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WACO, Texas – There is one thing Baylor needs senior guard Odyssey Sims to do less of this season: all those lob passes she was so good at.
As for everything else, the Lady Bears will need all they can get from Sims since two-time AP Player of the Year Brittney Griner will no longer be under the basket to catch those passes while towering over opponents.
"It's a lot different, just being used to having her down there for three years," said Sims, also an All-American last season and Baylor's only returning starter. "But I like how this year we can prove how good our guard play is, and we'll be able to run a lot more. So that's what I'm more excited about than anything this season."
Things certainly will be much different for coach Kim Mulkey and the Lady Bears with the 6-foot-8 Griner gone after four impressive seasons. There were plenty of highlight dunks, a record-shattering 748 blocked shots and 3,283 points to put Griner second on the NCAA women's career list.
The Lady Bears made it to the NCAA Final Four when Griner was a freshman, the only year with her that they didn't sweep the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles, and went to a regional final in 2011 before losing to eventual champ Texas A&M. Baylor won the national title in 2012 while going undefeated in the NCAA's first 40-win season, then unexpectedly came up short of another championship with a loss to Louisville in the NCAA tournament regional semifinals last March.
But Baylor is now Odyssey's team.
"Odyssey is by far the most experienced player we have. She understands what it takes to win championships, she understands the work ethic," Mulkey said. "She's going to be asked to do more than ever before, both in her play and in the leadership capacity, and I think she's ready for it."
Sims averaged 13.7 points and 4.3 assists in her 108 games at Baylor the past three seasons, when she and Griner made up quite a tandem for opposing teams to defend.
Griner wasn't the only senior on last year's team. The Lady Bears also go into this season without post players Brooklyn Pope and Destiny Williams, and guards Kimetria Hayden and Jordan Madden.
The tallest player left it 6-5 sophomore post player Kristina Higgins, an inch taller than junior post Sune Agbuke, with nobody else on the roster over 6-2. Both played only about 5 minutes a game last season.
"I really think more so than the games, the experience they got to go against those seniors every day in practice had to make them better," Mulkey said. "Those two young ladies took beatings every day in practice. They weren't afraid to guard Brittney Griner. I think that will do more than anything they could have done on the court last year, and I just think it's going to be fun to watch them when the lights come on now. This is their turn."
Baylor opens the season Nov. 9 at home against Grambling, and will leave Waco for only one of their 11 games before Big 12 play starts in January.
Mulkey said the biggest challenges going into her 14th season at Baylor will be finding out who will be consistent scorers other than Sims, and who will help the feisty 5-8 Sims on defense.
"Obviously, we're going to try to get as much mileage out of her as we can," Mulkey said. "Make sure that we change things and play to our strengths, and our strength's obviously going to be guard play."
Sims earned her second gold medal at the World University Games last summer, when she was the tournament's MVP. She became the first women's basketball player to be a two-time gold medalist for the U.S. team at the World University Games.
Baylor's most experienced guard other than Sims is senior Makenzie Robertson, the coach's daughter who has played 91 career games without starting.
Sophomore Alexis Prince and Niya Johnson both got their first tastes of college ball last season. Prince played 14 minutes a game as a freshman despite dealing with stress reactions in both feet that required surgery during the offseason, while Johnson got into every game.
Baylor also added another trio of highly touted freshmen guards this season, including Hayden's younger sister.
Even with Griner gone and Sims the only returning starter, the Lady Bears were picked in the preseason vote of the Big 12 coaches to finish second in the league behind Oklahoma this season.
"I do welcome it, because you want to build a program that's respected. ... That's respect," Mulkey said. "And it also is probably a testament to just how good Odyssey is and what people think of her."