By Jeffrey Swindoll
Moving past the Brittney Griner era was part of the Baylor women’s basketball’s maturation process last season. With the loss of Griner, much of the responsibility, defensively and offensively, was put on Odyssey Sims’ shoulders. Growing out of that dependency on Sims will be inevitable for the Lady Bears in the 2014-15 season.
Sims affected the Lady Bears (and the opponents’) tactics perhaps more than any other player in the country last year. Despite that, Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey has a roster with widespread talent to maintain the elite program status that her basketball team has achieved over the past few seasons.
“It’s the unknown, I don’t know how fun it will be until we get on the floor during games,” Mulkey said. “Who’s gonna be our scorer, who’s gonna be our defensive stopper, who’s gonna be the leader? We’ve got players with experience but they’ll be in different roles. They’ll need to step up and do things they haven’t done before.”
Without Sims, the Lady Bears were far from utterly weaponless last season. As the season went on in 2013-14, the Lady Bears started to spread the ball around. Their attack came from just about anywhere on the court, not just Sims. The Lady Bears return three of their five starters from last year’s 32-5 conference championship team.
Even with a young roster filled with question marks, Mulkey did an excellent job – a share of the Big 12 regular season title, the Big 12 Tournament Championship title, and an appearance in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. The Associated Press also ranked the Lady Bears No. 8 in the nation.
The 2014-15 season could be no different for the Lady Bears in the sense of shattering preseason expectations. The Lady Bears were picked to finish second in the Big 12 in the Big 12 preseason coaches poll.
“Preseason rankings bring great recognition to your program,” Mulkey said. “It’s a respect thing, but we haven’t done anything yet. We’ve got a non-conference schedule that will challenge us. We’ll go on the road more this year than we did last year. So, I don’t know if rankings are accurate, but it’s nice to have your name written somewhere.”
Sophomore forward Nina Davis broke onto the scene unexpectedly for the Lady Bears last season. Davis, who is 5-foot-11, is considered short for her post position. The young star was overlooked at first, but teams were forced to take notice of her when she began dominating the paint every game for Baylor.
“I guess you could say last year I wasn’t sheltered, but I was more sheltered with Odyssey being on the team,” Davis said. “More of the defense and strategy were focused on her, but I know this year there will be more of a target on me. I just have to step my game up even more knowing that every game we play I’m going to be somewhere on the scouting sheets.”
Davis was named All-Big 12 first team and Big 12 Freshman of the Year last season for her performance. As a freshman, she averaged 15 points and a league-leading 8.9 rebounds per game.
“I’m prepared to take on a role,” Davis said. “Before the season started [Mulkey and I] had a meeting, and there was one thing she told me and that was that I need to be more of a leader, more vocal. As you can see on the court, I don’t like to talk a lot. But I know this year, in order be a leader, I can’t be quiet.”
Junior guard Niya Johnson will likely be the offensive maestro in the 2014-15 season for the Lady Bears. Last year, Johnson was the team leader in assists and boasted the best assist/turnover ratio in the country (4.0). However, much of her offensive responsibilities were deferred to Sims, the leader of the Lady Bears’ attack.
Johnson was more than happy to dish out passes to Sims for layups last season, but she may have the ball in her hands more of this season. Johnson is in the driver’s seat now, and she can assist and score at will, Mulkey said.
“I used to pass, pass, pass, and this year I have to look to do more scoring instead of passing,” said Johnson, who started 32 of 37 games. “I’d rather pass than shoot. I just love to watch my teammates score off my assists. Now I don’t have any choice but to shoot.”
Although Davis and Johnson were some of the most productive players in points and assists last season, the departure of Sims and Makenzie Robertson leaves a huge gap in the scoring department for the Lady Bears. Mulkey and her staff are searching for the players to carry the load this season.
“We’re going to have to find out who can score,” Mulkey said. “Scrimmaging is a big part of it early, but I don’t know what we have out there. We’ve got 38 points we’ve got to replace with Odyssey and Makenzie [Robertson] being gone.”
The return of senior guard Alexis Prince from a season-ending foot injury in 2013 will help bolster Mulkey’s lineup. Prince was on the sideline for nearly all of last season with a medical boot on her foot. Her ability to encourage her team without being able to suit up helped her leadership role for the team in this season. Prince is likely to be be in the starting five for the Lady Bears.
“[Prince] hasn’t missed a practice, she hasn’t limped, hasn’t had to see the doctor so all is good,” Mulkey said. “When you have a player of her size with her skills and versatility, it makes your team so much better. We would have been much better last year if she was healthy. We anticipate her being a big factor for us. We’ve done all we can to prepare her and get her healthy. Two months from now. You never know.”
The lone senior in the starting lineup, post Sune Agbuke, was an invaluable piece to the Lady Bears’ defense last season. Agbuke anchored the Lady Bears’ rebound game on both the offensive and defensive ends. Mulkey said Agbuke is like “a wall back there,” and she is vital to how the team game plans for defense.
More than anything, Agbuke has been on an undefeated, NCAA championship winning team and her experience and amount of minutes played is unmatched by any other player on Mulkey’s roster.
Offense is a concern for the Lady Bears ahead of the 2014-15 season, but Mulkey has long been a coach that takes pride in her team’s ability and discipline on the defensive side of the ball. The team’s defensive strength is often overlooked because of the scoring done by the Lady Bears’ fast-paced offense. Mulkey will be working on the Lady Bears’ defensive shape more than anything else in preseason training.
The Lady Bears 2014-15 begins against Midwestern State at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Ferrell Center.