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Baylor WBB: The State of the Program

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - First Round - Texas Photo by Darren Carroll/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

For years, Baylor was the class of the Big 12 in women’s basketball. Between 2011 and 2022, the Bears won every Big 12 regular season title, with two national championships during that time.

But as Baylor fans already know, that streak came to an end last season, for numerous reasons—the biggest one being that the team’s two prized transfers combined to play a total of 95 minutes. That led to something of a rebuild for the Bears, with a short rotation and heavy minutes for a pair of freshmen, Darianna Littlepage-Buggs and Bella Fontleroy. The Bears finished 20-13 overall, losing double-digit games for the first time since the 2009-19 campaign, which was also the last time Baylor failed to win the regular season Big 12 crown.

So, now what? After an interesting offseason, where does Baylor stand going forward? Let’s look back on the 2022-23 season and ahead to what should be a much brighter future for the Bears.

Looking Back at Baylor’s Fourth-Place Finish in the Big 12

Baylor doesn’t finish fourth in the Big 12. I don’t even mean that in a “Baylor wins the Big 12 every year” way. Since the Big 12 started, Baylor only had one other fourth place finish in conference play, back in the 2003-04 season.

But that’s what happened last year, largely because the Baylor team that took the court just wasn’t the Baylor team that was supposed to take the court.

Without Aijha Blackwell—limited to eight games by injury—or Dre’Una Edwards—limited to zero games because Kentucky wouldn’t sign off on her being immediately eligible—the Bears fielded a team that was relatively shallow. Six players averaged 21 or more minutes per game, while the rest of the roster appeared sparingly. Jana Van Gytenbeek was seventh on the team in minutes per game—there were 11 games where she played fewer than 10 minutes.

But despite not having two prized transfers and running out a really short rotation, the season was still moderately successful, ending with a first round victory over Alabama that really showed the resilience of this Bears team; down 22-4 after the first quarter, Baylor won the other three quarters to win 78-74. They weren’t able to get past UConn in the second round, but…well, it’s UConn. And Baylor did get out to a fast start before the Huskies’ defense buckled down.

One of the biggest developments this season was the emergence of Darianna Littlepage-Buggs. The freshman started 21 games for the Bears, averaging 10.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. DLB reminds me a lot of DiDi Richards—both play hard at all times and showcase a lot of positional versatility, as both are natural wings who had to adapt and play elsewhere for Baylor, with Richards running the point in her final season and Littlepage-Buggs sizing up and playing as a big for long stretches this past season.

Sarah Andrews also continued to take steps forward, averaging a career-best 14.7 points per game to go along with 4.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game. She’s arguably the most underrated lead guard in the country.

What Does the Future Hold for Baylor Women’s Basketball?

So, after the team’s worst season in over a decade, why should people be excited for the Bears going forward?

Because this team is about to get a major influx of talent.

In addition to Blackwell and Edwards—who might as well be considered new additions after last season—the Bears came up big in the portal. While they lost Jaden Owens to TCU and Kendra Gillispie to Arkansas State, they also managed to add some really talented players, headlined by Kentucky point guard Jada Walker. In addition to Walker, the Bears grabbed Iowa State guard Denae Fritz, Ohio guard Yaya Felder and Belmont forward Madison Bartley.

Walker averaged 12.9 points, 3.1 assists and 2.6 steals per game for the Wildcats last season. Per CBB Analytics, was incredibly good at getting into the paint—49.2% of her field goal attempts were non-rim paint attempts, and she shot 51.1% on those attempts, which ranked in the 90th percentile nationally. With Walker and Andrews in the backcourt, the Bears should be able to have at least one top ball-handler on the floor at all times. Also of note: Kentucky had a net rating of +4.7 when Walker was on the floor last season and a -22.5 net rating when she wasn’t on the floor.

