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@baylor

The still-defending champions are facing a season as difficult as any in the college landscape.

Thankfully, Baylor has experience re-loading. For three straight years, the Lady Bears dominated the Wade Trophy for the national player of the year. Brittney Griner won in 2012, when Baylor won a national title, and again in 2013; Odyssey Sims followed in 2014.

The next season may have been Kim Mulkey’s most significant challenge in terms of replacing talent. And while Baylor continued to dominate the Big 12, they couldn’t find their way past the Elite Eight until 2019, when they finally reached the mountain top again, and claimed another NCAA title.

This year, Baylor not only needs to find a new rotation, but they’re also dealing with all the schedule irregularities that have begun to hound college basketball due to the pandemic.

Forward Lauren Cox and guards Te’a Cooper and Juicy Landrum were all drafted to the WNBA after combining for 45.1% of the team’s points per game and 49.4% of the team’s assists. Entering the season, senior guard DiDi Richards and junior forward NaLyssa Smith were expected to be the only full-time starters returning from last year’s squad that went 28-2 overall and 17-1 in the Big 12.

 Now, the AP poll’s 3rd-ranked team in the preseason is figuring out how to move forward from the indefinite loss of Richards. In a preseason practice, Richards and Moon Ursin were injured in an accidental collision. According to Baylor, Richards suffered a spinal-cord injury without radiographic abnormality, which causes temporary impairment. She has been treated, released, and is making progress from her injury. Ursin has been in concussion protocol.

“I said at my first press conference, the teams that survive and win this year will be those who have the most depth and most experience,” Mulkey said. “We, as of today, have nine players who will play. When DiDi gets back, she will be the 10th player. While we do have five or six players who had significant minutes (last season), their roles will now change. And that does matter. While we have the talent and experience back, we don’t have them in the role they played last year.”

Last season, Richards earned the Naismith and WBCA awards for national defensive player of the year. In her junior year, her second as a starter, she averaged 8.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.7 steals. This season, the coaching staff was hoping to turn Richards into a point guard after seeing something in a season in which she had a team-high 170 assists last season and had just 58 turnovers in 896 minutes.

“I watched a lot of games. I definitely watched the Iowa State game, the one we lost. I watched it at least 20 to 30 times, I’m not kidding. But I watched a lot of games. I didn’t want that to happen again,” Richards said in the offseason. “I worked hard this summer trying to get my game to another level and my confidence built.”

So far, it seems that sophomore Jordyn Oliver and freshman Sarah Andrews will assume the duties of point guard. Ursin will also be a candidate to replace backcourt minutes.

After a brilliant sophomore season, NaLyssa Smith will step into a much bigger role as a junior. In just 24.1 minutes per game, she led Baylor in scoring with 14.3 points per game and was second in rebounding at 8.0 per game. Her next step will be increasing her shooting range — she took and missed just four 3-pointers last year.

Queen Egbo, the Big 12 Sixth Person of the Year, will likely be the second post player in a two-big lineup. Last year, she averaged 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Behind Smith and Egbo, Hannah Gusters arrives as a freshman from MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas. The No. 16 ranked recruit will benefit from the experience ahead of her without having the pressure to perform immediately.

Despite coming from the same high school, Andrews is in a different spot with the immediate need for production at the point guard position. In practice, UCLA transfer Jaden Owens and Penn State transfer Kamaria McDaniels will add competition, but neither can play this season.

The transfer who can make an impact is DiJonai Carrington, a grad transfer from Stanford. Carrington was picked as the Newcomer of the Year in the Big 12 by ESPN.

In a breakout junior year alongside Alanna Smith and Kiana Williams, Carrington started 36 games and averaged 14 points and 7.5 rebounds. After the season, she had knee surgery, and five games into her senior season, she shut it down after re-injuring the knee. After graduating with degrees in Psychology and African & African American Studies, Carrington transferred in hopes of playing in a new offense.

Carrington said that Mulkey has stopped practice to instill a more aggressive mindset, but she will not be hearing it from just her coach. Richards, who is not expected to play in Game 1, will be a force on the sideline.

“If my role is yelling and being the voice on the sideline,” she said, “I’m prepared to do that.”