WACO, Texas — Brittney Griner and top-ranked Baylor could have a few repeats while trying to repeat as national championship.
As the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, the Lady Bears (32-1) will open Sunday night at home against Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament champion Prairie View (17-14).
That is the same opening matchup Baylor had two years ago, when it was a No. 1 seed for the first time and also hosted first- and second-round games.
If they keep advancing, and other top seeds hold as well, the rest of the tournament could have a very familiar feeling for the Lady Bears as last year when they were undefeated and their tournament run capped off the NCAA’s first 40-win season.
”I hadn’t even thought about it,” coach Kim Mulkey said. “No matter who you play, you are probably going to be able to compare years and teams and times that you played each other. Hadn’t thought about it.”
Baylor is in the Oklahoma City Regional, where the No. 2 seed is Tennessee from the SEC, the team the Lady Bears beat in a regional final last March.
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All the No. 1 seeds are the same as last year. The others are Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford, the only team to beat the Lady Bears this season before their 30-game winning streak.
The Lady Bears are on the same side of the bracket as the Spokane Regional, where Stanford is the No. 1 seed. That could mean the same NCAA Final Four matchup in the national semifinals as a year ago.
While Mulkey may not have put any consideration into all the potential repeats, she is clear about where she wants the Lady Bears to be in three weeks: in New Orleans for the NCAA Final Four.
For the NCAA selection show, Louisiana native Mulkey wore a black shirt featuring a bedazzled fleur-de-lis along with New Orleans in print.
”I can’t hide the fact that I want to go New Orleans pretty bad,” Mulkey said.
Baylor has won all 14 of its previous games against Prairie View, including 66-30 to open the NCAA tournament in 2011 – Griner’s sophomore season when the top-seeded Lady Bears lost in a regional final against No. 2 seed and then-Big 12 foe Texas A&M.
The other first-round game in Waco on Sunday has No. 8-seed Florida State (22-9), an at-large team from the ACC, against Ivy League champion Princeton (22-6).
”Somebody asked me the other day do we feel the pressure to repeat. I said absolutely not, the pressure was last year,” Mulkey said. ”If we get beat, it will be because the other team flat-out outplayed us, it won’t be because they feel pressure to repeat. It won’t be anything like that.
”This bunch is so confident,” she said. ”The experience of having won it all, and then go 40-0 on top of it all, they’ve been there and done that.”
Assuming the Lady Bears make it to the Round of 16 in Oklahoma City, a potential opponent there is No. 5-seed Louisville (24-8). Those two teams have played only once, when the Lady Bears lost 56-39 in the NCAA Round of 16 in 2009, the season before Griner arrived.
The Lady Bears were 27-10 when Griner was a freshman, but made it to the Final Four before a loss to UConn.
”We may not be the same team and have new players,” Griner said. ”But we’re on the same track and headed in the right direction.”
Since their 75-47 victory against Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship a week ago, the Lady Bears have only been practicing against themselves and they’re ready to play somebody else.
”We’re very anxious, wishing we could wake up and play [Wednesday],” said junior point guard Odyssey Sims, an All-American last season and the only non-senior starter. ”When Sunday comes around, we’ll be ready.”
Oklahoma (22-10), a Big 12 foe Baylor has defeated six consecutive times during the past three seasons, is the No. 6 seed and will play Central Michigan (21-11) Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, where they will be followed by No. 3-seed UCLA (25-7) and Stetson (24-8).
Tennessee opens at home against Oral Roberts (18-12) on Saturday, playing after Syracuse (24-7) takes on Creighton (24-7).
In the other Sunday games in the Oklahoma City Regional, Louisville hosts Middle Tennessee (25-7) and No. 4 seed Purdue (24-8) plays Liberty (27-6).
”Right now, I imagine just about everybody out there wanted to dodge Baylor,” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell said. ”But from there down, I don’t think anybody was afraid of anybody to be honest with you. You go from Baylor to Connecticut and maybe Duke, then maybe you go to another level with two or three teams then everybody else I think is capable of beating anybody.”