AP Basketball Writer
WACO, Texas (AP) -- Baylor coach Kim Mulkey is purposely keeping her 10th-ranked Lady Bears close to home in nonconference play.
"It allows us to grow up," Mulkey said. "There is no way I could play last year's schedule with this year's team that early."
Brittney Griner, the two-time AP Player of the Year, and four other seniors are gone after falling short last season of the second consecutive national championship expected by so many people.
With preseason All-America point guard Odyssey Sims the only returning starter, the Lady Bears open the season Saturday night against Grambling State. That is the first of their 11 games before getting into Big 12 play Jan. 2 at Kansas State, and they leave Waco for only one of them.
In the same early span last year, the Lady Bears played Stanford in Hawaii, went to Notre Dame and played home games against SEC powers Tennessee and Kentucky. All four are among the nation's top seven-ranked teams to start this season.
"As I've always done, I've been very fair with my teams. When we've needed to soften (the schedule) I guess a little bit, we've done it in years past," said Mulkey, starting her 14th season in Waco. "We've got enough in there to help us grow and get ready for the Big 12, and of course we know the Big 12 will help us get ready for postseason play."
The only regular-season repeat this fall from that highly ranked quartet is a game against seventh-ranked Kentucky. That will be the only time the Lady Bears leave home before conference play, and it will be only about 100 miles from campus.
Baylor plays the Lady Wildcats on Dec. 6 at Dallas Cowboys' stadium -- which in April will host the NCAA men's Final Four -- in a game that precedes a men's matchup between the top-ranked Kentucky and No. 25 Baylor. The Lady Bears do play top-ranked Connecticut at home Jan. 13.
Sims scored 21 and 23 points while leading the Lady Bears in both of their lopsided preseason victories. All five freshmen started the second half of the second game.
"It took us out of the flow when I completely started the freshman group, and yet at the same time they did some things that were good," said Mulkey, though she wasn't really surprised by anything she saw in the preseason.
"Pretty much everything I thought has panned out," she said. "We're a team that's got a lot of good things. We've just got to grow up."
Even with all the newcomers and changes, and Sims being the only returning starter, the Lady Bears were picked to finish second in the Big 12 in a preseason ballot of the conference coaches. Oklahoma is favored to win the league, even though the Sooners start the season a spot behind Baylor in the Top 25.
While Baylor has earned that kind of respect with long-term success, Mulkey said people have "to be realistic with what your expectations are for that particular team that particular year."
These Lady Bears still expect to be in contention for a Big 12 title and an NCAA tournament appearance. But Mulkey isn't yet talking about a national title with this squad.
"I don't know just exactly how good we can be, but nor did I know we'd win the 2005 (NCAA) championship," she said. "Nor did I know Griner and them would make it, that senior group, make it to the Final Four her freshman year when we'd lost 10 basketball games. That's why coaching is fun."
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