Baylor one win away from Big 12 history

INDIANAPOLIS -- Here's something nobody ever would have guessed when the Big 12 began in the 1996-97 season: That the league's first basketball title (men or women) might go to ... Baylor.

When you consider, in particular, the kind of great teams that Kansas and Oklahoma have had on the men's side, and Texas and Texas Tech have had on the women's side ... it's really almost surreal that no program in the Jumbo Dozen has broken through.

The way Michigan State has defied the odds, there's still a huge hurdle for Baylor to jump over to be the league's first hoops champion in the Big 12 era. But if Baylor does it, it will be because the program hired the right coach at the right time.

The idea of Baylor's women playing for a national title seemed preposterous in 1996. However, not long into Kim Mulkey-Robertson's first season at Baylor, 2000-2001, all of those who follow the Big 12 closely suspected it would only be a matter of time before she got her program to a Final Four.

Mulkey-Robertson has an indestructible confidence, and she passes it on to her players. Because of that, Baylor has been able to bounce back well after taking the hard hits almost every program has to endure on a climb to the top.

Sure, everyone knows about the ending against Tennessee in the Sweet 16 last year. But recall that Baylor also was upset at home by Drake in the second round of the 2002 NCAA Tournament.

Baylor lost Danielle Crockrom and Shelia Lambert after that season, the heart of both the inside and outside game. Mulkey-Robertson knew that 2002-2003 was -- to some degree -- going to be a case of making lemonade out of lemons. And that's what she did, getting Baylor to the title game of the WNIT.

Then last season, Baylor was the last Big 12 team standing before the controversial finish. But even before that, Baylor also had a hard-to-take ending in a defeat at Texas Tech and lost All-Big 12 post player Steffanie Blackmon to a knee injury during the Big 12 tournament.

The point is, through all the ups and downs, Mulkey-Robertson maintained a "we're on the rise" attitude that's a big part of why Baylor is here now.

During Saturday's media day at the RCA Dome, Mulkey-Robertson offered this self-critique: She though that she didn't do a good job as a coach after that Tennessee loss last season. She said she couldn't provide her team any comfort because she was so upset herself.

I'm not sure any coach with any amount of experience could have reacted much differently after that game. But it's an interesting insight into Mulkey-Robertson's personality that she thinks she should have.

Mulkey-Robertson played Little League baseball -- yes, baseball -- when she was kid. And Baylor's performance this season can be summed up with a baseball analogy. The best way to react to getting a brushback pitch is to park the next one in the seats. Not easy to do, obviously. Baylor channeled its frustration and anger about last season the most positive way: The team got even further in the NCAA Tournament this year. And is, in fact, one step away from what would be considered a "grand slam."

Baylor as a team this season plays almost exactly like Mulkey-Robertson did when she was a point guard at Louisiana Tech. It's a no-fear, whatever-happens-we'll-fight-to-the-end approach. Baylor doesn't have a complicated psyche.

Even with some very good teams, you get the feeling when they're struggling in a game that they're wobbling on a tight rope and could lose their balance. With this Baylor team, there's just never that feeling. Even in Baylor's three losses this year -- to LSU, Nebraska and Texas -- it was more, "OK, we know what went wrong there; let's fix it and move forward."

And Baylor has kept going that direction now 19 times in a row. A 20th time would be a momentous thing for the entire Big 12 conference.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail her at mvoepel@kcstar.com.