Brittney Griner didn’t hesitate to come back for her senior year. After all, she was having too much fun.
It’s hard to blame her when she led Baylor to a perfect 40-0 season en route to the school’s second national championship. With all five starters back, including the reigning Associated Press player of the year, the Lady Bears are overwhelming favorites to repeat.
While Baylor will look very familiar to last season’s unbeaten squad with all five starters returning, there have been a lot of changes in women’s basketball over the past six months.
Teams shifted conferences and there were a record 75 coaching changes — none bigger than at Tennessee where Pat Summitt won’t be on the sidelines for the first time in 39 seasons. The Hall of Fame coach, who is battling early onset dementia, stepped down in April.
Summitt lost her final game to Griner and the Lady Bears in the NCAA tournament regional finals.
Baylor is in a good position to repeat as champions and cut down the nets April 9 in New Orleans. Few teams came close last season with the Lady Bears winning every game by at least five points.
Baylor wasn’t really challenged in the NCAAs tournament, winning its six games by an average of nearly 21 points.
“It’s not in our books to go undefeated, but it’s hard not to think about it after going 40-0,” Griner said. “It’d be nice to do it again, but our main goal at the end, win those six games and get a national championship.”
Getting back to the Final Four would be especially sweet for Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, who grew up in Louisiana.
“That would be something,” she said. “New Orleans will always be a special place to me.”
Top-ranked Baylor will begin its season Friday against Lamar. The Lady Bears are one of 14 ranked teams playing that day.
The Lady Bears’ biggest test during the regular season will come Feb. 18 against No. 2 UConn. The Huskies were leading Baylor in Waco last season by 11 in the second half before Griner took over.
“They’ve got all the things that you need to win. There’s no one area that you can say. ‘Well, they’re vulnerable here.’ They just have all the pieces together,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “I think beating them is going to take an extraordinary effort. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but you’re going to have to play close to a perfect game to beat them.”
Auriemma is no stranger to going undefeated. His Huskies own the two longest winning streaks in women’s basketball, including a record 90-game run that ended at Stanford two seasons ago.
UConn will try and return the favor and end the Cardinal’s 79-game home winning streak when they meet in late December. The Huskies have four starters back from last season’s Final Four team and add a really talented freshman class led by Breanna Stewart.
Besides playing at Connecticut, Baylor has a strong non-conference schedule. The Lady Bears will host No. 6 Kentucky before playing fourth-ranked Stanford in Hawaii three days later.
“We wanted a challenging schedule to prepare us for the Big 12 and the NCAA tournament,” Mulkey said.
Baylor also plays at No. 7 Notre Dame in early December in a rematch of last season’s national championship game. Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins will try to get the Irish back to the championship game for a third straight year.
The Lady Bears will also host Tennessee on Dec. 18. That game will have a different feel to it with longtime Lady Vols assistant Holly Warlick taking over as head coach. Summitt will still be involved with the program as head coach emeritus.
“I love the opportunity to follow Pat Summitt,” Warlick said, adding it’s “the perfect situation for me.”
Summitt finished as the all-time winningest coach in NCAA history with 1,098 victories. C. Vivian Stringer of Rutgers and Sylvia Hatchell of North Carolina are the closest active coaches to her total and both will be trying to reach the 900-win plateau this season.
While Stringer and Hatchell have been at their schools for a long time, there are a lot of new faces at schools.
Kim Barnes Arico left St. John’s for Michigan after guiding the Red Storm to the NCAA regional semifinals. Michigan only opened up because Kevin Borseth returned to Wisconsin-Green Bay. That job opened up when Matt Bollant took over at Illinois.
Coaches aren’t the only ones changing places as several high profile teams moved to new conferences. Texas A&M, which won the national championship in 2011, headed to the Southeastern Conference along with Missouri. West Virginia and TCU joined the Big 12 while Nevada and Fresno State are now in the Mountain West. Hawaii entered the Big West.
Then there are the schools playing a farewell season in their old conference before moving on. Syracuse and Pittsburgh are going from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference and Notre Dame will soon follow. SMU, Houston, Central Florida and Memphis are in their last season in Conference USA before heading to the Big East and Temple is saying goodbye to the Atlantic-10 before leaving for the Big East.