Everything seems pretty much the same for perennial national power Baylor, with another Big 12 title and a No. 2 seed in hand headed into the NCAA women's tournament.
But this is a much different group than the Lady Bears had two years ago for an undefeated national championship and was an overwhelming favorite to repeat last season before an unexpected regional final loss to Louisville.
When Baylor opened this season, All-American senior guard Odyssey Sims was surrounded by a group of young and mostly inexperienced players. Gone were two-time AP Player of the Year Brittney Griner and four graduated seniors, three of them starters.
Four months later, the Lady Bears (29-4) are playing in their 11th consecutive NCAA tournament. They won their fourth Big 12 tournament title in a row with a victory over West Virginia, and shared the league's regular season title with the Mountaineers after winning that championship outright the previous three years.
"I can't tell you how much fun it's been. It has been a dream year when it comes to teaching, when you go to work all you have to worry about is X's and O's," coach Kim Mulkey said. "You don't have to deal with grade issues, you don't have to deal with drama issues off the floor, you don't have a stack of stuff that you have to deal with that has nothing to do with basketball. It just makes coaching fun, and I like the way they respond, I like the way they understand what you're doing."
Baylor plays its NCAA opener Saturday at home against Sun Belt Conference champion Western Kentucky (24-8), which has a 10-game winning streak.
Sims, the Big 12 scoring leader and second nationally at 28.4 points per game, has played in 13 NCAA games (12 starts). Her 439 minutes played in tournament games is three times as many as the rest of the team combined — and none of her teammates has started in the NCAA tourney.
"I think the Big 12 prepared us. ... We had a lot of close games that we had to fight through, we had games where we went into overtime and had to just pull together," said Nina Davis, the Big 12 Freshman of the Year. "I felt that we went through a lot of trials this year and pretty much it prepared us for the NCAA tournament."
Davis, at 5-foot-11 an undersized post player, led the Big 12 with 8.9 rebounds a game and is shooting 61 percent from the field.
The only other senior starter is guard Makenzie Robertson, the coach's daughter who had to wait until her final season to break into the lineup. Junior post player Sune Agbuke and sophomore point guard Niya Johnson are also first first-year starters.
Baylor has only 11 players available for the NCAA tournament. Standout Alexis Prince was lost to a foot injury early in the season, leaving on the bench three freshmen, three sophomores and a rarely-used senior.
"I think we're as ready as we're going to be with that much youth," Mulkey said. "They've gotten enough experience in the Big 12 to prepare them, and certainly more today than it was a month ago."
Mulkey said a 16-point win at West Virginia in early January "opened my eyes." There was also an overtime victory at Oklahoma State, but the Lady Bears lost 71-69 loss to the Mountaineers in their regular-season home finale — their first home loss in four years. That cost them the outright conference title, after leading in the final minute.
But the Lady Bears then won the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City, on the same court where last March they were upset in the NCAA regional final. Sims was agonizingly sprawled on the court with her face buried in her hands after that one-point loss.
Now Sims gets another NCAA chance.
"I think Odyssey is always motivated," Mulkey said. "The one thing I've always said about her, she's doing to have an unbelievable career because she absolutely loves the game, she hates to lose, she's competitive. She's not on that floor to win friends, she's on that floor to win basketball games."