Baylor coach Kim Mulkey has been one of the Big 12's staunchest advocates since taking over the program in 2000. She's also her refreshingly blunt self when talking about the conference's fluctuations during her 15 seasons.
"The league, obviously, has changed with all the movement going on with the different conferences," Mulkey said of the departure of teams like Texas A&M, Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado from when she started at Baylor. "Honestly, it's kind of screwed up everything as far as I'm concerned. Because I can't tell you who all is in what league anymore, other than the Big 12.
"I don't know if, in women's basketball, being a 10-member league now has helped or hurt. But I know what has remained constant in our league is attendance. We're in a region where they appreciate women's basketball. Good coaching -- and with it, different styles of play -- has been constant, too, and that makes for good entertainment."
There's another thing that has been very reliable in the Big 12, at least during the past decade-plus: Baylor's success. The Lady Bears had never gone to the NCAA tournament before Mulkey took over, but have made it into the field every one of her seasons except 2003.
Baylor won the 2005 and 2012 NCAA titles, and made the Final Four in 2010 as well. The Big 12, in particular, has been figuratively painted green and gold a great deal: Baylor has won or shared the regular-season title six times, and took home the Big 12 tournament trophy seven times.
And guess who is the favorite to clean up on Big 12 hardware again this season?
"Yes, we have remained consistent in what we've done," Mulkey said. "But it's certainly not easy. It's extremely difficult."
Here are Baylor's NCAA tournament finishes since 2010: Final Four, Elite Eight, national championship, Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Elite Eight. It's that 2013 regional semifinal loss that sometimes obscures Baylor's fantastic run of late, because it was such a shock that the Lady Bears lost to Louisville.
But even that, actually, is a testament to the lofty place the Lady Bears have reached: No one expects them to be upset. Typically, it's going to take another heavyweight to knock them out.
Keeping it going
Baylor's current star, forward Nina Davis, was like a lot of recruits, in that she wasn't necessarily thinking much about program history when she made her college choice. But it's become very important to her to be adding her chapters to Baylor's lore.
"Coming in as a freshman, I didn't expect it to be this way," said Davis, a junior from Memphis, Tennessee. "I don't know if fan support or tradition was something I really paid that much attention to; I just liked the school and the coaches. But Baylor Nation is great, we have fans who travel all over, and it just makes you play harder. You don't want to let the fans down.
"It means so much to be part of what Coach Mulkey has built, and it's a lot of motivation that we have won [the Big 12 tournament] five times in a row. You don't want to be the one who lets it get away."
Baylor senior point guard Niya Johnson -- whose assists have connected so often with Davis the past two seasons -- is from Gainesville, Florida, and grew up a Gators fan in all sports. She initially wasn't even all that sure where Waco, Texas, was when she was first recruited, but now wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
"This is the biggest team I've ever had, top-to-bottom. And I'm OK with that. We just have to get the freshmen as good as we can, as fast as we can." Baylor coach Kim Mulkey
Davis and Johnson clicked well as friends and teammates right off the bat. Their bond as leaders will help Baylor establish itself as a team with a different look than either of the past two years. The Lady Bears now have great size inside with high scoring potential for the first time since Brittney Griner finished her career in 2013.
That includes three freshmen: 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown, 6-4 Beatrice Mompremier, and 6-3 Justis Szczepanski (pronounced Zuh-pan-ski). Mulkey expects all of them to have an impact early on.
"I would be disappointed if they didn't, because they're very talented," she said. "This is the biggest team I've ever had, top-to-bottom. And I'm OK with that. We just have to get the freshmen as good as we can, as fast as we can."
Pushing the right buttons
Yet as much excitement as there is about the big kids now at Baylor, the two linchpin players are still the 5-11 Davis and the 5-8 Johnson. Davis has played much bigger than her size inside, averaging 21.1 points and 8.3 rebounds last season.
You might assume that with all these "giants" now on the squad, Davis might play more on the perimeter. Which she is quite capable of doing; she did that before coming to Baylor.
However, even with so many youthful post players in the mix, Mulkey cautions against doing too much to alter Davis' role.
"Actually, it doesn't change a lot," Mulkey said. "It will allow me, if I need it, to have a big, big team on the floor. So if I need to move Nina around, I will, and she's comfortable with that. But at the same time, I'm not going to say I will do that, because here's a kid who was an All-American as a sophomore. You've got to be very smart about that."
"It means so much to be part of what Coach [Kim] Mulkey has built, and it's a lot of motivation that we have won [the Big 12 tournament] five times in a row. You don't want to be the one who lets it get away." Baylor junior Nina Davis
Mulkey has proven to be flexible and adaptive in regard to personnel, as Baylor has won with a lot of different types of teams. The two NCAA title teams, for example, were not very much alike in terms of star power or style of play, and yet Mulkey was just as confident coaching both squads. But she said that's pretty much just a requirement of the job.
Even those women's basketball programs who've moved into the high-rollers section of the recruiting casino -- as Baylor certainly has -- are not going to get everything they want every year. (HoopGurlz ranks the Lady Bears' 2016 recruiting class second; the early signing period opened Wednesday). Then you add in the constant unpredictable variable -- injuries -- and that's how coaches can end up with teams that force them to adapt to personnel that doesn't necessarily fit their preferred "style." When that has happened to Mulkey, she has made the necessary alterations.
As for how Baylor has been able to not just climb the mountain, but maintain a spot near the top for so long now, Mulkey credits some crucial things. Recruiting, obviously. Fan and institutional support. Consistency on her staff. Her continued passion for coaching, but also learning that she has to delegate. And, of course, adaptability.
"We've won with big-time post players; we've won with big-time guards," Mulkey said. "We've won with quickness, with a pressing team, with players who were not highly recruited. It should be a sign that our staff knows what it's doing."