WACO, Texas (AP) — The championship expectations are unchanged for AP All-America senior forward NaLyssa Smith and Baylor. So much else is different for the 11-time defending Big 12 champions.
No more coach Kim Mulkey, and no more Lady Bears in Waco.
“I feel it’s still the same team. I mean, at the end of the day, we all still have the same goals. We all came to Baylor to win a national championship, we came to win Big 12 championships,” Smith said. “I feel like with Kim not being here, we still have the same goals.”
These Bears — they are no longer referred to as Lady Bears — are starting a new era with former WNBA coach Nicki Collen and an entirely new coaching staff. They are seventh in the preseason AP Top 25 poll and favored to win another Big 12 title.
“We’ve got to compete every day like champions because quite frankly, you know, people are going to think there’s cracks in our armor,” Collen said. “I admitted to them like that first crack is me, because people are going to think that the mystique of coach Mulkey is gone, and therefore, maybe Baylor’s a little vulnerable.”
After 21 seasons in which Mulkey turned Baylor into a powerhouse with three national championships, she returned to her home state as LSU’s coach in April. That was only weeks after the Bears made it to the Elite Eight for the sixth time. It was the first women’s NCAA tournament held since they won the 2019 national title.
The Bears never made the NCAA tourney before Mulkey arrived in 2000-01, but have missed it only once since.
During the team’s annual tipoff event, Collen heard returning players respond the same way to the question of what they were looking forward to most this season.
“They said another Big 12 championship,” Collen said. “That’s certainly what these guys expect.”
Smith and 6-3 senior center Queen Egbo are the only returning starters. Senior forward Caitlin Bickle is also back, along with guards Sara Andrews and Jaden Owens. That is half of Baylor’s 10-player roster, including a recently added walk-on freshman.
Jordan Lewis, who started 130 games at Alabama the past four years and averaged 17.0 points last season, transferred to Baylor before Mulkey’s departure. Lewis is an expected starter, as is Oklahoma State transfer junior guard Ja’Mee Asberry.
The smaller roster is unique at a time when some teams have 17 players because of the extra eligibility and additions during the pandemic. Collen, hired in early May before ever stepping on the Waco campus, resisted just adding players for the sake of filling spots.
“I’d rather have the right nine than 15 players,” Collen said. “It’s not by design. But also we weren’t going to take players that weren’t good enough to keep Baylor at the level that we expect.”
“If we work together, that’s all that matters at the end of the day,” she said. “It doesn’t matter necessarily how many you have. It matters who you have, and I feel like we have that on our team.”
Collen, who was preparing for her fourth season as coach of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream when she got the Baylor job, is bringing a more pro-style offense that she is confident will translate to the college game. Especially with players like Smith as the Bears spread the floor by moving the ball around to create open shots on every possession.
“If you can create great spacing, which you have to have shooters and people that can create space, but if you have the right personnel, I think there’s no doubt it can be successful,” Collen said.
As for dropping “Lady” from the nickname, that had been under consideration for some time even before Mulkey’s departure. When announcing the change in September, the school said the use of Lady Bears “is still very much a part of the program’s decorated history,” but was being changed to be more consistent with the other 18 Baylor sport programs.
“I’m not going to shy away from saying that I think it’s the right thing, and I think it was obviously the right time to do it. But it certainly wasn’t my choice,” Collen said. “I’m comfortable aligning who and what we are with the men’s team and the soccer team and the women’s tennis team and everybody else on campus.”