With Young gone, Baylor reloads up front

Updated: December 19, 2006, 4:51 PM ET

THE QUICK DISH



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.




OSU, OU PREPARE TO SQUARE OFF

Ohio State's stock dropped a bit when the Buckeyes got bounced in the Bayou, 75-51, by LSU on Dec. 10.

Then Ohio State beat up a couple of overmatched visitors to Columbus: Alabama A&M and Howard. Now, the No. 8 Buckeyes have a chance at real redemption on the road before the holiday break, as they take on No. 3 Oklahoma on Wednesday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) in Norman, Okla.

The Sooner fans are pumped for this one -- the game is an advance sellout. Of course, just like the LSU-Ohio State game, the marquee battle is among the big women.

OU 6-foot-4 sophomore center Courtney Paris keeps piling up the double-doubles … it's almost like she starts the game with 10 points and 10 rebounds, that she has that just by walking out on the court. Paris is averaging 21.4 points and 14.4 rebounds.

Jessica Davenport, the Buckeyes' 6-5 senior center, is averaging 19.6 points and 9.7 rebounds. She had 14 points and 13 rebounds in her matchup with LSU's Sylvia Fowles, who had 18 and 16. One of the key differences in that game, though, was that Fowles got more help from her teammates than Davenport did.

Last season, Davenport scored the clinching basket in the Buckeyes' 75-71 win over Oklahoma in Columbus. It's a game that still annoys the Sooners, who thought they should have pulled out the victory. OU is the type of team that really doesn't need a lot of motivational pushes, but last season's result at Ohio State still provides one.

Oklahoma's nonconference schedule as a whole has not been overly interesting, although this game and the Dec. 30 matchup with New Mexico in Oklahoma City are more up to speed.

If OU wins these two, then you start thinking about the Sooners' odds of going all the way to the NCAA Tournament undefeated. I'm not trying to put the whammy on OU or stir up ire in the rest of the Big 12. It's just that I'm not sure who can stop the Sooners. Are any of the Big 12 teams able to match up with them much better than they did last season, when OU went 16-0 in league play?

Admittedly, being perfect in the conference and then the league tournament takes more than just having the most talented team, which OU does. It takes not having any "off" nights at the wrong time and avoiding injuries and all that hard-to-predict stuff. -- ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel

CWA PROPOSAL A BAD ONE

Tony Romo has been one of the biggest surprises of the NFL season.

Since replacing Drew Bledsoe as the starting quarterback for "America's Team," Romo won five of his first six starts and has helped guide the Dallas Cowboys to a playoff spot and first place in the NFC East.

Not bad for an undrafted free agent. And not bad for a guy who was a male practice player for one of my teams just two years ago.

Romo is just one of several well-known male athletes who have stepped foot on the court with me or one of my teams over the years. And right now, after the NCAA's Committee on Women's Athletics last week proposed a ban on the use of male practice players in women's intercollegiate athletics, there might not be a hotter topic in sports.

To me, however, this subject shouldn't even be up for debate. Male practice players have become a vital part of women's basketball, and taking them away from women's hoops would be like removing tackling dummies from the football field. To be able to compete against stronger and often faster men in practice has only made my players -- and me during my own playing days -- better on the court. The thought of losing that advantage is simply a crazy idea.

According to the CWA's statement, "any inclusion of male practice players results in diminished participation opportunities for female student-athletes, contrary to the association's principles of gender equity, nondiscrimination, competitive equity and student-athlete well-being."

According to one source who wanted to remain anonymous, a group of senior women administrators across the country is spearheading the proposal, although at least one coach of a top-15 team is believed to be both a proponent of the initiative and the one lobbying for the group's support. Though the CWA also says male practice players violate Title IX -- something we'll get to in a minute -- the group's main concern, says this source, is that players in the bottom quarter of women's rosters are getting robbed of their chance to develop because their reps in practice are going to male practice players.

That's a ridiculous notion. On the contrary, competing against men in practice is a great tool to help all women -- from starters to the last player off the bench -- improve their games. Because male practice players are often bigger and sometimes faster, a female player competing with them is forced to fine-tune her game and better understand how to play it. For instance, she's going to have to create separation and space a little better against a larger, faster man, and develop her pump fakes and understanding of angles.

I've seen the benefits up close, obviously as a coach but first as a player. I practiced against male opponents whenever possible, and my game certainly improved after spending two years in the men's United States Basketball League.

Still, my biggest issue is that the CWA thinks it needs to regulate coaches. Basketball coaches should not be told whether their players are getting enough playing time or when their players need a drink of water. Today's coaches are very capable of determining whether the 10th, 11th or 12th (and so on) players on their roster are developing. No committee has the right to tell them how to coach or how much a kid should play in practice. We've come too far in the development of our game to give somebody on the outside jurisdiction over a coach's practice. -- ESPN's Nancy Lieberman

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