With Young gone, Baylor reloads up front


By Graham Hays, ESPN.com

Bernice Mosby

Bernice Mosby and Baylor are off to an 11-1 start. The Lady Bears have won eight straight since losing to Purdue in the Preseason WNIT. (AP Photo/Rod Aydelotte)

Bernice Mosby, Danielle Wilson, Rachel Allison and Jessika Bradley weren't around when Baylor cut down the nets in Indianapolis in 2005, but the quartet of current Lady Bears will have a large say as to whether history treats that national championship as the start of an era or merely a moment in the sun.

In emerging as a national power on an accelerated schedule, Baylor has been constructed on a foundation that goes from the inside out. A gifted point guard in her own playing days, coach Kim Mulkey has thrived on the sideline by finding athletic post players capable of controlling the glass and playing defense without slowing the game to a half-court crawl on offense.

Now All-American Sophia Young, Mulkey's most accomplished pupil, has moved on, taking her all-around brilliance a few hours down the road to the San Antonio Silver Stars of the WNBA. Young was unable to lead the Lady Bears back to the Final Four as a senior, but even a 19-point loss to eventual champion Maryland in the Sweet 16 did little to diminish the luster the program attained during Mulkey's first six seasons, including the last four with Young.

Staying on top this season will require Baylor's new collection of post players to prove that the principles of the coach's system are more important than any individual. Even Young.

Baylor was an also-ran in the Big 12 the year before Mulkey arrived, finishing with a 7-20 record in 1999-2000. But the former Louisiana Tech star, who many had long anticipated would inherit Leon Barmore's famed program, wasted little time putting her own stamp on things. The Lady Bears improved to 21-9 in Mulkey's first season and made the first of five NCAA Tournament appearances in the coach's first six seasons. Guard Sheila Lambert led the Lady Bears in scoring that year at 22.1 points per game, but it was forward Danielle Crockrom who offered the best evidence of how Mulkey would build a championship contender. Crockrom averaged 21.2 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, helping Baylor squeeze out a narrow rebounding edge on its opponents for the season.

Two years later, sophomore Steffanie Blackmon and freshman Young helped expand that rebounding margin to nearly six boards a game, and the two combined for 101 blocks -- six more than Baylor's opponents totaled all season. Still two years after that, with Abiola Wabara joining Blackmon and Young in the starting lineup, Baylor marched all the way to a national championship, outrebounding opponents by nearly seven boards a game and finishing with 38 more blocks than its opponents.

With Blackmon gone and the versatile Wabara ill-suited to playing exclusively in the post, Baylor's rebounding edge regressed to fewer than five boards per game last season. Never was that more evident than in three losses against Courtney Paris and Oklahoma, in which the Sooners outrebounded the Lady Bears by an average of 12.7 boards per game, or in losses to LSU and Maryland, where the Bears were also beaten on the boards by a significant margin.

Enter Mosby, Wilson, Allison and Bradley.

After starting three games and averaging slightly less than 18 minutes a game as a freshman last season, Allison is the lone member of the group with any on-court experience in a Baylor uniform. As much as she contributed in her debut last season, she has to rank among the most improved players in the nation this season, averaging 7.7 rebounds per game and ranking second on the team at nearly two steals per game.

"Rachel is just a hustler," Wilson said on Friday after the team's final practice before traveling to Los Angeles for Sunday's 83-70 win against UCLA. "She's a hustle player. She goes for every rebound, like she'll come out of nowhere and just get an offensive rebound or a defensive rebound. She's just a big presence. Her presence on defense is unbelievable. She's always working at it; she always wants to guard the best perimeter post player. So she works at it all the time."

Allison was the only member of the post quartet who played alongside Young in games last season, but Mosby might be the one who learned the most from the star.

A transfer from Florida, Mosby averaged 15.5 points per game and 8.6 rebounds per game as a junior before leaving the Gators in March of 2005. Although she prefers not to talk about her reasons for leaving Florida, Mosby knew once the decision had been made that Baylor was the right place for her. In addition to working with Mulkey, Mosby saw a team that would be in search of post players following Young's departure.

"I just really wanted to come out and also help, because I knew it was a great position for me," Mosby said.

Before that could happen, NCAA rules required that Mosby sit out a season. As tough as that was for her, the opportunity to practice against Young for a season ultimately paid dividends in preparing Mosby to make the most of her one season on the court in Waco.

