Different Bears, same dream: women’s basketball begins quest for a national championship

Senior forward NaLyssa Smith takes a shot against the University of Kansas on Feb. 4 at the Ferrell Center. Despite a new head coach in Nicki Collen and a new offensive philosophy, Baylor women’s basketball still holds itself to a championship level standard. Lariat File Photo

By Marquis Cooley | Sports Editor

A lot has changed within the Baylor women’s basketball team since losing to the University of Connecticut in the Elite Eight last season. Head coach Nicki Collen took over the helm after Kim Mulkey departed for Louisiana State University and former Baylor standouts DiDi Richards, Moon Ursin and DiJonai Carrington all left the program. Senior forward NaLyssa Smith said all the change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though.

“A change isn’t always bad; change can be good. So I feel like a fresh start is good for everybody,” Smith said. “Having Coach Nicki, having new players, it’s going to take a lot of adjusting, but I feel like at the end of the day, we’re built around adversity. So I feel like we’ll be fine.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the new look for the Baylor women’s basketball team is that they are no longer going by the Lady Bears. Earlier in the school year, the team announced it would be dropping “lady” from its name to remain consistent with the other Baylor athletic programs. Smith said the name change has no effect on the team’s mindset.

“I feel like a name doesn’t really define us,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, we’re here to play basketball, no matter what’s on our chest, what’s on the back of our jersey.”

With a new coach comes a new philosophy, and Collen, coming to Baylor from the Atlanta Dream, is bringing a WNBA-style approach to her offense in which she spaces out the floor to encourage more three-point shooting and passing up good shots for great shots. Collen said she is “100% confident” in her offense, as she’s seen it work against the best athletes in the world.

“Certainly there are growing pains and just changing and all these players learning something new, but there’s a reason why the NBA does what they do,” Collen said. “The WNBA steals stuff from the NBA that steals stuff from Europe; none of us are creating something new. But when you take the best athletes in the world, you figure out what gives you the best chance to score and what’s the hardest thing to defend.”

“A lot of the things we do are simply hard to guard because of spacing,” Collen said. “If you can create great spacing, which you have to have shooters and people that can create space, but if you have the right personnel, I think there’s no doubt it can be successful because you just put the defense in a predicament. … I think the key is, there’s no reason to take contested shots. I mean, you have the ability to create open shots on every possession, so why not?”

Smith said she is excited for the pro-style offense, as she feels it’ll help her expand her game. That is something Smith has been wanting to do for a while, as she plans on taking her talent to the WNBA.

“I love that we spread the floor a lot more now,” Smith said. “A lot of people really don’t have like one, two, three, four or five type roles. So if you can handle the ball, [Collen is] going to put you on the wing. If you could post up, we’ll throw somebody down there. So I feel like just having that pro mindset will help you get a closer look on the league. So I feel like that’ll help us a lot more this year.”

While the new offense may be a little complicated and learning it has taken some time, the players feel as though Collen’s coaching style has made it easier on them.

“I would definitely say she’s a player’s coach; you can definitely tell that she’s very interactive with you,” graduate student guard Jordan Lewis said. “She’ll come in our workouts and work out with us, she’ll guard us, she’s very hands-on. And I think that’s very helpful because not everybody’s just a learner where you can say things. She’s going to show you how to do it and the way she wants it. … She puts us first before herself and everything.”

One challenge the Bears will have to overcome throughout the season is that they only have nine players on the roster instead of the usual 12 to 13. While Collen said she’s looking into working out another potential player, she has no problem going through the season with just the nine she already has.

“If you look at any good team in the country, who plays more than eight players or maybe a ninth situationally?” Collen said. “What it does is it creates a camaraderie among the team knowing that, ‘Hey, we’re all important, we’re all going to have a role, we all have to be ready.’ There’s no one that’s just there to give people towels when they check out of the game because if someone’s checking out of the game, someone’s checking in. So I think they’re embracing that.”

Collen said there may be moments in games when she will have to look into using timeouts for resting purposes rather than strategy, but Smith said it really just comes down to staying healthy.

“Everybody’s got to take care of their bodies. Everything’s a lot more serious this year because we don’t have that many subs,” Smith said. “So [if] everybody just tries to do their part, then I feel like we’ll be fine.”

Despite all the changes surrounding the Bears, one thing remains constant: their desire to win a national championship.

“We’re all here to win a national championship at the end of the day,” Smith said. “All the changes aren’t really going to affect us drastically; we’re here to play basketball. So [at] the end of the day we are trying to get a Natty, so that’s our biggest goal.”

Collen said she knew what the expectations were when taking the job and isn’t back away from them.

“We’re not shying away from saying this is a championship program,” Collen said. “We’re always going to expect to compete for championships. We talk a lot about keeping the main thing the main thing and that being basketball in general.”

With that being said, the quest for a championship is more of an unspoken expectation the team has among itself, as its main focus is on improving each and every day.

“There’s not a ‘Let’s talk about Final Fours’ or ‘We have unfinished business,’” Collen said. “We’re talking about new beginnings and how we can get better. If we get better each and every day, then those things will take care of themselves.”