For elite basketball programs, the late fall brings an additional red-letter event on the holiday calendar.
The moment a new starting five takes the floor and the fans get a look at a fledgling rotation throughout the opening games is like the gradual unwrapping of a much-anticipated gift.
That will absolutely be the case when the Baylor Lady Bears tip off against Central Arkansas at 7 on Wednesday night at the Ferrell Center.
Baylor is still the defending national champion. Lady Bears fans were robbed of the chance to see their team take a shot at another title last spring when the response to the COVID-19 virus’ arrival in the United States was to shut down sports, including the NCAA Tournament.
By now, sports fans know, probably better than most, how different the world has become during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s been well documented that the Baylor women’s team was sitting in an airplane on the tarmac at the Waco Regional Airport when the Big 12 canceled both the men’s and women’s tournaments. Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey sent a tearful and anxiety-ridden team to their respective homes. Later that day, the NCAA tourney was called off and with it went Baylor’s shot at winning national titles in back-to-back years.
Among the losses that unfolded, Lady Bears stars Lauren Cox, Juicy Landrum and Te’a Cooper saw their college careers end. It was determined that the seniors would not get an additional year to replace the tournament that was taken away from them. All three were selected in the WNBA Draft in April.
But all of that drama and heartache only increase the anticipation of a new season, even one with the coronavirus hanging over it.
The Lady Bears begin a new campaign with an intriguing mix of proven players, including the Big 12 preseason player of the year NaLyssa Smith, and highly touted newcomers.
The preseason also brought a twist and a major plotline as star guard DiDi Richards suffered a strange injury in a collision with fellow senior Moon Ursin. The mid-court crash between the two left Ursin with a concussion, from which she has since returned to practice. But Richards sustained a Spinal Cord Injury Without Radiographic Abnormality (SCIWORA) and spent some time in the preseason using a walker. Richards has improved. It made news when she was able to ditch the walker and last week video surfaced of the Lady Bears’ vivacious leader going through a shooting drill.
Richards’ return to full playing ability is still an unknown. She was slated to play point guard, at least part-time, so that’s another vital Lady Bears role that will be filled, at least temporarily, by someone else.
That’s the theme for the Baylor women as the new season begins: players stepping into new roles.
The good news for Lady Bears fans is that Baylor recruits some of the best players in the nation and lands way more than their share. It’s up to Mulkey, a newly elected Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member, to mold the next great team.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. We are very, very talented,” Mulkey said during a preseason Zoom press conference. “But talent doesn’t always win championships. It takes some time to have team chemistry. It takes time for the new ones to learn. When that will be is always the challenge for coaches.”
The Lady Bears won’t play the same way as the Kalani Brown/Lauren Cox-led 2018-19 national champions did. But in one way or another, Baylor has the players to fit the roles.
Smith is the new Cox
A pattern has emerged during the last two seasons. The heralded preseason player of the year for the Lady Bears draws gobs of attention of both the headline and defensive varieties. Meanwhile, the secondary star post lights up stats pages night after night.
During the run to the 2019 national championship, Lady Bears star center Kalani Brown made a huge impact and was rewarded with second-team All-American honors. But Cox certainly wasn’t outshined. She emerged as a vital piece of the national championship puzzle, scoring 13 points per game, hauling in a team-leading 8.3 rebounds and giving out a very impressive 3.7 assists per game.
Then last fall, Cox was the Big 12 preseason player of the year as she stepped into the spotlight vacated by Brown, who had moved on to pro basketball. Cox earned unanimous first-team All-American for her senior efforts, and then there was Smith leading the Lady Bears with 14.3 points per game and pulling down eight rebounds a night.
While Smith possesses a more guard-like skill set than even the versatile Cox, she remains that focal point in the interior. The 6-foot-2 Smith has proven to be a monumental challenge for opponents to defend in her first two seasons at Baylor.
“NaLyssa Smith has the most experience and I think her confidence makes her a better leader,” Mulkey said. “A lot of her leadership will be her actions on the floor.”
Egbo is the new Smith
It could be that the Lady Bears’ ability to defend their national title from 2019 will depend on how well Smith’s classmate and frontcourt partner Queen Egbo performs in that secondary star role.
Smith and Egbo are a different type of combo than Brown and Cox were before them. Yet, when they are in rhythm, they’re just as much of a headache for opposing defensive schemes.
“Our freshman year (2018-19) we were just so big,” Egbo said. “We just had big post players. We weren’t the fastest post players, but we were big, so we could dominate in the post. I’m not saying we can’t this year, because we are for sure. This year, our team is a lot more athletic. We have guards that are athletic, posts that are athletic and can run the floor.”
