WACO, Texas - Admittedly the sample size is small. But through the first week of women's basketball in the Big 12 Conference, eight of the games played have decided by single digits.
The trend buster? Baylor. The Lady Bears have won twice by margins of 39 and 34 points. That sort of dominance should come as no surprise but it is informative when considering the mindset of the defending national champions. The Conference race might be two months of brass knuckle brawls but it's tough to lay a glove on the champs.
Second-ranked Baylor hosted No. 12 Oklahoma State Sunday. The Cowgirls were third in Division I in scoring at nearly 86 points per game. With the score tied 10 minutes into the game, the Lady Bears put the defensive hammer lock down and overwhelmed Oklahoma State, 83-49.
"I don't know what more I can say; they're the best team in America" Cowgirls coach Jim Littell said. "And I think they're the best defensive team in the history of women's basketball."
When Littell's comment was relayed to Baylor's Brooklyn Pope, who scored a game-high 18 points in 18 minutes, it produced a wry smile.
"That's good he said that," she said, "but he's not our coach."
That, of course, would be Kim Mulkey who won the 350th game against 80 losses in 12-plus seasons. Compliments of "greatest this" and "best that" can sometimes reduce a team's work ethic and/or effort.
"Defense and half court execution in your offense are the two critical areas you need to win a national championship," Mulkey said. "I've been fortunate to coach players who understand I'm never gonna let up on the defensive end of the floor."
For the first 10 minutes, Oklahoma State's zone (a 1-3-1 and a 2-3) bottled up Brittney Griner (14 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks). Of the Lady Bears' first 21 shots, eight were 3-pointers. The long-range jumpers that missed helped fuel the Cowgirls' fast break.
After a turnover led to a Tiffany Bias layup, the score was tied at 23-all with 10:09 remaining. The Cowgirls were on pace to score 92 points.
"That's when they turned it up to a different level," Littell said. "It was like, 'OK, it's time for us to play.'"
Over the next 20 minutes that extended into the second half, Baylor's defense smothered Oklahoma State. The Cowgirls had 34 possessions that produced 22 misses on 24 shots, 13 turnovers and six points). Baylor scored 37 points over that stretch to build a 60-29 lead with 12:55 remaining.
That was a defensive stretch that even impressed the Baylor coach.
"There are a lot of elements there to what he's saying," Baylor said in direct response to Littell's complment. "We've got one of the best on the ball defenders in Odyssey Sims. She's our trigger. Jordan Madden didn't play much in the first half. She started to get after it defensively to start the second half.
"It starts with the point guard pressure but then we've got two athletes on the wings as quick as lightning, we've got Britnney inside at 6-8 and an athletic 6-2 at the power forward. But I've got a short-term memory. I need to start worrying about guarding Iowa State shooting the three."
The pre-game video played at the Ferrell Center features Rihanna's "Shine Bright Like A Diamond." Mulkey tells her players about the hard work needed to win back-to-back national titles. She says that the "schedule will teach you."
When asked about Baylor being in blow-out mode while the rest of the Big 12's teams are playing nail biters, Mulkey cringed.
"I hope people don't expect that every night, the game is too difficult," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "We've got a lot of games to go on the road, teams that are tough to beat."
The Baylor coach also cringed when asked about the likelihood that her team will move back into the No. 1 spot in the rankings. Notre Dame defeated No. 2 Connecticut Saturday. The Lady Bears will play at UConn on Feb. 18.
"Maybe Duke (13-0 and ranked No. 3) will be No. 1," Mulkey said, who laughed in mock horror about being back on top of the polls. "Let them carry that burden."
Expect the heavy load to be on Baylor's shoulders, but it's really never left.