By Greg DeVries
Anyone that has been to a Baylor Lady Bears basketball game has seen the video that plays before player introductions. Head coach Kim Mulkey stands before her players and talks about the expectation that this team will repeat as National Champions.
Those are some pretty lofty expectations, but that’s where this team is. If the Lady Bears don’t win the National Championship, then this season has been a failure. It may be harsh. It may even be unfair, but it only speaks to how much this team has accomplished and how talented it is. Big 12 regular-season championships and Big 12 Tournament championships are nice, but for Mulkey and the Lady Bears, those trophies may as well be paperweights when the real goal is a National Championship.
The senior class consisting of center Brittney Griner, guard Kimetria Hayden, guard Jordan Madden, forward Brooklyn Pope and forward Destiny Williams has earned this expectation. Back-to-back National Championships will be the best way to end the Griner Era in Lady Bears basketball history.
Over the last three seasons, the Lady Bears are 106-4. This run has included three Big 12 Championships, an Elite Eight appearance, and most importantly, a National Championship.
This recent success has put the Lady Bears in a select group of teams that have gone into seasons with championship-or-bust mentalities.
Going into the Women’s NCAA Tournament, there are five 30-win teams in the top 10: Baylor, Notre Dame, Connecticut, Stanford and Duke. While Duke has had seven consecutive 30-win seasons, the Blue Devils have yet to win it all. Stanford’s recent history is riddled with deep tournament runs, but its last National Championship came in the early 1990s. Notre Dame has had a lot of talent come through its program, but its last National Title was in 2001.
Baylor and UConn are set apart, however.
UConn has won six National Championships since the millennium, including five in a row from 2007-2011. The Huskies’ head coach, Geno Auriemma, has a winning percentage north of .860 and will go down as one of the best women’s basketball coaches of all time. Of the six women’s basketball players to win an NCAA Title, a WNBA title, a World Championship and an Olympic Gold Medal in women’s basketball, four are former Connecticut Huskies.
While Baylor doesn’t have the reign of dominance that UConn can claim, the Lady Bears do have Griner. Her size and skillset make her a transcendent figure that reaches beyond the realm of women’s basketball. UConn players like Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Kara Wolters and Diana Taurasi couldn’t reach this. In fact, only the most informed sports fans even know who these accomplished athletes are. If she is able to stay healthy throughout her career, Griner will be women’s basketball’s Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Babe Ruth, or Usain Bolt.
Griner is the reason that about 9,100 people show up to Baylor women’s basketball games. To put this in perspective, the men’s team only averages just more than 7,100 fans per game.
She is also the reason that the bar is set so high this year. Griner and the Lady Bears have pushed this program into elite company that expects National Championships, not tournament appearances.
The road to the Final Four starts with a first-round game against Prarie View, but Baylor fans know that the true obstacles are found in the later rounds. Stanford, the only team to beat the Lady Bears in the last two years, is a possible Final Four opponent for Baylor.
The Lady Bears lost to Stanford 71-69 in the third game of the season. Junior guard Odyssey Sims played just four minutes in the game before leaving with a strained hamstring.
Despite losing the first meeting, Baylor should still expect to win. This team plays on another level, and if the Lady Bears don’t hoist the National Championship trophy in New Orleans, then we will all be scratching our heads wondering what happened.