Egbo is a 6-3 junior who scored 10.8 points in 18.5 minutes per night last season. That comes out to more points per minute played than anyone on the team in 2019-20 other than Smith. Even so, Egbo knows her challenge will be to produce consistently with more minutes.
“Definitely my role has changed tremendously just in the fact that I have to step up and do what’s expected as a starting post player, which is defend and score at a higher level,” Egbo said. “Just compete at a much higher level than if you were coming off the bench.”
DiJonai is the new Juicy
In the past two seasons, one of Baylor’s biggest strengths on the offensive end was the ability to burn teams if they packed the paint to defend the bigs.
Juicy Landrum, a local legend from La Vega High School, was a crowd favorite in part because she could bomb teams from 3-point range. The Landrum factor reached its peak when she made an NCAA-record 14 treys in a nonconference win over Arkansas State last December.
During the 2019-20 season, Landrum had a companion sniper from beyond the arc as point guard Te’a Cooper filled it up from 3-point range as well. But now both of those players have moved on and it’s not clear yet from where those perimeter points will come.
The addition of graduate transfer DiJonai Carrington at the shooting guard spot will be key. Carrington made a combined 67 treys in her sophomore and junior seasons at Stanford. By comparison, Landrum made 63 during the Lady Bears’ national title run in 2018-19.
The 5-11 Carrington is three inches taller than Landrum and will therefore bring a more physical game to the shooting guard spot.
“If I need her to go in there and post up, I’ll use her,” Mulkey said. “But she can shoot the 3-ball as good as anybody. Defensively, she’s strong. That’s her game. She’s a perimeter strong-built type of player that can do a lot of things.”
For the sharp Lady Bears fan, Carrington might be the most intriguing unknown. She follows a pair of very successful grad transfers from the last two season — Chloe Jackson and Cooper. Carrington comes at a time when her making a similar impact could be vital. In a Zoom press conference earlier this month, she described her efforts to be ready to do that.
“I’m starting to get to know how my teammates play, who likes to pick and pop, who likes to pick and roll,” she said. “Like coach said, there’s a lot that’s being thrown at the freshmen. Obviously, I’m not a freshman, (but) I put myself in that category too, trying to learn quickly on the fly.”
Still more candidates to shine
Mulkey has said that a lot of her players will be in new roles this season. But for anyone outside the coaches’ offices to define those new roles is guesswork.
The preceding paragraphs might all be moot by halftime on Wednesday night.
And then there are a couple of key roles that will certainly evolve over the course of the season.
Richards ran the point even when she wasn’t officially running the point for Baylor last season. But in preseason practice, before her injury, it looked like she might be the official point guard for this Lady Bears squad. As much as Baylor nation is pulling for Richards to get back to the court, it looks like the point guard duties will be shared by others for the early part of the season.
Ursin, sophomore Jordyn Oliver and freshman Sarah Andrews are the most likely candidates to carry the weight of that important role at the opening tip. Point guard is a key spot on any basketball team, but even more so in Baylor’s system as whoever gets it is playing point guard for a former point guard (Mulkey).
Sooner or later, Andrews figures to be that player as it’s her natural position. But how soon will Mulkey trust her?
“Unfortunately, with both of (the Lady Bears freshmen), we don’t have time,” Mulkey said. “They’re going to get thrown into the fire, so to speak, a lot this year which will make them better in the long run.”
Andrews comes to Baylor from Irving MacArthur, where she was teammates with the other member of the Lady Bears’ freshman class, 6-5 center Hannah Gusters.
When asked about Smith and Egbo in a preseason press conference, Mulkey was quick to point out that it will be a four-player rotation at post. Gusters and junior forward Caitlin Bickle will also play significant minutes. In fact, Gusters and Bickle playing together would give Baylor an inside combo that looks something like Brown and Cox.
Another point of emphasis from the Lady Bears coach is that the ever-fluid COVID culture means that teams will need experience and depth. That’s going to bring increased roles for fourth-year junior Trinity Oliver and Ursin. Those two join Richards, Bickle, Smith and Egbo as players that were there every step of the way to the national title in 2019.
Mulkey pointed out that Trinity Oliver, a 5-9 guard, is a versatile player that might find a variety of roles this season. And Ursin is a crowd favorite and an outstanding athlete.
In fact, Moon could emerge as a star.
“I’m stepping up to a big role this year,” Ursin said. “I’m just trying to be as vocal as I can. On the court, we’re losing a lot. … I have to step up extremely big this year.”
Ursin has been the ideal team player the last three seasons. Providing a spark off the bench and a competitive attitude at all times. Her realization of what’s ahead fits every player in the Lady Bears’ locker room.
It’s time to step up.