What the future holds for LSU and Baylor
Breaking down the college basketball landscape after Kim Mulkey's departure
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The college basketball world finally had time to sit in certainty after Sunday’s announcement that Kim Mulkey is “going home” to coach at LSU. After Winsidr’s B. Terrell made initial reports of her departure in early April, news has continued to trickle in about Mulkey’s new LSU throne.
It’s hard to overstate the ripple effects that come from her decision. Five days removed from the hiring, it’s time to look at how her decision changes the landscape of LSU and Baylor basketball.
Long-term Tigers: Success will come, but good luck getting past Dawn Staley
Before we delve into the 2021-22 season, let’s make no mistake: LSU is playing the long game with its new hire. This week, Mulkey signed an eight-year deal that nets her an average of $2.81 million per year through the 2028-29 season. Not only is her salary higher than that of LSU men’s basketball coach Will Wade, but she’ll also have numerous performance-related incentives that can add to her steep contract.
We already know her legacy: 11 straight Big 12 regular-season titles, 12 straight Sweet 16 appearances and three national championships. But beyond the accolades, what kind of on-court product comes with the Kim Mulkey experience?
Mulkey’s teams have never neglected effort, which is a key reason why they’ve become a staple in college basketball’s upper echelon. If nothing else, their identities start on the defensive side of the ball.
“It's no secret I do coach with passion,” Mulkey said in her opening press conference on Monday. “I do coach with intensity. But I think I learned that from the great state of Louisiana. We're fighters here. I'm going to fight for my team, I'm going to fight for LSU and I'm always going to fight and defend the state of Louisiana.”
That effort and passion show up in the stats. Every year since 2015-16, Mulkey’s squads have ranked in the 99th or 100th percentile in field goal percentage, rebounds per game, assists per game, defensive rating and opponent field goal percentage.
Mulkey always brought impactful post players to Baylor, including three recent stars in Kalani Brown, Lauren Cox and NaLyssa Smith. As other teams zigged to the 3-point line, Baylor stayed put under the basket. But that doesn’t mean Baylor didn’t take smart shots from beyond the arc—last year was the first time the Lady Bears dipped below the 37 percent mark since the 2014-15 season.
So what unique long-term challenges await Mulkey at LSU?
For one, Mulkey won’t have the leg up of recruiting in-state, which is where much of Baylor’s talent came from. Texas is a hotbed for women’s basketball, and recruits who want to stay in-state have no shortage of options at the collegiate level.
Luckily for LSU, that connection might not matter as much as it used to, given that players no longer have to sit out for a year if they transfer. Baylor built a behemoth over the past few years by marrying strong returners with one-year grad transfers such as Te’a Cooper and DiJonai Carrington, and the NCAA’s new rules could help expedite the team-building process at LSU.
Mulkey is still in the process of hiring her coaching staff, and she’ll need a strong recruiter despite bringing over most of her staff from Baylor. Not included in the transition were assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Sytia Messer (more on her later) and associate head coach Bill Brock, who is taking over as Baylor’s interim head coach.
“It's a lot of things to do. We will do it as quickly as we can, but we won't go and do any shortcuts,” Mulkey said. “I won't hire a staff if I'm not comfortable just to fill a spot. I want the right people.”
The Big 12 is no pushover of a conference, but the SEC is unquestionably a step up. Six of the top 16 seeds in last year’s NCAA Tournament came from the SEC, whereas only West Virginia joined Baylor from the Big 12, and the Mountaineers made an early exit in the Round of 32.
Mulkey will almost certainly find success in the SEC, but this is still South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley’s conference. That doesn’t mean Mulkey’s expectations aren’t sky-high.
“I want you to see those banners behind you right there,” Mulkey said to her new roster. “Final Four, Final Four, Final Four, Final Four. Nowhere on there does it say national champion. That's what I came here to do.”
Short-term Tigers: Don’t count out LSU in 2021-22
While Mulkey has the transfer portal at her disposal, there’s plenty of talent in Baton Rouge for her to work with—even if she doesn’t know it yet.
“I have not worked with these young ladies,” Mulkey said. “You have three of them that I talked to on a Zoom call today. I did not evaluate their talents before I took this job. That wasn't something that was important to me.”
In early April (and notably before head coach Nikki Fargas left for the Las Vegas Aces), LSU seniors Khayla Pointer, Faustine Aifuwa and Jailin Cherry all announced that they would use their extra year of eligibility for the upcoming season. If all three remain in Louisiana, the Tigers will almost certainly qualify for their first NCAA Tournament since the 2017-18 season.