"I can't express in words how much I've been so happy to get back on the floor and do something I love doing," Mosby said. "Sitting out for a year, it was one of the hardest things I had to do in my whole collegiate career -- I never sat out before. But I learned a lot from sitting out. And I learned a lot from some great players, so it's been worth it, I can say that."

Voted the SEC's top reserve as a sophomore, Mosby was Florida's leading scorer and rebounder when she transferred from a team that ultimately would finish the season 14-15. Her talent and WNBA potential have never been in question, but a year on the practice court helped her begin to pick up the nuances necessary to accompany that natural talent.

"Just more how to be patient in situations, when to drive and how to make my teammates better and look better around me, and how they can make me look better," Mosby said of what she learned from Young and others. "Just big-time player things, and I'm just blessed to have those people to help me throughout my transfer and sitting out."

It's tough to argue with the results. The leading scorer in her first game for Baylor, Mosby has topped the Lady Bears in points in eight of 12 games and rebounds in six of 12 games this season. She also ranks among national leaders at 18.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. More than numbers, she gives Baylor a high-energy confidence that her teammates seem to feed off of.

But even as Mosby stars as the short-term solution, Mulkey's plan for the future makes the present look better and better with each passing game.

The first McDonald's All-American in program history, Wilson is living up to that billing. A 6-foot-3-inch post with the basketball genes of two parents who played college ball and hands nimble enough to play the piano and viola, Wilson is everything the athletic modern post has become in women's basketball.

"To have a big presence inside, it's a good thing for us," Mosby said of her young teammate. "I mean, she don't even have to jump sometimes, just throw the ball right up in the rim and it goes in. And she has a real big wingspan, so I mean, it's just a lot that she has to offer and we're blessed to have her here."

As Mosby points out, while Baylor is long and lean inside, the front line isn't in danger of putting the team over the weight limit on any flights. By contrast, Wilson's broad shoulders and big wingspan make her an imposing obstacle on the blocks.

A budding star with the small ego and big versatility of a role player, Wilson is an ideal complement to Mosby. There's no doubting her offensive potential (she had back-to-back 20-point games immediately preceding the team's trip to UCLA, where she scored just three points against the Bruins), but it's her defense and rebounding that make her an immediate factor. While Wilson trails both Mosby and Allison in total rebounds, she led the team in offensive boards before Sunday's game and averages an offensive rebound every 5.9 minutes she's on the court.

"I think it came to me naturally, just going for the offensive rebounds and just being a big presence underneath the rim," Wilson said. "So that's something I always liked doing, in high school and now with Coach Kim."

Talk about a coach's dream; Wilson is the rare prep star whose game is built on a foundation of defense. She leads the team at better than three blocks per game even while coming off the bench.

"When I first started playing basketball, that was my strongest point, just going after it on the defensive end," Wilson said. "And my coach would always tell me that my offense would come in later years. So that was the main focus when I was just starting to play."

Add Bradley, another talented freshman who is averaging 4.3 rebounds in just 14.3 minutes, to the mix and the Lady Bears are both decidedly unproven and deliciously talented in the post.

Of course, since post players can't get themselves the ball (at least those not named Candace Parker), success on offense requires a point guard capable of keeping the post players involved. In her second year as the full-time starter, Angela Tisdale needs to be that point guard.

Tisdale is actually a key to the success of the offense on both ends of the shot clock. And so far, so good. She's averaging better than four assists per game (with an assist-to-turnover ratio that sparkled before Sunday's four assists and six turnovers … still, it sits at 1.66) and ranks as the team's second-best 3-point shooter behind reserve Latarra Darrett.

"Sometimes her numbers don't show, but if you look at her assists, I mean, she has a great ability to pass the ball," Mosby said. "Without her, I mean, I don't think we'll do a lot. … She's going to be a player to watch."

Baylor spent much of the first two months ensconced on campus, traveling only for a pair of games against Central Florida and South Dakota State in the Bahamas. Although part of that scheduling might have been good fortune (for instance, the series with LSU reverted to Waco after last season's game in Baton Rouge), it clearly allowed Mulkey to keep her young team out of the spotlight as it came together.

The home cooking wasn't without its share of challenges, including quality wins against Hofstra, BYU and LSU and a loss against Purdue in the final of the Preseason WNIT, but the real measure of where Baylor stands will come on the road. Sunday's win was a start; a stretch of four conference road games in 18 days next month is the next step.

"I just feel pretty good about this team right now," Mosby said. "I think we have a lot more to do and a lot more to accomplish and learn, but right now, we're in a good position."

And if you're talking about establishing good position, you might as well start with someone who plays inside for Baylor.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.