For Texans, this year’s March Madness on the men’s side is about the new. It’s the first time Texas Tech has made the Final Four in the NCAA basketball tournament, and it’s the first Final Four appearance for any men’s team from Texas since UT-Austin fell to Syracuse in 2003 (T.J. Ford! Carmelo Anthony! Both now retired!). On top of that, only one school in the state has ever won the thing, back when UTEP was Texas Western, in 1966.
The women’s game is a different story. Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, Texas A&M, and Baylor (again) have all brought titles to the state since the NCAA started having a women’s tournament in 1982. If you’re a bandwagon-hopping fan who’s not already on board for Baylor, it’s only because you’ve not been paying attention. The Lady Bears are an elite national power in the “Schools Who Aren’t UConn” category.
Under head coach Kim Mulkey, Baylor has won those two championships (2005 and 2012) and has reached at least the Sweet Sixteen every season since 2008. Sporting a record of 31-1, the team was this year’s No. 1 overall seed, ahead of defending champion Notre Dame (which also reached the Final Four), 2018 runner-up Mississippi State, and Louisville. UConn was a mere No. 2 seed, having lost to both Louisville and Baylor in the regular season, but they’re still in it as well, along with Baylor’s semifinals opponent, Oregon. This week, FiveThirtyEight gave the women from Waco an 85 percent chance to beat the Ducks and a 69 percent chance (nope, not gonna say it) to win it all. They’re the sports book favorite too.
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While some fans around the state might pull for the unlikely Red Raider men out of Lone Star solidarity, that’s probably not going to happen for the Lady Bears, whose success has made them every other Texas team’s rival. Not to mention, many people still have issues with the university itself. But what are you gonna do? Root for the University of Nike? Here are four things to know ahead of Friday’s game.
That’s been Baylor’s average margin of victory in four tournament games. Average! That’s not just because they beat Abilene Christian, 95-38—the Bears also scored 102 on Cal, squeaked by 2017 champion South Carolina, 93-68, and embarrassed Iowa and ESPN national player of the year Megan Gustafson on Monday, 85-53. In their Final Four preview, the closest thing ESPN commentators Mechelle Voepel and Charlie Creme could find to call a flaw was that Baylor doesn’t know what it’s like to play in a close game.
As ESPN’s David Newton noted, since the women’s tournament expanded to a field of 64, Baylor is just the third team to win its first four games by at least 25. The other two? UConn (2010) and UConn (2013). Both champions.
Three Players to Watch
Kalani Brown: the 6-foot-7-inch senior center from Louisiana (her father is former NBA player P.J. Brown) has a lengthy individual resume (including 2018 Big 12 player of the year and multiple All-American honors), but this is her last shot at a title. She and 6-foot-4 forward Lauren Cox (from Flower Mound) give Baylor a powerful post game on both offense and defense. Then there’s DiDi Richards, a Cypress Ranch sophomore who had her two highest-scoring games of the year against South Carolina and Iowa (she also had six steals and 10 rebounds against the Hawkeyes). Richards is the team’s biggest personality, the one willing to bark back at her coach in fun. “It is really taking a risk because Mulkey scares me,” Richards told Chad Conine of the Waco Tribune-Herald. “I’m scared Mulkey is going to bite me, but she starts laughing.”
The Darth Vader of Women’s Basketball
It’s not exactly fair of me to liken Kim Mulkey to the Star Wars villain—she dresses way too colorfully for the comparison to be apt. But she’s a polarizing figure, albeit mostly in the same way as every successful sports figure: Her own players and fans adore, respect, and fear her, while opposing fans can’t stand her.
In any case, Baylor’s return to the national stage also means a return to scrutinizing Mulkey. She managed to drive Iowa Twitter crazy with some comments about Gustafson that would have seemed like benign trash talk from most coaches. On Tuesday, the SBNation women’s hoops site Swish Appeal revisited the coach’s relationship with Britney Griner, as well as her ill-chosen words in response to the school’s sexual assault epidemic. Baylor bandwagon? On or off of it, it’s not hard to have a rooting interest. Sometime between today and Monday, Mulkey will almost certainly say something else that isn’t boring.
Why You Should Count Baylor Out
Because they probably want it that way. “I’m not sure we’re the team to beat. I don’t think we’ve been picked to win it,” Mulkey said at Tuesday’s press conference.
Typical coach-speak, but in terms of overall media attention (rather than the oddsmakers), she’s possibly not wrong. If Mulkey seemed to chafe at the fact that Brown got overlooked at Gustafson’s expense before the Iowa game, she’s bound to feel the same way about Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, a transcendent All-American with an equally All-American backstory (her parents emigrated from Romania in 1990). Ionescu may be the closest thing the women’s tournament has to Duke’s Zion Williamson—both players are expected to leave school early and go No. 1 in their respective pro basketball drafts.
Once Baylor does get past the Ducks—let’s assume it’s by double digits if Cox and Richards slow Ionescu down—it won’t get any easier. The other finalist would be either defending champion Notre Dame, which has been to 10 straight Sweet 16s and seven Final Fours since 2010, or UConn, which has won the tournament 10 times since 2000 (but not since 2016. They are flawed but hungry).
The Bears should still be favored, but they won’t act like it.