The addition of Fritz gives the Bears some added perimeter shooting. While she only shot 33.9% from deep last season for the Cyclones, her volume—4.0 attempts per game—is notable, and opposing defenses will have to account for her on the outside, something that should serve to open the floor up a little more for the team’s bigs. We know Nicki Collen wants Baylor to shoot from three, as the team ranked in the 74th percentile in three-point attempts per game last season per Her Hoop Stats, a big change from the Kim Mulkey era. Adding Fritz helps the team continue that.

The same is true with Yaya Felder, who averaged 5.8 attempts per game from deep last season. I don’t think any addition this year fascinates me more than Felder, who ranked ninth in Division I last year in points per game at 22.0. Moving from the MAC to the Big 12 is a huge change so I definitely don’t think Felder’s going to lead Baylor in scoring or anything, but she could be really, really intriguing as a scorer off the bench. Think Dijonai Carrington back in the 2020-21 season—she only started one game all season, but her 14.1 points per game ranked second on the team, and she led Baylor that year in three-point attempts per contest.

And then Bartley adds some frontcourt depth. Last season at Belmont, Bartley averaged 14.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, shooting 56.4% inside the arc, which ranks in the 92nd percentile per CBB Analytics. She took five shot attempts per game at the rim and should provide the Bears with some solid inside depth. And with her ability to stretch outside and knock down shots from three…well, is Bartley the new Caitlin Bickle?

Then, of course, there’s Blackwell and Edwards. I won’t say as much about them since they aren’t brand new to the program, but they’re going to be crucial to this team’s success. Blackwell was second in the country in rebounds per game two seasons ago at Missouri and can score inside and outside. Edwards is an efficient interior scorer who ranked in the 83rd percentile in block rate during her last season at Kentucky, and who also gets to work on the offensive glass—her 2.9 offensive rebounds per game ranked just outside the top 100 nationally.

All of this really speaks to what I view as the most important thing about this offseason in regards to how it impacts the future of Baylor: Nicki Collen showed that she can work the transfer portal.

Getting key transfers—especially at guard—was a hallmark of the late era of Mulkey’s tenure. Collen got some good names in the portal last season, and she showed once again that she’s able to get talented players to come to Waco. One strong portal showing might just be a one-off thing. Two strong portal showings in a row feels like the start of something.

The one concern I still have is with high school recruiting. Last year’s cycle was impacted by Mulkey’s departure, but the team was still able to sign Littlepage-Buggs, the No. 17 recruit in ESPN’s HoopGurlz rankings. Baylor has one ranked recruit coming next season, with post Letycia Vasconcelos from Montverde Academy, who is No. 36 on ESPN’s list. At 6-foot-7, Vasconcelos could be the next great Baylor big.

Baylor wasn’t getting top 10 recruit after top 10 recruit under Mulkey—or, at least, not in the final years—but the recruiting ceiling felt higher. Take 2018, for example, when the team signed four of the top 20 recruits in ESPN’s rankings. Sure, only Queen Egbo and NaLyssa Smith stuck around the program, but being able to add that much high school talent was still a win, even if the biggest prize, No. 3 recruit Aquira DeCosta, played just 24 games for Baylor.

So, that’s the one thing I’m still tentative on going forward. Adding portal talent is great in the short term, but it’s high school recruits that really build a program for the long run. Can Collen have Baylor competitive for more top recruits?

But in the short run, Baylor’s put together an incredible amount of talent. They should be a top two team in the Big 12 this upcoming season, along with Texas, and with the Longhorns leaving the conference after 2024, Baylor could very easily find itself back atop the conference like they were during the Mulkey years.

Justin Carter covers women’s basketball for a variety of places, including Dave Campbell’s Texas Basketball, where he covers Baylor, as well as the other 24 Division I programs in Texas. Justin also covers the Big 12 for Her Hoop Stats. He’s also the author of Brazos, a poetry collection forthcoming in 2024 from Belle Point Press, and can be found on Twitter at @juscarts.

His most recent Baylor WBB piece was a breakdown of Darianna Littlepage-Buggs for DCTB.