By Jeffrey Swindoll
The No. 8 Lady Bears tracked their steps back from last season against Kentucky on Monday night – an early season loss to a top-25 ranked Kentucky team, exposing issues as well as potential in head coach Kim Mulkey’s team. Mulkey said it herself, the Lady Bears can’t rely on just one player to carry the team. Instead, she can rely on two of her dark horse studs from last season.
Junior guard Niya Johnson is now in the driver’s seat of Mulkey’s muscle car, and sophomore forward Nina Davis is the engine. Together, Johnson and Davis can replace the Lady Bears’ dependence on Odyssey Sims from last season with a more cohesive, versatile unit for the 2014-15 season.
In the midst of criticism being flung at her team for being too one-dimensional last season, Mulkey went about her business and coached a Big 12 Conference championship-winning team and an appearance in the Elite 8 of last March’s NCAA tournament. Furthermore, that successful season was on the back of the Lady Bears’ first season without Brittney Griner.
Some assembly was required, but the finished product turned out to be one of the country’s best women’s college basketball teams.
“Everybody’s looking to do their part, and roles have got to change,” Mulkey said. “And I think they understand that. I don’t sit them down and say you’ve got to average this many, you’ve got to shoot this much. It evolves.”
Mulkey keeps finding ways to win with what she’s got, and what she’s got going for her now is Johnson and Davis. Last season, Sims ran the show, but performances from Johnson and Davis kept the Lady Bears in games. Time after time, on Sims’ off-nights, Johnson and/or Davis would pick up the slack.
Sims put up the most impressive numbers from last season in terms of scoring and assists. However, Davis, albeit as a true freshman, was more consistent than Sims, the best player in the country last season. Johnson’s steadfastness in assists and minimal turnover rate was second to none for Baylor last season.
Because of Sims’ evident talent and clear advantage in just about every field she needed to excel in, she occasionally forced the issue, especially towards the beginning of the season. The Lady Bears, specifically Johnson and Davis, are in a similar stage right now – figuring out their roles on this team.
Mulkey sees Johnson doing the same she did last year, finding open players and convert the play into points. In all but three of Baylor’s 16 Big 12 wins last season, Johnson showed up big in the assists category, ranging between 5 and 11 assists each game. Johnson also boasted the country’s best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country last season (4.0). She also ranks No. 1 on Baylor’s single-season assists chart (244).
“I don’t expect the assist-to-turnover ratio to change,” Mulkey said. “I expect it to get even better. But I think she has to understand that those shots that you passed up last year, don’t pass them up. I think her game now, instead of becoming assists-to-turnover ratio as you look at the stat sheet, now you can look at the scoring there, too. So she can add that dimension to her game. And I think she can do it without changing anything.”
Johnson said she understands she has more on her plate this season. She’ll have to go against her initial instinct, passing first, more often now.
“I’m still trying to adjust to it, just taking it slowly. I have to think not always pass-first, but shoot as well. Offense first. Just score. If my teammates are open, I’m going to pass it.”
Johnson accumulated a whopping 29 assists in just two exhibition games earlier in the year. There was a substantial drop-off in Johnson’s assists rate in the loss against Kentucky Monday night. Johnson totaled just three assists and six points. Most of all, Johnson coughed up eight turnovers against the Wildcats.
Most important of all to Johnson is her role as a veteran and leader for her team. This season, no other player stands in Johnson’s way of taking charge of the team.
“I guess you could say it’s my team now, because at the point guard position I am one of the captains, and I’m also a leader on and off the court, so I do take that seriously,” Johnson said. “And it’s a big deal for me on the court, as well as off the court, of encouraging my teammates and making them better.”
Davis, on the other hand, is the team’s work horse. She did the dirty work in the paint last season, and she looks to continue that job this season. Mulkey admits that Davis’ potential spans across multiple positional roles, but her impact on the team will stay just as vital to the team’s success this season.
Well aware of the fact that she basically took the nation by surprise last year, Davis knows her matchups, in comparison to last season, will be much more prepared for her this season.
“They will have game tape of me from last year, and they will know my strengths and my weaknesses more so than last year when I was coming in,” Davis said. “You just have to go out there and play ball. I think nobody can stop you other than yourself. That’s what you work on in the offseason, doing things that they haven’t seen you do, like working on your jump shot and doing different kind of moves so that they won’t know everything I’m going to do. Once you play a year, people learn your game. That’s like anybody on any level.”
Davis and Johnson are two pieces to Mulkey’s puzzle this season. Her team’s identity, just as it did last season, will flourish as the season goes on.
“I just tweak a few things and run a few sets in there, but that team’s identity is going to be developed from themselves, not from anything I do,” Mulkey said. “The captain role will develop and evolve, who scores. All that will take care of itself, because I always believe the cream will rise to the top as the season progresses, and especially when you play tough teams.”