Bring on the bracket
When the women's NCAA tournament bracket comes up on television screens Monday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), some coaches will not like what they see.
They don't normally stay quiet in such situations. When they involve yelling at an official for a call or a player for a missed box-out, coaches are always going to get in their two cents. But when it comes to being peeved at the NCAA selection committee, sometimes they have to fight their normal instinct of griping in defense of their team.
It's not easy to do. Such as when you've played a team from your conference three times in tough battles yet the two of you end up in the same regional. It happened to Baylor and Texas A&M last year as the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the Dallas Regional.
Baylor's Kim Mulkey made her disappointment known then. In retrospect, she thinks maybe her team misunderstood that.
"When you looked at the pairings, it just deflated everybody," Mulkey said of Baylor's reaction to the 2011 bracket. "And I think I probably didn't handle it as well with my team.
"They weren't mature enough yet to understand my remarks weren't because we didn't think we could beat them again. Yet maybe they took it the wrong way -- that the odds are you can't beat somebody that many times in a row."
When you looked at the [2011 bracket and] pairings, it just deflated everybody. And I think I probably didn't handle it as well with my team.” -- Coach Kim Mulkey on last year's Selection Monday reaction
Baylor ended up falling to Texas A&M 58-46 in the regional final. It's a loss that has fueled Baylor all this season, as the Lady Bears are 34-0 after a run through the Big 12 regular season and tournament.
This year, Mulkey feel that no matter what the bracket looks like, her team's reaction will be the same: Fine, let's go play.
"The difference is a year's experience and maturity," Mulkey said. "And they're on a mission."
You could say that about the other projected No. 1 seeds as well, though. Stanford has made four consecutive trips to the Final Four, but didn't win the title at any of them. Notre Dame, hoping to win a championship at home in Indiana last year, fell to Texas A&M in the final. And UConn has had the same mission every year since the Huskies won their first NCAA title in 1995.
Among the projected No. 2 seeds, Duke and Kentucky won the ACC and SEC regular-season titles, but Maryland and Tennessee won those leagues' tournaments. The last Final Four for Duke and Maryland was 2006, when the Terps beat the Blue Devils in the championship game. Tennessee's most recent of 18 Final Four trips was in 2008. Kentucky has never advanced beyond the Elite Eight.
While the tournament might well have plenty of good games and upsets, it's hard to see any team beyond the top eight breaking through to win the NCAA championship. In fact, when Baylor is at it's best, it's actually hard to say who can beat the undefeated Lady Bears. UConn and Notre Dame both fell to them this season, while Stanford and Baylor didn't meet.
Most eyes, of course, will be on player-of-the-year candidate Brittney Griner or Odyssey Sims, who figures to join Griner on the State Farm All-American team. Plus, Mulkey will always talk up the contributions of forward Destiny Williams. But the other two starters -- Jordan Madden and Kimetria "Nae-Nae" Hayden -- are also key, Mulkey said.
"Their roles change a little bit each game," Mulkey said. "Jordan Madden has been asked to guard the best perimeter player all year. Nae-Nae, she never knows when I'm going to ask her to play point guard. But she just does it."
When Baylor won its 2005 NCAA title, the team's leading scorers all season were Sophia Young and Steffanie Blackmon, and they led the way in the championship-game victory against Michigan State. Yet Baylor on that night also got 19 points from Emily Niemann, and eight points and six rebounds from LaToya Wyatt.
That's why Mulkey says that Baylor must rely on the talented role players Madden and Hayden to live up to expectations in order for the Lady Bears to win it all.
"Not that they have to go score a lot of points," Mulkey said. "Not that they have to do something they're not capable of."
Baylor beat Texas A&M three times again this season, just like in 2010-11. But it seems preposterous that the bracket this season will offer a potential fourth matchup of these two teams for anytime before the Final Four.
If it somehow did happen, though, Mulkey said this season's team won't blink no matter what comes up on the bracket. Odds are, neither will she.
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