Baylor didn’t face much in the way of suspense Monday night when the NCAA tournament field was revealed.
The Lady Bears were expecting to be a high seed, and they already knew they would host the first two rounds at the Ferrell Center on Saturday and Monday.
All that was yet to be determined was in which regional they would land and who would join them in Waco for the opening weekend.
They know it all now.
The second-seeded Lady Bears will open with No. 15 seed Western Kentucky at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, following a contest between No. 7 seed California and 10th-seeded Fordham at 3.
The first-round winners will meet in the second round, also at the Ferrell Center.
“I don’t think anymore. I just react,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “We’re just excited to be a high seed, but I don’t know that that really matters. We’ve won a championship as a 2-seed, and we’ve won it as a 1-seed, so I guess now we’re a 2-seed.”
Should Baylor get past the first two rounds, it will head to South Bend, Ind., the home of top-seeded Notre Dame.
If the seeds hold, a Sweet 16 showdown with third-seeded Kentucky would be in store. That would be the rematch of a classic from earlier this year. Kentucky outlasted Baylor, 133-130 in four overtimes in December at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, a game in which Baylor’s Odyssey Sims scored 47 points but fouled out in the first extra session.
That was the first time for most of the young Lady Bears to meet a team of that caliber, and they acquitted themselves well, especially by forcing three more overtimes after Sims went out.
Sims was the only player with any experience on this year’s team going into the season, but it has grown up as the year has progressed. While Mulkey would certainly prefer to have a team with experience, she was able to guide a team full of youth to the Final Four in 2010.
“The inexperience factor is still there because now it’s really totally different than it’s been all year, but the innocence factor in that it’s new, it’s exciting, your adrenaline is pumping, and I’m looking forward to taking this bunch on the floor for the NCAA playoffs,” Mulkey said. “What they have done this year, I expect them to keep doing that. When it’s all said and done, make sure you walk off that floor and you don’t have an ounce of energy left in your body. You have given everything you have.”
Coaching from home
Mulkey won’t actually get to take the Lady Bears to the floor for their opening game.
She was suspended by the NCAA for one tournament game after critical comments she made about the officiating in last year’s Sweet 16 loss to Louisville — considered one of the biggest upsets in the history of women’s basketball.
Mulkey said she will watch Friday’s game on TV at home, but she has told her players several times that they should be able to coach themselves should something ever happen to her on the bench.
Not the first time
This isn’t the first time Mulkey has missed a first-round game. She was in the hospital with a kidney stone in 2009, when the second-seeded Lady Bears held off No. 15 seed Texas-San Antonio’s upset bid with an 87-82 win in overtime in Lubbock.
“It’s difficult, and yet it’s not as bad as you think, because if you prepare them, those kids can go out there and win a basketball game,” Mulkey said. “They don’t need us on that sideline other than every now and then to call a timeout and make a few adjustments. But I’ve lived it. The difference is I hope I’m not sick when I’m watching it this time, and that I’m healthy and enjoying it.”
Associate head coach Bill Brock will lead the team, and he’s one of three former head coaches on Mulkey’s staff along with Sytia Messer (Tennessee Tech) and Toyelle Wilson (Prairie View A&M).
Facing the Irish?
Should the Lady Bears get past the Sweet 16, it’s likely the Fighting Irish would be waiting for them in the Elite Eight.
“You never want to be in a region where you have to go play somebody and beat them on their home floor, but we’re not going to worry about that at this point,” Mulkey said. “We’re going to think about Western Kentucky, and I have lots and lots of memories of playing those guys back when I was at Louisiana Tech.”
Despite that history with the Hilltoppers, Mulkey doesn’t know much about this year’s team. Western Kentucky rallied from 14 points down in the Sun Belt championship game to stun regular season champion Arkansas State with an 18-4 run down the stretch for a 61-60 victory and to clinch the Hilltoppers’ 10th NCAA tournament appearance.
California was a Final Four team a year ago and finished second in the Pac-12 this season before bowing out in the first round of the conference tournament, and Fordham was second in the Atlantic 10 before running to its conference tournament championship.
“We’ll get in the film room, and we’ll gather as much information as we can,” Mulkey said. “I’ll know more tomorrow after we’ve watched film and studied them.”