Commentary

Baylor opens as a Final Four favorite

Coach Kim Mulkey expects Brittney Griner to remain the team's center of attention

Originally Published: November 12, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

For someone with so much past in women's basketball, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey really doesn't spend very much time contemplating it.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
AP Photo/Mark HumphreySophomore Brittney Griner and coach Kim Mulkey take on UConn at 6 p.m. ET Tuesday (ESPN2) in Hartford, Conn.

She will occasionally bring up a historical fact or footnote at those times when she thinks it's important to whatever might be going on. But for the most part, the past is just all that stuff that she put into the book she did a few years ago that she really didn't want to write.

Thus, it's not much use to ask her to look at any parallels between this year's team and the Baylor squad she had the last time the season ended in a Final Four in Indianapolis. Baylor won the national championship that year, 2005.

"You don't really compare teams or places," Mulkey said. "Because a lot of our players now, they probably don't know a whole heck of a lot about that 2005 championship. Maybe they watched it on television and got interested in Baylor."

While that 2005 title wasn't a huge surprise -- certainly not to anyone who watched Baylor throughout that season -- it wasn't as if the team started that season with real NCAA title buzz.

In fact, probably the biggest issue that surrounded Baylor back then was whether the program would respond favorably to the disappointment of losing a controversial Sweet 16 game to Tennessee to end the 2004 season.

Baylor ended up responding as well as any program possibly could, by beating LSU and Michigan State at the Final Four in Indy. With that accomplishment, Mulkey really changed the whole dynamic of the Big 12 by making Baylor the first -- and still only -- women's hoops team from the conference to win an NCAA title since the league formed.

[+] EnlargeMelissa Jones
Jim Brown/US PresswireSenior guard Melissa Jones averaged 10.7 points last season, second on Baylor behind Brittney Griner.

Last season, Baylor made it back to the Final Four, this time more in a "learn-and-grow" kind of way. A young team that kept getting better throughout the season, Baylor wasn't realistically expected to challenge UConn in the national semifinals in San Antonio.

That 70-50 loss really just seemed more or less a dress rehearsal for what might be in store for Baylor this season. The discussion of Baylor as a Final Four favorite has begun. It makes sense, even after the departure of senior guard Kelli Griffin, who left the team with apparently little to no explanation last week.

At Big 12 media day Oct. 20, Mulkey said that Griffin, Melissa Jones and Brittney Griner would need to be the team's leaders. So Griffin most definitely was an important cog on the team. But Baylor's depth and Mulkey's personality will combine to make this as minimal a distraction as possible.

Which is not to say there is no one irreplaceable at Baylor, since there definitely is. Griner elevated to the top of the class of post players, and she is excited about facing the environment that will await in Hartford, Conn., on Tuesday when Baylor faces Connecticut.

"I'm definitely looking forward to that," Griner said. "It was a learning experience last year playing against the best posts, like Tina Charles. It helped me with my game."

Baylor will already have three games under its belt by then, with contests against Florida International, Montana State and Rice to get the season going.

"We hope there won't be many injuries," said Mulkey, who was without Jones for 15 games last season as she battled a stress fracture. "Injuries can change the complexion of a season and what you do on the floor offensively and defensively.

[+] EnlargeKimetria Hayden and Jordan Madden
AP Photo/Rod AydelotteJordan Madden, left, and Kimetria Hayden played key rolls of Baylor's bench last season.

"We do have many talented players, many weapons. But we have to get them all on the same page."

Griffin, as it turned out, wasn't. And there's no way to quickly replicate the experience that she provided in the backcourt. But it means that players such as freshman Odyssey Sims will need to come along a bit quicker. Mulkey's daughter, freshman Makenzie Robertson, is a strong shooter who will also provide depth for the Baylor backcourt.

Post player Brooklyn Pope, who is from Texas but spent a year at Rutgers before transferring to Baylor, should be an immediate impact player. She's now part of a sophomore class that includes Griner, Kimetria Hayden, Shanay Washington and Jordan Madden -- a group that will be joined at semester break by Destiny Williams, a transfer from Illinois.

Make no mistake, though: Mulkey wants Griner to be the center of attention.

"These kids are talented," Mulkey said. "But no matter how talented we are, we want to go through Brittney whenever we can. If she got 15 shots a game last year, I want her to get 20 this year. Her decisions with the ball now are pretty good; and they were good last year, too.

"But as coaches, it's our challenge to keep making her better. There are things we know that the average fan doesn't know that she has to get better at doing. She's going to be knocked and hit and pushed, so she must get stronger. She has to improve defensively. She can't stay where she was her freshman year; each year her game needs to go up another notch."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.