At times during the Baylor women’s basketball team’s opening practice of the season, Kim Mulkey retreated to a folding chair and took a load off.
Mulkey had spinal fusion surgery over the offseason, and the veteran coach was just recently cleared by her doctor to drive and to participate in coaching at practice. She may be a little worse for wear – equipped with three screws and plate in her back – but the fire hasn’t been extinguished.
“My mouth still works, so that’s a good thing,” Mulkey said.
She put her vocal cords to good use in the Lady Bears’ tipoff practice on Monday. Baylor welcomes in the top-ranked recruiting class in the country, comprised of five talented freshmen who made their share of plays – and mistakes – during the workout.
Mulkey has coached long enough to know that whenever you have that many freshmen on your roster, the teachable moments never cease.
“You go back to teaching,” Mulkey said. “Last year, when you have someone like Kristy Wallace coaching them on the field, you can just kind of roll the ball out there because you’ve taught her what to do. Now, we’ve got a young group, and we’ve got to make sure that we’re patient with them. We’ve got to make sure we don’t get frustrated with them, because they are very talented and they have to play and they have to contribute.”
The Lady Bears compiled a 33-2 record last year, losing only to UCLA in the regular season in a game both Mulkey and forward Lauren Cox missed, and to sixth-seeded Oregon State in the Sweet 16. Five players from that squad return, led by all-everything posts Cox and Kalani Brown. However, Wallace graduated, leaving a leadership void, as the scrappy Australian guard served as kind of the emotional pulse of the team.
Also gone are guards Natalie Chou, who transferred to UCLA, and Alexis Morris, who was dismissed on Sept. 11 for a violation of team rules. Morris, who was a member of the Big 12’s All-Freshman Team last season, was slated to see big minutes at the point guard spot for the Lady Bears, but now the team may take more of a committee approach.
Mulkey said that saying good-bye to Morris wasn’t an easy decision.
“Any time you dismiss a kid, it’s tough. We’re not in the business of dismissing kids,” Mulkey said. “I love that kid, and she knows it. It’s just something you don’t anticipate happening, and it happens. And you have to move on.”
In Morris’s absence, the point guard role falls to a trio of aspiring applicants – junior Juicy Landrum from La Vega, senior graduate transfer Chloe Jackson, who joins Baylor from LSU, and true freshman Honesty Scott-Grayson of Brick, N.J.
“(Inexperience is) a concern. I played the position,” Mulkey said. “I understand the value of that position. But I also have to have confidence in the kids we’re going to put there.
“Sometimes, and you guys know this, in any sport, whether it’s football, NFL, college, you’ve got quarterbacks that just manage the quarterback position. Like (Alabama’s) Nick Saban, until this year, he just had pretty good quarterbacks, right? Now he’s got a great one. So all they had to do was just manage the game. So if we can just find somebody to manage the game, get it where it’s supposed to be, get us in the right defense, be kind of a leader out there, that’s all you need a point guard to do.”
In addition to Scott-Grayson, the other four highly-touted freshmen include forward NaLyssa Smith of San Antonio East Central, forward Aquira DeCosta of Sacramento, Calif., post Queen Egbo of Houston Travis, and forward/post Caitlin Bickle of Cave Creek, Ariz. Mulkey said that the group might be slightly further along because of Baylor’s midsummer trip to Italy that included three exhibition games, but that they’ve still got much to learn.
To that end, the Lady Bears spent a sizable chunk of Monday’s practice drilling the players on defensive principles.
“All of them have to learn how to play defense for extended periods of time,” Mulkey said.
And they’ll have to learn to sink or swim in a pool of sharks, too. Baylor’s nonconference schedule presents plenty of ambitious challenges, with road dates against Arizona State, South Carolina and Stanford, plus a home game against Connecticut in the final nonconference game on Jan. 3, 2019.
Those young players will be tested, but that’s OK, Mulkey said.
“It’s all right. I made the schedule before Morris was dismissed,” she said, chuckling. “I can’t undo it. I don’t think they would agree to it. You anticipated Morris having a little experience at the point, filling in for Kristy, getting some big minutes. But, hey, you move on.
“You’ve got two bigs inside. The way I look at it is, whatever inexperience we have on the outside, it’s not too difficult to teach perimeter players to throw the ball to a 6-7 (Brown) and a 6-5 kid (Cox, who’s listed at 6-4) inside. And the second thing is, you’ve just got to nail some shots.”
Baylor will play its first exhibition contest on Oct. 26 at home against Langston University. The season opener is slated for Nov. 6 against Nicholls State.
Bear Facts: Baylor will host its 19th annual Welcome Back Dinner for the Lady Bears at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Ferrell Center. The event is open to the public, and fans should bring either a salad, side dish or dessert. Baylor will provide chicken tenders, gravy, rolls and iced tea. Mulkey will provide a season preview of the 2018-19 campaign, and introduce the team’s six new players.