I hope you’ve had your bathroom break and you’re in your seat with a bag of popcorn, because the previews are over.
Although the Baylor Lady Bears’ season is almost two months old and has already had a major subplot with star forward Lauren Cox being sidelined with a minor injury, the real show — the one we all came to see — is about to begin.
In the next seven days, the defending national champion Lady Bears start Big 12 action with a road game at Oklahoma and then travel to face top-ranked Connecticut, which is probably the premiere matchup of the entire NCAA women’s hoops schedule so far this season.
It’s go time and everyone knows it.
It’s also an interesting moment to look at the thinking inside the Lady Bears program versus the conjecture from the national media. The ESPN pundits will tell you the Baylor vs. UConn game is the most important game of the regular season for the Lady Bears because it will have a bigger impact on NCAA Tournament seeding than any other.
But Baylor coach Kim Mulkey didn’t build the Lady Bears’ dynasty by thinking like that.
For Mulkey, the first measure of success is winning the Big 12.
As the conference schedule cranks up again, this is where Baylor stands: the Lady Bears have won nine consecutive Big 12 regular season titles and 41 straight Big 12 games.
In Mulkey’s 19 seasons, Baylor owns 10 regular-season conference titles and 10 Big 12 tournament crowns.
The Lady Bears’ clash with UConn next Thursday has the flash, but the substance is in the road game at Norman, Okla., on Saturday.
“We scheduled (the UConn game) and we’re going to go play,” Mulkey said on Monday. “We’ll give it our best shot, but we’re never going to let a UConn game or any nonconference game be more important than the 18 in the Big 12.”
Baylor has gone 18-0 in the Big 12 in each of the last two campaigns. Nationally, the conference is viewed as top heavy and that makes the sixth-ranked Lady Bears (10-1) the heavy.
Even so, there are plenty of quality teams that would love to stop any of Baylor’s long Big 12 winning streaks. At the moment, two teams appear to have the best chance to do that — West Virginia and Texas.
The 19th-ranked Mountaineer women have won 10 of their first 11 games and boast a road victory over No. 10 Mississippi State and a neutral-court triumph over No. 19 Michigan State.
Texas has experienced an uneven nonconference run, which is something of a tradition in Austin for both the men’s and women’s teams. The 25th-ranked Longhorn women lost to South Florida and Hawaii, but made up for it by beating No. 1 Stanford and No. 17 Tennessee.
West Virginia and Texas also have an advantage in that some of the people on the team can remember beating Baylor at some point. The Mountaineers were the last to defeat the Lady Bears in the conference tournament (2017 championship game) and Texas was the last team to defeat Baylor in the regular season (Feb. 6, 2017).
Then there are a couple of teams that still have to prove they’re contenders and not just pretenders. Texas Tech and Kansas are a combined 22-0 in nonconference play. That has earned them a place at the top of the standings while everyone’s Big 12 mark is still 0-0. But not much more.
Credit Texas Tech and Kansas with representing the conference with wins in the Big 12/SEC challenge. The Lady Raiders stomped Ole Miss in Lubbock, while Kansas beat Florida by 10 in Lawrence. Other than that, Texas Tech’s best moment was a road victory over San Diego and Kansas won at Florida Atlantic.
Evaluating the rest of the Big 12 is kind of like buying avocados. As soon as you pick one up, you realize why other people left it in the basket. If I had to pick three to make guacamole, I’d grab Oklahoma State, TCU and Iowa State.
Even so, there’s one thing the nine conference schools that don’t wear green and gold have in common: they would all take one win over Baylor as a championship unto itself.
The Lady Bears know it. That’s why they’re focusing on the 18-round fight.
“It’s done. Pat yourself on the back. You lost one game thus far,” Mulkey said about the nonconference slate. “None of that means anything. What matters is you’re trying to win another Big 12 championship and you start it on the road.”