- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Sydney Carter talks about the Aggies' hopes of repeating as NCAA champions.
There was this rather odd scenario at Big 12 media day in Kansas City last month. Texas A&M, the team that did the conference proud by winning the 2011 NCAA title, was being told in no uncertain terms to not let the door hit it on the way out. The person saying this was Baylor's Kim Mulkey, the coach of the other Big 12 women's basketball team to win a national championship since the league formed in 1996.
Which certainly sets up an interesting final season of Big 12 play for the Aggies, who are headed to the SEC after this school year. Especially when it comes to the (at least) two matchups with Baylor, the preseason No. 1 team in the country. Seems likely the folks in College Station, Texas, will have a very special welcome for Mulkey when the teams meet at Reed Arena on Feb. 27.
But if Texas A&M's choice as an institution to leave the Big 12 put Aggies coach Gary Blair a bit on the defensive, in some ways that fits with how he's telling his team to approach this season.
"We're looking forward to defending the national championship," Blair said. "You don't talk about winning another one until you defend it the way a champion should."
It shouldn't surprise you that six years ago, when Baylor was entering the 2005-06 season as defending champion, Mulkey emphatically said the exact opposite. Her view was that once a title was won, it was won. It was over. She felt Baylor didn't have to defend anything about the 2005 national championship.
Ultimately, Texas A&M is probably approaching this season more like Baylor did then than the difference in coach-speak semantics might make it appear. The Aggies come in with more of a target on their backs than ever before, but they are ready for that.
"I think once you get to that position," senior guard Sydney Carter said of winning the national championship, "the desire doesn't go away. You want to have that same feeling again. But it's about staying humble, too."
The Aggies are doing that, even despite heady experiences like visiting the White House this summer. There are undeniable and deserved perks from being the last team standing in a season.
Senior wing player Tyra White, who hit a crucial 3-pointer late in the 76-70 victory over Notre Dame for the NCAA title, said, "Even now, we can tell a difference on campus -- that the student body is more with us. We're getting more support this year."
The Aggies return some of the key components from last season, including returning starters White, Sydney Carter and Adaora Elonu. Seven other players from the 2010-11 squad also are back, and there are four newcomers.
One of those is center Kelsey Bone, who Texas A&M recruited heavily when she was in high school in nearby Houston. Bone, though, opted to go to South Carolina. She had a very solid freshman season, but wasn't happy so far away from home and came back.
Bone, a 6-foot-5 true center, will be a different kind of player than Danielle Adams, who was the Final Four's most outstanding player and had a good rookie season this summer for the WNBA's San Antonio Silver Stars.
"I tell her every day: She's not Danielle Adams, and get away from that 3-point line," Blair said of Bone. "I say, 'Do you want to shoot 60 percent? Then stay within 8-10 feet of the basket.' She's having good competition right now in practice. We've got size now. But the point guard position [is] a work in progress. And it's going to be that way all year."
That's because Sydney Colson also graduated and is gone to the WNBA. Texas A&M was at its best the last few years when Colson was running the show at point. Carter can always slide over and play that spot, but Blair prefers to keep his defensive whiz at shooting guard. He expects junior Adrienne Pratcher and freshman Alexia Standish will handle a lot of the point guard duties.
With Adams gone, White is Texas A&M's leading returning scorer. She averaged 13.8 points last season and hit the winning layup that beat Stanford in the national semifinals.
"She wanted the ball in that situation," Blair said of White. "If you could just see the evolution of her from a homesick freshman, not sure what she wanted to do, to where she is now. She's very conscientious of the team aspect of the game. She'll give up the ball and she'll take the right shot.
"She's a winner. I'm proud of her, and hopefully she'll have the senior year we think she deserves."
As mentioned, White's final season also will be the Aggies' last in the Big 12, which Blair isn't really happy about. Texas A&M was not competitive in the league until Blair took over the program for the 2003-04 season. He understood the potential giant that Texas A&M could be in women's basketball and knew the success of other Big 12 programs actually could help that process.
That's what happened, with Texas A&M making the NCAA field now for the past six seasons. Of course, just getting into the Big Dance used to be viewed as a huge accomplishment for the Aggies. Now, it's pretty much expected. That's how far and fast the program has come under Blair.
Will much change for the Aggies in the SEC? That experience won't be anything new for Blair, who coached at Arkansas before going to Texas A&M. The Aggies should make a pretty smooth transition. But their new rivalries -- unlike those with Baylor and Texas -- will not have that added heat that comes with geographic proximity.
Blair, the ultimate pitchman, has been as passionate about selling the Big 12 as he was his own program the past eight years. Now, after one more season in the Big 12, he'll be selling the SEC again.
"There's a lot of talent in both leagues," Blair said. "But the SEC has replaced a lot of longtime coaches [in recent years]. That changed the dynamics. We were a middle-of-the-pack team at Arkansas, and a pretty darn good one. But we couldn't crack that top four in the league. We were fixing to do that if I would have stayed at Arkansas.
"It didn't happen, you move on, and then the Big 12 really gained strength. I enjoy the rivalries of the Big 12, because we're closer to each other. But two of my former assistants, Tom Collen at Arkansas and Nell Fortner at Auburn, are in the SEC. And it will be fun to face them."
Still, the driving-distance issue with conference foes is an unsolvable thorn once the move is made. So this season, the Aggies will enjoy those nearby conference games for the last time.
Blair, of course, has been around for a long, long time. It's exemplified when he does things such as drop references to the late Don Meredith playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. (That was in the 1960s, for the youngsters out there.)
But he also has managed to stay "hip" enough to relate well to today's players, and the 2011 championship was the ultimate testament to Blair's recruiting, teaching and program-building prowess. However
"He just doesn't have any rhythm," Carter said of Blair's attempts at dancing. "Tyra and I have been trying to work with him. He can't dance. But he likes to try."
And he would love a shot at busting a move after winning another title. But other than UConn and Tennessee, Southern California is the only team that has repeated as NCAA champion. And that was in 1983-84.
So Texas A&M will have to defy the odds to triumph in Denver in 2012. For that matter, the Aggies will have a hard time just finishing first in their conference, as Baylor is picked to repeat as Big 12 champion. But Blair still likes his odds well enough.
"We're not going to go through that nonconference schedule undefeated -- or the conference schedule undefeated," he said. "That giant bull's-eye is on our back. We know it. We expect it. We relish it.
"We've been the hunter for a long time. Now, it's nice to be on the other end, that they're chasing us right now."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
Finishing first in the Big 12 will be hard enough. Still, Gary Blair likes the odds of Texas A&M not only triumphing in the conference but repeating as NCAA champion.