As Kim Mulkey held up the big crystal ball that is the women’s college basketball national championship trophy, wearing a light blue suit and a freshly minted “BU National Champions” hat, there was no worrying about tomorrow.
In that moment, even Lauren Cox, who was on crutches after taking a nasty fall in the third quarter, hugged teammates and took pictures as if a knee injury were the farthest thing from her mind.
But that was almost seven months ago. It turned out Cox’s knee didn’t need surgery and she was back to working out with her teammates by July. The victory tour eventually ended and was followed by another preseason.
And suddenly, the Baylor Lady Bears are getting ready to climb that mountain again.
“It will make them better players, it’ll make us a better team, eventually, because they’ll have that memory,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said about winning the program’s third national title. “But yet they’re not entitled to anything. If they’re not hungry this year, we won’t have a very good year. But, if they are hungry and they throw that national championship to the side and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to do this again this year, I’d like to go to New Orleans and stay hungry,’ they just may do it.”
Doubters could look at what Baylor lost. Lady Bears seniors Kalani Brown (7th overall to the L.A. Sparks) and Chloe Jackson (15th overall to the Chicago Sky) both went high in the WNBA Draft. Brown represented a rarity in women’s college basketball — a 6-foot-7 center who was just as comfortable playing with her back to the basket as she was facing it and knocking down 18-foot jumpers. And all Jackson did was make the winning basket in the national championship game.
But Baylor opponents will find little comfort in making a list of who the Lady Bears lost versus who they have on their 2019-2020 roster.
It all starts with senior forward Lauren Cox, who was often the best player on the court during the Lady Bears’ national championship run last season.
Cox is much more versatile than her 6-4 frame would suggest. She does all the power forward things very well. But she can also handle the ball effectively enough for her coach to suggest, not completely joking, that Cox could play point guard.
“Lauren Cox makes us a better team, makes me a better coach,” Mulkey said. “Her presence on the floor, not just her talent, but her experience, her knowledge. . . . I have her on the floor as much as I can to help everybody look good.”
But of course Mulkey, who was an All-American point guard herself, has very specific ideas about what she wants from the floor general and the other guard spots as well.
At the Final Four last April, the description most often used by the national media to describe Baylor was “old school,” presumably because the Lady Bears continue to build around post players.
However, the way Mulkey has tooled and retooled the point guard position the last two seasons is anything but old school. It’s more like an adaptation to the way college athletics is moving. Chloe Jackson was the first graduate transfer the Baylor program brought on. Jackson, a shooting guard at LSU, shifted to the point guard position and turned herself into a floor general. The experiment played a massive role in the Lady Bears winning the national championship.
Now Te’a Cooper will try to produce similar results. Like Jackson, Cooper was an all-SEC shooting guard before coming to Baylor. She led the Gamecocks in scoring with 11.9 points per game as they advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing to Baylor last season.
But Cooper felt her natural position was point guard and Mulkey said before exhibition play began that Cooper is more comfortable with the ball in her hands than her predecessor from the start.
Cooper also has 3-point shooting range, which is a tradeoff of sorts. Jackson was money with the mid-range jumper, but rarely ventured shooting beyond the arc.
In exhibition play, Cooper smoothly ran the point while taking shots and driving aggressively, showing off the versatility of her game.
“It feels good,” Cooper said after the Lady Bears’ win over Langston. “I’m still learning. It’s fun. I have (Cox) to help me out at times. She makes it pretty easy. And everyone else, DiDi, Juicy, they’re pretty fun to play with. So, they make my job easier.”
DiDi Richards represents another very modern aspect of Baylor’s back court. Richards, who has the long body to guard anyone on the court, is listed as a guard on the Baylor roster and filled in at point guard in the Lady Bears’ game against Lubbock Christian. In essence, Richards is the type of positionless player that’s en vogue in both college and pro basketball.
“DiDi’s playing the four until we get those other two (forwards) back on the floor, then she’s playing the point, then she’s playing the wing,” Mulkey said during the exhibition season. “I would say DiDi can play multiple positions for us and she does so very comfortably. She’s just so active.”
The Lady Bears’ other starting guard fits her role perfectly. Juicy Landrum has the athleticism to defend and rebound, while her forte is the 3-point shot. Landrum needs 16 made treys to move in to 10th place on Baylor’s career 3-point shooting list. Another season like 2018-19, when she drilled 63 from beyond the arc, could move Landrum into the Lady Bears’ top three.
Last season, the 6-4 Cox and 6-7 Brown gave opponents matchup nightmares on a nightly basis. Although Brown is now in the WNBA, the Lady Bears figure to be just as frustrating to defend.
It’s likely that either Queen Egbo or NaLyssa Smith will take Brown’s starting spot. But they will both play after proving themselves as freshmen. Smith scored 8.1 points and grabbed 5.4 rebounds last season, while Egbo was close behind with 5.4 points and 4.2 boards, though neither of them averaged more than 16 minutes per game.
With their minutes going up, Lady Bears fans will see if Smith and Egbo can elevate their games to the all-conference standard Brown set.
“Usually, the biggest step you take is between your freshman and sophomore year,” Mulkey said. “And they got enough minutes last year that now they know what to expect. I think like all freshmen, they didn’t know how to play hard every day, they didn’t know how to stay focused for long periods of time. Well, now they know, and hopefully they take that step that Kalani Brown took, that Lauren Cox took and that all players take between their freshman and sophomore years.”
It figures to be a mutually beneficial relationship between either of the sophomore forwards and Cox.
One scary aspect of Cox’s injury in the national championship game was that it threatened to delay a promising senior season. A healthy Cox to start the season means she is one of the most-talked-about players in college basketball.
Cox averaged 13 points and 8.3 rebounds while playing alongside Brown. Now she will be the Lady Bears’ go-to player inside and could potentially see her points and rebounds jump up to high-double-double range.
Cox is also a shot-blocking machine who ranked sixth in the nation in that category with 97 swats in 2018-19.
When asked which of her players stood out prior to the first of two exhibition games, Mulkey singled out Moon Ursin. Then Ursin started both the Langston and Lubbock Christian contests when Mulkey kept Smith and Egbo on the bench. The Lady Bears coach was coy about keeping the forwards out of the lineup, but they still figure to start once the regular season begins.
That means Ursin has a chance to be one of the most dynamic sixth players in the country. Last season she averaged 4 points with 1.4 assists while playing a little less than 12 minutes a game. But she gave Lady Bears fans a taste of what she could do by lighting up the scoreboard for 20 points at Texas in early February.
No doubt Big 12 opponents shudder to think the Lady Bears could be adding another impact player off the bench, but those are the early indications from freshman Jordyn Oliver.
A 5-10 guard from Prosper, Texas, Oliver was a 2019 McDonald’s All-American and the USA Today Texas Player of the Year.
“Jordyn catches on really quick,” Lauren Cox said. “She’s really smart, has a high basketball IQ.”
Forward Caitlin Bickle was one of only two Baylor players to average less than six minutes per game last season. She was stuck behind Brown, Cox, Egbo and Smith. Now as a returning front court player from a national championship squad, Bickle is looking like she could have a much more significant role this time around. She played alongside Cox in the Lubbock Christian game, scoring six points and blocking two shots.
Guard Trinity Oliver and center Erin DeGrate are X factors going into the regular season. Oliver averaged a little over six minutes per game last season and made the most of that time, posting 21 assists and nine steals. DeGrate, a La Vega alum who played high school basketball with Landrum, grad transferred from Texas Tech. She scored 8.2 points and grabbed 5.3 rebounds per game for the Lady Raiders in 2018-19.