WACO, TEXAS (AP) - On the rare occasion when Kim Mulkey isn’t thinking about her young team’s next game or practice, the coach of No. 1 Baylor allows herself to briefly ponder her program’s long-term potential.
“As you coach them in practice and in a game and they do something that’s really good, you think ‘Wow, if we could do that on a consistent basis, this could be a fun bunch,’” Mulkey said. “And if we could stay away from injury, this could be a fun group to watch grow and mature.”
Even though they are already the nation’s top-ranked team and have a 15-game winning streak since their only loss, by one point at two-time defending national champion Connecticut, these are still just baby Bears.
Brittney Griner, the 6-foot-8 preseason AP All-American who is one of the nation’s most dominating players, is one of seven sophomores on the Baylor roster. Melissa Jones is the only senior starting and playing regular minutes, and point guard Odyssey Sims is a true freshman thrust into a starting role sooner than expected when the returning senior quit the team a week before the season opener.
“I don’t think we’ve seen their best yet,” said Texas coach Gail Goestenkors, whose team lost to Baylor by 15 points at home.
A Final Four team last season, and only six years removed from the school’s only national championship, the Lady Bears could be settling in for a lengthy run at the top with a chance to win more titles.
“We truly have something special being so young,” Sims said. “It’s hard not to think about it when playing with this team and knowing how much talent and ability everybody has, and what they are capable of doing.”
Baylor plays at sixth-ranked Texas A&M on Sunday in a matchup of 18-1 squads that are the only teams undefeated in Big 12 play. The Aggies have a 12-game winning streak.
Since their loss at then-No. 1 Connecticut during the first week of the season, the Lady Bears have played three other teams now in the top 10. They won by at least 11 points over No. 5 Tennessee, No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 10 Michigan State, and have won five in a row against Texas A&M.
“It’s a Final Four team that’s better,” Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said.
Mulkey is the first person to coach a No. 1 women’s team after playing for a top-ranked team. She is the only coach to win national titles as a head coach, assistant coach and player.
As a pigtailed point guard, Mulkey led Louisiana Tech to a 130-6 record and back-to-back national titles. She was then an assistant coach for Leon Barmore there for 15 seasons, including another NCAA championship, before taking the Baylor job in 2000.
When Mulkey arrived in Waco, Baylor was coming off a 7-20 season and had never been to the NCAA tournament. The Lady Bears have won at least 20 games every season since, were the 2005 national champion, and made it to the NIT championship game the one time they missed the NCAA tournament.
“We just wanted to start winning basketball games and take little steps into big steps,” Mulkey said. “Then we started winning, you want to win a little more. … Then we won the national championship so early. So you went from a challenge of building it, and now our challenge is to maintain it, and I truly believe that maintaining it is harder than building it.”
A week before this season, two-year starting point guard Kelli Griffin quit. Then sophomore guard Shanay Washington, who started 32 of 36 games as a freshman, sustained a season-ending knee injury in practice a couple of weeks later.
Yet with Griner in the middle and Sims stepping up, the Lady Bears never really missed a beat.
The shot-blocking Griner averages 22.2 points and 7.8 rebounds a game. Sims is scoring 13.3 points a game while making 55 percent of her shots, including a Big 12-best 48 percent on 3-pointers. The freshman has 48 assists and 28 steals with only 27 turnovers in her 18 games.
“Odyssey Sims at the point, she spreads the floor out because she’s such a great 3-point shooter. That allows Brittney more room and more space to work inside,” Goestenkors said. “She’s making really mature decisions as a freshman. … She’s just going to continue to get better and better, which is very scary because they’re so good now.”
The Lady Bears lead the Big 12 in scoring (82.7 points per game) and the nation in scoring margin (32.4). They also top the league in field goal shooting, field goal defense and rebounding margin.
Baylor added a pair of sophomore post players who have started after transferring from other Division I schools _ Brooklyn Pope from Rutgers and Destiny Williams from Illinois.
Jones, the senior co-captain, is the only one of the team’s five upperclassmen playing more than 13 minutes a game. Sims and five sophomores are playing more than that, as did Washington before getting hurt.
“If we don’t make it to the Final Four, it was something we did wrong,” Griner said. “That’s the expectation, to make it there. … We’re on the right track.”
The Lady Bears advanced to the Final Four last season before losing to Connecticut, which went on to stretch its winning streak to a record 90 in a row before losing at Stanford in December.
As for talk about the potential of multiple championships for Baylor, Mulkey insists she is concentrating on now and “not focused on what could be” for the young and talented team that has so far handled being No. 1.
“This is an area where honestly youth probably has served us well because they don’t understand the pressure that some teams probably would if they were older,” Mulkey said. “They don’t sit around and worry about losing the next game and not being No. 1, or winning the next game and remaining No. 1.
“They want to win a championship, and that’s been their focus,” she said. “They want to win a Big 12 championship and get to the NCAA tournament and try to vie for a national championship.”
Or two, or three.
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