Of all the different sites Brittney Griner has visited during the past two NCAA tournaments, Berkeley was her favorite.
That was her first NCAA tournament stop, the weather was nice, San Francisco was nearby and Griner and the Lady Bears played some splendid basketball. “California was a lot of fun,” Griner said, with a bit of wistful nostalgia.
As she enters her third NCAA tournament this year, Griner wouldn’t care if Baylor’s games were in Berkeley, Baton Rouge or Bangor, Maine.
“It really doesn’t matter where we play,” Griner said.
That’s because Baylor (34-0) isn’t taking a sightseeing trip. It’s no spring break pleasure cruise.
This is the ultimate business trip — the trip that Baylor has been anticipating all season.
“I feel like we’re just ready to play,” Kimetria Hayden said. “So it doesn’t matter where we go. We just want to play and have fun.”
There won’t be any mystery in Baylor’s seeding when the NCAA field is released at 6 p.m. today on ESPN. The No. 1-ranked and unblemished Lady Bears virtually are guaranteed to earn the No. 1 overall seed.
But since Baylor won’t be hosting in the first and second rounds this year, there is some intrigue surrounding its initial destination.
Not headed to Arkansas
Most bracketology projections leading into the conference tournaments had Baylor headed to Little Rock, Ark., about the closest potential destination not already linked to a host school. But Arkansas-Little Rock won its conference tournament, and since the NCAA is committed to keeping host schools at home, the Lady Bears will undoubtedly be headed elsewhere instead. (UALR isn’t projected to earn either a 16, 8 or 9 seed, the other three seeds that will fill out Baylor’s bracket).
“I always like the site to be where fans can pay and drive and afford to go,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “Obviously we thought Little Rock. Little Rock won, so that screwed that first and second-round site up, because they’re not going to be a 16 seed. I’m being told it’s probably Tallahassee or Norfolk. But it doesn’t matter to us. If you go back to the ’05 year, we were all over.”
Indeed, in Baylor’s national championship season of 2005, the Lady Bears criss-crossed the country on their way up the ladder to trim the nets. Baylor played in Seattle and Tempe, Ariz., before taking home the title in Indianapolis.
As Mulkey alluded to, Baylor’s most likely destinations for the first two rounds are either Tallahassee, Fla., or Norfolk, Va. Another possibility is Chapel Hill, N.C., though the NCAA committee would probably prefer to put Duke there in order to draw more fans from the region.
There may be an outside shot that Baylor lands in familiar Big 12 country in Ames, Iowa, if bubble team Iowa State (18-12) doesn’t make the field. But most projections have the Cyclones sneaking in and grabbing one of the final at-large bids.
If the Lady Bears win their first two games, they’d likely play in Des Moines, the closest regional to Waco, for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds. The other three regional sites are Kingston, R.I.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Fresno, Calif.
The Final Four is scheduled for April 1-3 in Denver.
All season long, the emphasis for Baylor has been on March (and April). The Lady Bears have been consumed with winning six games in the NCAA tournament, and weren’t worried about a potential slip-up in the 34 games that preceded those.
Now that they’ve achieved perfection through those first 34, you’d better believe they want to finish undefeated.
“I just know that I’ve got a focused bunch of kids in that locker room, and they’re ready to finish this thing off right,” Mulkey said. “And I believe that they will. I just know that they’re ready to play. It’s kind of like, this is what you’ve worked for. This is what you’ve worked for all year, and let’s go see what we can do.”
Bear Facts: Griner picked up the first of what figures to be many national player of the year honors Sunday when she was named ESPN.com’s choice for the best player in the country. The 6-8 junior is averaging 23.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 5.2 blocks per game.
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