WACO, Texas – How do you replace Brittney Griner?
You don’t. But that doesn’t mean that Baylor’s women’s basketball program has shut down like the National Parks.
The Lady Bears not only are missing the best player in women’s college basketball history but must replace three other starters plus a top reserve. That’s five of the top six players missing. While the lone returning starter is All-American point guard Odyssey Sims, this year’s team brings some mystery.
“I’m going to enjoy this team for a lot of reasons, even after losses,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said Tuesday during the Big 12 Women’s Basketball Campus Tour. “Everybody on this team other than Odyssey waited their turn. The last couple of years, they’ve been beat up in practice guarding that group of seniors we had last season.”
Sims, Makenzie Robertson and Mariah Chandler are the seniors on the roster. Sims and Robertson will be part of the team’s strength – the perimeter – while Chandler will be counted on to provide production inside. Replacing Griner’s 23.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game along with 149 blocked shots is a challenge few teams could meet.
“We know the perimeter is our strength,” said Chandler, a 6-2 senior. “The post players want to prove we can play. We don’t want people to forget we’re here. I’ve been hitting the weight room hard to get stronger and I’m also working on boxing out on rebounds.”
Sune Agbuke, a 6-4 junior, and Kristina Higgins, a 6-5 sophomore, join Chandler as the most experienced post players on the roster.
“Other than Odyssey, where’s our scoring going to come from?,” Mulkey said. “I don’t know that and I don’t know if I’ll know until we get through the first month. Obviously we’re going to get as much mileage out of Odyssey as we can. She’ll play both the one and the two. We’ll play to our strength and our strength is going to be guard play.”
Sims, who averaged 21.9 points and 5.7 assists per game, spent another summer playing for USA Basketball, earning a gold medal and co-MVP honors in the World University Games.
“This season I need to lead in all aspects of the team, especially when it comes to the freshmen,” said Sims, the Big 12’s preseason player of the year. “Playing without Brittney is going to be a lot different. I think we can be real good, good enough to win the Big 12. Our guard play is very strong and we’re going to run a lot more.
“We lost a lot but we gained a lot, especially with the freshmen.”
Ieshia Small, a 6-foot guard, was named as the Big 12’s preseason freshman of the year. Sims says that Imani Wright, a 5-9 guard, and Khadijah Cave, a 6-2 post, have impressed her so far. Mulkey, though, says she won’t be sure which newcomers will contribute.
“The talent is there, they just need game experience,” she said. “I like the fact that they’re picking up what they need to learn quickly. But the feeling I get is that the first month or so of the season, we could be playing a lot of players until we figure out who needs the bulk of the playing time.”
Even with a cast of newcomers, Baylor was selected by the Big 12 coaches to finish second behind Oklahoma and is a consensus top 10 team in the preseason national rankings. Mulkey welcomes the attention.
“You want to build a program that’s respected,” Mulkey said. “If we can put a team on the floor that contends for championships in the Big 12, gets to the NCAA Tournament, is a hard team to play against, that earns respect.”
Baylor’s bid for consecutive national championships ended with a stunning 82-81 loss to Louisville in the semifinals of the Oklahoma City Regional. Finishing 34-2 including an 18-0 record and Big 12 championship without the school’s third national title gave last season an empty feeling.
“I don’t know if you ever get over it,” Mulkey said. “You can’t dwell on it. I can’t dwell on the past. I have to get ready for this year’s team.”