Longtime Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey has left for LSU, but the Bears still are Big 12 favorites.
Mulkey led the Bears to three national championships and a combined 23 Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles.
Baylor is seventh in The Associated Press’ preseason Top 25 under new coach Nicki Collen. The Bears feature preseason AP All-American NaLyssa Smith, preseason all-conference center Queen Egbo and some talented transfers.
Smith, who averaged 18.0 points and 8.9 rebounds last season, said expectations inside the program haven't changed.
“We’re all here to win a national championship at the end of the day,” she said. “I feel like all the changes aren’t really going to affect those drastically. We’re all here to play basketball. So, at the end of the day, we are trying to get a natty, so that’s our biggest goal.”
Other programs appear capable of ending the Bears’ run of 11 straight conference regular-season titles. Iowa State and Texas were tied for second in the Big 12 preseason poll, and both received first-place votes.
Iowa State features guard Ashley Joens, who led the conference and ranked fifth nationally with 24.2 points per game last season. Cyclones coach Bill Fennelly considers her one of the best players in the nation.
“I think it always starts with your backcourt and a great player, and we have that,” he said.
The 12th-ranked Cyclones also return guard Lexi Donarski, last season's Big 12 Freshman of the Year.
Texas, ranked 25th, reached the Elite Eight last season under first-year coach Vic Schaefer. Point guard Joanne Allen-Taylor is back, and a strong recruiting class amps up the program’s hopes.
No. 19 West Virginia was picked fourth. Esmery Martinez leads the way after averaging 13.6 points in an all-conference season.
The team to watch could be Oklahoma, even though longtime coach Sherri Coale has retired. Former Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk has taken over and has high expectations from the start.
Madi Williams is back after finishing third in the conference with 20.3 points per game. Taylor Robertson returns after averaging 16.0 points and finishing fourth nationally with 3.6 made 3-pointers per game. Another star, Ana Llanusa, missed last season with an undisclosed injury. She averaged 15.4 points in 2019-20 and was an All-Big 12 second-team pick the year before.
Baranczyk said the trio has adjusted well to her positionless basketball system.
“As a collective, I’ve been so impressed with their openness," Baranczyk said. "They’ve established their games, they’ve established their names, but they keep working on their game, which is something that has been impressive as a new coach and trying to implement a different system. They’ve just been completely all in.”
Baylor has the preseason Newcomer of the Year in graduate transfer Jordan Lewis, who averaged 17 points and 4.2 assists for Alabama last season. She left as the Crimson Tide’s No. 9 all-time scorer with 1,464 points and ranks fifth in Alabama history in assists.
Ja’Mee Asberry, who averaged 17 points per game at Oklahoma State last season, has transferred to Baylor. She shot 42% from 3-point range last season.
“Ja’mee has the ability to play on and off the ball, and she will be a great fit for our offensive style,” Collen said when the move was announced. “She is a tough kid who has improved each year, and we can’t wait to see her continued growth here at Baylor, on and off the court.”
CROSSING THE BORDER
Texas has the preseason freshman of the year in Aaliyah Moore, who played for Moore High School in Moore, Oklahoma. She was the Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year her final two seasons and was one of the nation's top recruits in her class. As a senior, she averaged 25.2 points and 11.6 rebounds.
TCU’s Lauren Heard is back after finishing second in the Big 12 with 21.2 points per game last season. The graduate student been an all-Big 12 first-team selection the past two years. Last season, she made the conference’s all-defense team.
OTHER TOP RETURNEES
Vivian Gray switched from Oklahoma State to Texas Tech as a graduate transfer last season and averaged 19.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Now, the 6-foot-1 guard is back for another year and is a preseason all-conference pick.
Kansas State's Ayoka Lee, a 6-6 center, averaged 19.1 points and 8.7 rebounds while shooting a league-best 62% from the field last season. Kansas guard Holly Kersgieter averaged 17.4 points last season and shot 85% from the free-throw line last season.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.