By Jerry Hill
Maybe it’s the way that she sees every situation as being glass-half-full. But, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey looks at her 10-player roster as a plus rather than an overriding concern.
Looking to get back to the Final Four for the fourth time overall and the first time since winning it all in 2012, the Lady Bears have two starters and four other players returning from a 33-4 squad that made its fourth consecutive trip to the Elite Eight.
“I think with only 10 players, some people may view that as a disadvantage, with no depth,” Mulkey said. “I tend to think it’s a strength, because you don’t have to worry about pacifying players – not that I ever have – and giving them minutes. What you can focus on is those players that are going to be in the crunch time of every game. The more they play, the better we become.
“The one uncertain thing, the scary thing, is injuries. That’s a part of the game, and you just have to hope that you don’t have any significant injuries with only 10 players.”
Senior guard Kristy Wallace, who averaged 7.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and a team-high 5.6 assists per game, just wants “another crack” at it. Wallace and fellow senior Dekeiya Cohen have been parts of teams that have won three Big 12 regular-season championships and two conference tournament titles with a three-year record of 102-10.
“I think that would be a big privilege once again, and see if we can get over that hump one more time,” Wallace said. “(Getting to a Final Four) would be a massive deal. But, we can’t think too far ahead. That’s so far away. We’re just going to focus on what we’re doing tomorrow and this month.”
Seven months have passed since a 94-85 loss to eventual NCAA runner-up Mississippi State in the Oklahoma City Regional championship game, and “I think Kristy will tell you that she wishes she could have that game back,” Mulkey said.
Sharing backcourt duties with Alexis Jones, the 12th player overall selected by the Minnesota Lynx in the first round of the 2017 WNBA Draft, Wallace had seven of the Lady Bears’ 17 turnovers in the region final.
“That wasn’t indicative of the kind of year Kristy had,” Mulkey said. “And I think she will use that as motivation and she will be a great senior leader for us. While we’re big inside with Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox, and strong inside with Dekeiya, I think our guard play is going to be impressive as well. You put all that together, and stay away from injuries, I think this could be a special year.”
As good as the backcourt was last year with Jones, Wallace and Alexis Prince, a third-round draft pick who made the Phoenix Mercury as a rookie, it was the 6-foot-7 Brown who led the team in scoring (15.4), rebounds (8.2) and blocked shots per game (2.0). She was a WBCA All-American and unanimous first-team All-Big 12 selection.
“Kalani continues to get better as a basketball player,” Mulkey said. “Kalani has always been a big post player, and size is attractive to teams and to coaches. But, what Kalani has been able to do in her growth as a basketball player has gotten the attention of not just the collegiate world but the international world.”
Brown got some international experience this summer, playing for Team USA in the inaugural U24 Four Nations Tournament in Tokyo, Japan. She averaged 9.7 points and 5.0 rebounds and shot 75.0 percent from the field (9-of-12) in leading the Americans to a first-place finish.
The 5-11 Wallace had an even busier summer as Australia’s starting point guard at both the U24 Four Nations Tournament and the World University Games in Taipei, Taiwan. She led the Emerging Opals to a gold medal at the World University Games, averaging 9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists.
“It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had playing for Australia,” Wallace said. “Every time I put that singlet on, I get really excited and it just really puts things in perspective of how blessed I am.”
Mulkey said she embraces the opportunities her players have to play internationally, because “anytime they can represent their country, they’re also representing our program.”
“What you have to be careful of is rest, particularly Kristy,” Mulkey said. “She played a long time this summer, and we made sure when she got back that we rested her. We’re short on depth this year, so she’s going to have to play a lot of minutes, and it’s a long season.”
The same goes for Brown, since the only other inside players are 6-4 sophomore Lauren Cox and the 6-2 Cohen, who moved back to forward after playing more at the wing last season.
Always adaptable, Mulkey said she can go with a smaller lineup if she needs to and just run more of a motion offense.
Wallace said Brown made a “big step up” last season after averaging 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in earning All-Big 12 Freshman Team honors in her first year.
“She’s put the work in. She’s absolutely smashed herself in the gym, which is great,” Wallace said. “It’s just awesome to see her improve, because she deserves it.”
Coming off the bench in all but one of 37 games last season, Cox averaged 7.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game in winning the Big 12 Sixth Man Award and All-Big 12 Freshman Team honors. Cohen started in seven of the last eight games, scoring 17 points in the Big 12 title-clinching win over Texas Tech.
“Our strengths are going to be the returning six players,” Mulkey said. “And then, how good we really are will depend on how much the freshmen can contribute. How quick that happens remains to be seen.”
All guards, the four freshmen will have to provide some help in a backcourt that returns just Wallace, 6-1 sophomore wing Natalie Chou and 5-9 sophomore point guard Juicy Landrum from nearby La Vega High School.
Ranked No. 1 by Prospects Nation and No. 4 by ESPN HoopGurlz, the Lady Bears’ signing class includes highly touted wing Didi Richards, point guards Moon Ursin and Alexis Morris and combo guard Trinity Oliver.
“Their basketball skills speak for themselves,” Mulkey said of her four freshmen. “Once I get them in the gym and see them every day, you’ll be looking to see how much they retain, how quickly they can help you, who’s going to be your defensive player, who’s going to be the one that can help score for you? We know they’re talented, but it’s more than just going out and being talented.”
Mulkey said Morris’s development “will dictate how much we can use Kristy in multiple guard positions.”
“She is very familiar with both, and I’m comfortable with whatever adjustments we have to make,” she said.
The same goes for Wallace, who has played the point and shooting guard positions in her three previous seasons at Baylor.
“Whatever Coach wants me to do, I’ll do,” Wallace said. “I might play a bit of the 2 this year, a bit of the 1, but whatever Coach Mulkey wants me to do, I’m going to do what I can. . . . I’m just really looking forward to this season and getting everyone jelling together and on the same page. This is going to be a fun year.”
The Lady Bears will play four games in nine days, starting with Friday’s 7 p.m. regular season opener at home against Lamar. They will face Coppin State at 2 p.m. Sunday and Central Arkansas at 7 p.m. Tuesday before going on the road to face No. 7/8 UCLA next Saturday, Nov. 18, in Los Angeles.