The first round has come and gone, of course with a 40+ point win. No one is surprised by that. In fact, very little of what the Lady Bears do under Coach Kim Mulkey is surprising anymore. They have a 40 win and perfect season under them that ranks as one of the best seasons in basketball history. They have the marquee player of her generation, one that has a chance to legitimately change the women’s game. Now, they have 5 more wins left to be just the fourth program to win back to back national championships, joining the two pillars of the women’s game over the last 40 years in Connecticut and Tennessee. The third program though is the one that interests me and one that some will point to as the future of the Lady Bears.
Most people probably don’t know the third team to win back to back national championships. It is the University of Southern California. The parallels for these two teams start with the transcendent player that took them to those wins. Cheryl Miller was then the game changing force for the women’s game, the one that would take it off of the back pages of the sports paper and give it a more national following. To some extent, it did, however not to the level that most would have expected. But make no mistake, Cheryl Miller was phenomenal. She took a good solid program, albeit one without national championship aspirations, and made it into a history making squad.
After she left though, things did not go nearly as well for USC. Since those two championships, the Lady Trojans have only been to a single Final Four, in 1986 where they lost the championship game to Texas. They have only 2 conference championships since 1986 as well. They have fallen to second tier status in their own state, with Stanford being the power in women’s basketball that USC appeared to be headed towards in the early 80s.
Is that the future for the Lady Bears? I seriously doubt it. First off, Coach Mulkey and her program already had a national championship before Griner and this amazing senior class ever stepped foot on campus. Secondly, a third national championship would put them as the third most prolific university in women’s basketball during the NCAA era. Tennesee and Connecticut are running away with their sheer number of titles, but right now Baylor, Stanford, Southern California, and Louisiana Tech are the only schools with 2 championships. No one has three, and winning their third in under a decade would put them in a class higher than all but the two big dogs.
So, with Brittney Griner playing out the last few precious games of her collegiate career, what does the future hold for the Lady Bears? Some, such as a coach just to the south of us, have said that Baylor will go back to being Baylor. The Bears of course were one of the dominant teams in the best conference in the land for women’s basketball in terms of depth. They did not have that Tennessee or Connecticut though. At least not yet. Oklahoma was the first to really get close to being that great, but even with the marvelous Paris sisters setting Big 12 records, they fell short in the Final Four.
Funny enough for the Big 12, it took Baylor being Baylor to finally crack the national championship nut, which they did in 2005. That squad was built for that run, with Sophia Young being the star player to put the Lady Bears on her back and carry them all the way. After that run though, the Bears could not stay at the elite level, just at the very good level. They would go on to advance to several Sweet 16’s, but would not get back to the Final Four until the emergence of their next super star, the aforementioned Griner.
The big question is, will the Bears fall back to very good after the graduation of Griner, along with an amazing cast of seniors around her? Does it even matter at this point, as this iteration of the Bears still have hopefully 5 games to win? This team has a chance for greatness, with their 2nd national championship in a row on the table, and their 3rd in the last 8 years. That is as good as any team not name Tennessee or Connecticut has done in the modern NCAA era.
With Florida State on deck, the Lady Bears will be in the friendly confines of the Ferrell Center for the last time. They will be heavily favored, and can probably win with even a lackluster effort, simply due to their talent and the mere presence of Griner. That isn’t meant to sound cocky, that is just the simple truth due to the pure talent of this team.