Preseason MVP: DiDi Richards is the unanimous national defensive player of the year and ranks as perhaps the most versatile two-way player in the country; Kim Mulkey will play her anywhere from the 1 to the 4.
The Ceiling: The Lady Bears go into every season expecting to make the Final Four and win a national championship, and this year is no different. NaLyssa Smith must take the leap to First Team All-American and new additions DiJonai Carrington and Sarah Andrews must impress. With limited depth, staying healthy will be key.
The Floor:The Lady Bears lost 40 points of production to graduation. Finding that production elsewhere will be a challenge, especially with young talent playing a bigger factor this year and with two roster spots filled by redshirting transfers. A rebuilding season could be in the works, but even that is a higher floor than most teams.
Game of the Year: Texas
Projected Starting Five
G | 5-6 | Fr. | Irving, Texas
G | 5-11 | Gr. | San Diego, Calif.
F | 6-1 | Sr. | Cypress, Texas
F | 6-2 | Jr. | Converse, Texas
C | 6-3 | Jr. | Houston, Texas
Impact First Year Player: Sarah Andrews
Baylor had a national player of the year contender and an experienced roster on campus when COVID-19 stole a rare chance to play for back-to-back national championships. However, the pandemic sped up what was already set to be a retooling year in Waco.
All-American post Lauren Cox was the No. 3 pick in the WNBA Draft after the season. Guards Te’a Cooper and Juicy Landrum both also heard their name called. The trio combined to produce more than 40 percent of Baylor’s points.
“I think we have to see who steps up and replaces those 40 points a game,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “Hopefully, that will be multiple players.”
The obvious next in line is forward NaLyssa Smith, an Honorable Mention All-American who led the Lady Bears in points and rebounds. Now, she must take a step from complementary star to primary scorer. Her long, athletic, active frame provides a mismatch to most college defenses.
Alongside Smith, center Queen Egbo will also be asked to take on a bigger scoring role. The junior won the Big 12’s Sixth Player of the Year – which Smith took home a year earlier – after averaging 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in 18.5 minutes per game. Smith and Egbo could turn into the state’s best high/low post threats.
The wings will be a new slate of contributors. Grad transfer DiJonai Carrington averaged 14.0 points and 7.5 rebounds at Stanford before missing her senior season. She’ll need to compete for that kind of production right away. Irving MacArthur freshman Sarah Andrews, a top 10 recruit in the nation, will push for a starting job as a freshman. Returners Moon Ursin, Trinity Oliver and Jordyn Oliver will also factor in.
“We’ve got the numbers on the perimeter,” Mulkey said. “What we don’t have is the experience.”
DiDi Richards is the glue that will hold everything together. Mulkey says she’s willing to play the reigning national defensive player of the year anywhere from point guard to power forward depending on the situation. Richards is not built to be a primary scorer, but she should push for double-digit points in 2021.
However, adding to the depth complications is the fact that the Lady Bears have two players redshirting in 2021 due to transfer rules. That leaves the roster with only 10 contributors for what will be a tumultuous season.
“It will be the hardest year probably of my coaching career,” Mulkey said. “How do you coach when you don’t week to week, practice to practice, how many players you’re going to have?”
The standard for Baylor women’s basketball is clear. The Lady Bears finished in at least the Sweet 16 for 11 straight seasons before Covid stole the 2020 tournament. Making the Elite Eight is expectations, even in rebuilding seasons. Still, growing pains are to be expected when basketball gets underway.