a gruesome-looking left knee injury late in the third quarter of Baylor’s win over Notre Dame in the NCAA championship game, but she is healthy going into the season since she didn’t need surgery for what turned out to be an MCL sprain with bone bruising.
A year after Jackson was Mulkey’s first graduate transfer, the Lady Bears have two this year with Cooper and 6-foot-6 post Erin DeGrate, Landrum’s teammate at La Vega High School in Waco before going to Louisville and then playing the past two seasons at Texas Tech.
“This was an opportunity for me to get everything I wanted, and I took it,” said Cooper, who was part of a Sweet 16 team at South Carolina last season after beginning her college career at Tennessee.
Baylor’s 82-81 win over Notre Dame in the title game was its 29th in a row. The Lady Bears have won 41 consecutive Big 12 regular-season games, and have gone undefeated in conference play four times in an eight-season stretch that began with their 40-0 national title run in 2012.
MAKING IT TOUGHER
West Virginia was left out of the women’s NCAA Tournament last season despite a 20-10 record when those selections were made. Coach Mike Carey feels like the non-conference portion of the schedule last season hurt the Mountaineers when the selection committee was making its decisions. If they can finish in the top four of the Big 12 again this season, and have some success against a tougher non-conference schedule, that should get them in the NCAA field. West Virginia plays three top non-conference opponents. The Mountaineers go to Mississippi State for the Big 12/SEC Challenge, and take on Michigan State and Syracuse on consecutive days in Orlando just before Christmas.
Two lopsided wins over Eastern Kentucky, a 2-27 team last season, did nothing for them. Nor did easy home wins over Morgan State and Townson.
The only team other than Baylor to get a first-place vote in the coaches’ preseason poll was Texas. Karen Aston was an associate head coach at Baylor in 2006-07, then became head coach at Charlotte and North Texas before now going into her eighth season with the Longhorns.
Texas returns its top three scorers from last year, including 24-year-old senior guard Lashann Higgs, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last November. Senior guard Sug Sutton and senior forward Joyner Holmes both scored about 12 points a game, and the Longhorns also have the Big 12’s best freshman in 5-11 guard Celeste Taylor from New York.
“There are no highs and lows with her, and that’s really unusual for a freshman,” Aston said.
MIDDLE OF THE PACK
Iowa State has to move on without Big 12 player of the year Bridget Carleton, while Kansas State’s eight returning letter winners are led by 6-4 senior forward Peyton Williams (15.5 points, 9.5 rebounds per game last season). Oklahoma has high-scoring junior guard Ana Llanusa, who averaged 19.1 points in Big 12 play and set a school record with six 20-point games in a row down the stretch in conference play. Three of those were 30-point games. The league’s top returning scorer is Oklahoma State junior forward Vivian Gray, who averaged 20 points a game last season.
While Mulkey is going into her 20th season, two other Big 12 coaches have been at their schools longer. Bill Fennelly is going into his 25th season at Iowa State, and Sherri Coale begins her 24rd season at Oklahoma. Mike Carey is right behind them, going into his 19th season at West Virginia. No other league has more two-decade head coaches. The 12-team American Athletic Conference, where Geno Auriemma is going into his 35th season at UConn, is the only other league with three.