- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Coach Kim Mulkey doesn't think of Baylor's State Farm Tipoff Classic opponent as a team that is still trying to break into the upper echelon of women's college basketball. She believes Kentucky is already there.
Admittedly, the Wildcats haven't yet advanced to the Women's Final Four, but Mulkey said that alone shouldn't be the standard.
"When you're a top-five or top-10 program, you've made the breakthrough," Mulkey said of the No. 6 Wildcats. "They are able to recruit the top players in the country. They've proven themselves."
Baylor, ranked No. 1 and coming off a 40-0 NCAA championship season, won its opener Friday against Lamar, 80-34. Kentucky is also 1-0, having won its first game 90-50 against Delaware State.
Now the Lady Bears and Wildcats meet Tuesday (ESPN2, 6 p.m. ET). This is the 20th Tipoff Classic, an event that raises money for the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn. It's a chance to honor the 2013 inductees into the Hall: players Jen Rizzotti, Sue Wicks, Annette Smith-Knight and Peggie Gillom-Granderson, and coaches Gary Blair and Jim Foster.
Texas A&M's Blair is slated to be at Tuesday's game, but who knows when he'll ever appear at Baylor's Ferrell Center again after that. Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC as of this season. And while Blair had nothing to do with that decision, Mulkey has firmly stated that she doesn't want to play his Aggies anymore since they moved out of the Big 12.
However, Baylor is facing a team Tuesday that reminds Mulkey of Texas A&M. Coach Matthew Mitchell's Wildcats always want to play a very, very up-tempo style and disrupt opponents with their speed and physicality.
"Kentucky's fast pace -- that is their identity," Mulkey said. "But Kentucky plays a full-court game. They like to press you and create turnovers. They play a lot of players.
"Our identity is going to be inside out -- we're always going to have post players. It's going to be a heck of a basketball game early in the season. I don't mean it's going to be pretty we're both going to be playing hard."
Mitchell's Wildcats made the Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012. Senior A'dia Mathies led Kentucky with 16 points in the season opener. She's one of the standout guards who'll be on the floor Tuesday in Waco, Texas, along with teammate Bria Goss and Baylor's Odyssey Sims, Jordan Madden and Kimetria Hayden.
"I do think you have a high talent level in the game," Mitchell said. "Early in the season, maybe players aren't exactly what they will be later in the season. It's hard to know how everyone will perform, but it should be fun to watch. Baylor's guards are outstanding, and we will have our hands full. We'll need to do a good job guarding everybody, not just Brittney Griner."
That said, Griner -- the 6-foot-8 center who's favored to repeat as national player of the year -- will be heavily on the Wildcats' minds.
"Brittney is just such a dynamic figure in the game," Mitchell said. "When we start preparing for Baylor, I don't know that you can really simulate her.
"Our post crew is a bunch of kids I have high hopes for. I think we have talent and depth there. I'm excited about what they can become."
Mitchell is also thrilled that Kentucky is in the Tipoff Classic for the first time, saying, "It's a big, big moment for our program."
The event began as a doubleheader in 1993 in Jackson, Tenn., which is where the women's hoops Hall of Fame was originally supposed to be built before the change to Knoxville. Jackson also hosted the Tipoff Classic in 1994, but after that it moved around to be hosted by top women's programs around the country.
Starting in 2009, it became just a single game instead of a doubleheader. Baylor has participated in the Tipoff Classic four previous times: losing 71-70 to LSU in 2004; beating Georgia 84-72 in 2005; falling at Tennessee 74-65 in 2009 (Griner's college debut); and losing at Connecticut 65-64 in 2010.
"You're always excited to be invited to play in the State Farm Tipoff classic," Mulkey said. "To be able to host it is so valuable not only to our program, but to our community that really loves Baylor basketball."
13dBonnie D. Ford