Instant success may sound far-fetched, but Vic Schaefer proved at Texas that first-year head coaches can find success—his Longhorns team advanced all the way to the Elite 8 in the tournament, albeit with a superior roster to LSU’s.
“I don't want you to be misled that you think I can take a team and overnight play for championships,” Mulkey said. “But I can take a team and make them better each day. As we work with them, we will be able to identify strengths and weaknesses, what we need, then head out and go get the best talent we can to represent LSU.”
There are caveats, though, especially when it comes to the returners. Pointer, who led the team with 16.9 points, 4.1 assists and 2.5 steals per game, is Fargas’ niece. The two built a close and well-documented relationship before Mulkey entered the mix.
Assuming Pointer plays this season, she’ll bring her established shot creation at the guard spot, similar in size and skill set to what Mulkey had with Moon Ursin. (For additional comparison, Ursin has quite a bit more strength and verticality than Pointer, while Pointer is the more established outside shooter.) Pointer is a smart and patient player who can, on her best nights, explode past even the best defensive teams. Last season, she was named to the First Team All-SEC and All-Defensive Team.
Mulkey, who loves post-centric offense, has talent up front in Aifuwa. Much of Mulkey’s success this season was predicated on her favorite playing style—grabbing a ton of offensive rebounds and creating opportunities in transition with her blocks and size on the interior. Outside of Aifuwa, though, post offense may be hard to come by unless Mulkey utilizes the transfer portal.
Here’s one more wrinkle to keep an eye on: The Tigers’ 3-point shooting was almost non-existent last season. Only one Power 5 school had a smaller percentage of its points come from beyond the arc, according to Her Hoop Stats. That team was Baylor.
What’s left for the Lady Bears: The title window is still open in 2021-22
Mulkey leaves a roster with plenty of championship-caliber talent, headlined by dominant frontcourt forces NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo. Smith’s offense could reach the next level without Mulkey, as the shot opportunities could pour her way to an extent we haven’t seen before. Despite her immense talent, Baylor didn’t always funnel the offense through its best player.
Take Iowa State forward Ashley Joens. Like Smith, Joens is a possible lottery pick in next year’s WNBA Draft. Unlike Smith, Joens was undoubtedly the focal point of her team’s offense. Joens averaged 17.2 field goal attempts per game last season, whereas Smith only hit that mark twice all year.
Smith is not a passive player, but Mulkey preferred to spread the shot distribution. At times, it came back to bite the Lady Bears.
Perhaps the biggest indictment of Mulkey’s strategy came toward the end of regulation against UConn in the Elite 8. It’s easy to remember the controversial no-call on Carrington that sent Baylor home, but it was Smith who was entirely absent out of the final timeout. Smith shot 69.5 percent from the field in the tournament but took just two field goal attempts in the fourth quarter. She did not touch the ball on the final possession.
Baylor’s roster will look dramatically different in 2021-22, and the next coach will have plenty of decisions to make at the guard position. Baylor’s backcourt duo of DiDi Richards and Carrington was selected in this year’s WNBA Draft, while additional stalwart guard Moon Ursin finished her senior season in 2021. Ursin has not announced whether she will return to Baylor and use her fifth year of eligibility.
A slew of former top-100 recruits round out the roster, including guards Trinity Oliver, Sarah Andrews and Jaden Owens as well as forward Caitlin Bickle and center Hannah Gusters. Baylor also added All-SEC transfer guard Jordan Lewis from Alabama earlier this week. Only sophomore guard Jordyn Oliver transferred out of Baylor this offseason, with her decision coming in early April before rumors of Mulkey’s departure emerged.
All that said, we know the least about the long-term future of the Baylor program, in large part because it still doesn’t have a coach.
Messer has been mentioned as a possible promotion, given her experience and love from within the program. She is one of the best recruiters in the country.
“We have launched a national search for our next head coach, and we will not make any comments on prospective candidates or where we are in the process until we are ready to introduce the next Baylor Women's Basketball head coach," Baylor athletic director Mack Rhodes said in a statement.
When The Next talked to Messer in February, she said she was happiest at the high-major level after jumping from a head coaching role at Tennessee Tech to become an assistant at Baylor. If she stays at Baylor, either as the head coach or alongside another head coach, the Lady Bears’ recruiting and on-court results should remain at a high level.