By Matt Larsen
As a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history, the Lady Bears will enjoy the comfort of playing the first round of the NCAA Tournament in the friendly confines of the Ferrell Center at 6:40 p.m. Sunday when they take on Prairie View A&M.
Head coach Kim Mulkey just hopes her squad won’t feel too comfy.
“My comfort level isn’t too good,” the 11th-year coach said. “The last NCAA game we hosted here we got beat.”
Mulkey acknowledged the perks of avoiding airports and keeping a more normal routine, but refuses to let her team be lulled into a lackadaisical mindset. In 2002, No. 7 seed Drake surprised her No. 2 seed team in the second round at the Ferrell Center.
“It’s called the NCAA playoffs,” she said. “Playing at home doesn’t guarantee you a win, and playing at home doesn’t guarantee you anything.”
And yet no one can argue that on paper, this year’s team sits more poised to challenge for a national championship than any of Mulkey’s past teams.
Mulkey has taken eight straight teams to the Big Dance. Since coming to Baylor in 2001, 10 of her 11 teams have qualified for the tournament.
None of those 10 earned a No. 1 seed, though, not even Mulkey’s national championship squad in 2005, a No. 2 seed. The Lady Bears’ potential road to the Final Four starts in Waco before taking a short jog north to Dallas for the third and fourth rounds.
Baylor travels further for most of its Big 12 road matchups than it would for the first four rounds of the tournament.
Along with a No. 1 seed comes a theoretically easier schedule, too.
In the history of the women’s NCAA tourney, just one No. 1 seed has ever been upset in the first round (No. 16 seed Harvard defeated No. 1 seed Stanford 71-67 in 1998).
With Mulkey’s approach, she intends to see that her first No. 1-seeded squad doesn’t become the second ever to drop its first- round matchup.
“Let’s look at Prairie View first, because really that’s the only one I’m worried about [right now],” she said.
Not that she sees limits for this bunch.
Experience, depth and talent come in abundance.
Senior Melissa Jones, sophomore Brittney Griner and freshman Odyssey Sims were named to the seven-member State Farm Coaches’ All-Region team. All three will be considered for the All-American squad, and Sims is the only freshman in the country to receive All-Region honors.
Griner comes within a tenth of a point of leading the Big 12 in scoring, at 22.6 points per game, and Jones sits second nationally in assist to turnover ratio (3.1).
Sims leads the conference in 3-point field goal percentage at .456.
As for depth, Mulkey frequently touts the strength of bench players like Jordan Madden and Brooklyn Pope who each average more than 15 minutes a game.
The Lady Bears have also avoided big injuries, unlike last year when a stress reactor in Jones’ knee significantly limited her team’s outside threat.
Then comes experience.
As a senior, Jones is making her fourth trip to the postseason and most of the key contributors were around last year when Baylor advanced to the semifinals before falling to No. 1 seed Connecticut.
“There is no substitute for having a team on the floor that has NCAA [tournament] experience,” Mulkey said.
Jones had essentially the same to say about her coach, who was named one of four finalists for the Naismith Women’s College Coach of the Year.
“She’s been to every game you can think of, as far as even playing herself,” Jones said.
“Her personality and how intense she is, we feed off that. It’s something this team needs to keep going.”
Spurred on by its coach’s passion, Baylor will first look to go through a Prairie View team that won the SWAC Tournament in coach Toyelle Wilson’s first year at the helm.
The Panthers (21-11) feature a trio of scoring threats in freshman Siarra Soliz, senior Dominique Smith and sophomore Latia Williams. They average 13.0, 12.1 and 10.1 a contest.
As for shutting down the trio, Griner expects to stay with the mindset that has landed her second in the country in blocked shots, at 148.
“I’m just trying to be as big as I can in the paint,” she said. “They may not drive but I can just try to intimidate them from coming in. I take that little quick step up and make them stay out.”