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Kim Mulkey and the Baylor Lady Bears Are Ready to Reload (Again)

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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.”

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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