With only two games left in the regular season, the LSU women’s basketball team sits at No. 8 in the national rankings. Sitting second in their conference, behind consensus No. 1 South Carolina, we can finally, confidently say that the Kim Mulkey-led Tigers have turned things around.
Last season, LSU went 9-13 overall and 6-8 in the SEC. They hadn’t received a tournament bid since 2017 (notwithstanding the cancellation of the 2020 tournament, in which they had a 20-win season and likely could have made an appearance), and they hadn’t made it past the first round of the tournament since 2014. And then they got unbelievably lucky — Kim Mulkey and Baylor University parted ways, and the legendary coach was ready to head home to her home state of Louisiana.
There are good coaches in the world, and then there are those so great that you question how it’s possible that one person can make that much difference in a program in such a short amount of time. Mulkey’s departure from Baylor came under some odd circumstances. After 21 years in Waco, where she led the Bears to three national championships and 11 conference championships, building the program to be a perennial contender, she just left.
She told ESPN in a December feature that she had butted heads with Baylor’s administration and felt taken for granted there. In the article, she’s quoted as saying, “I wasn’t done at Baylor. That’s the thing. No one saw this coming, myself included.” The Baylor administration had refused several small but meaningful honors, including a confetti drop for a Big 12 championship and a booster-led campaign to have Mulkey’s name on the court floor. And, of course, she wanted to be closer to family.
LSU, on the other hand, was over the moon to have her — and rightfully so. When a coach stays somewhere as long as Mulkey stayed at Baylor, one begins to wonder whether it’s a symbiotic relationship, and whether the coach could go anywhere and build that sort of program. Well, our questions have been answered for us — she didn’t even need a rebuilding year with LSU, and Baylor ends up looking pretty bad in this situation, if there’s any truth behind her feelings of tension with the athletic department.
At 23-4 overall and 11-3 in the SEC, LSU has taken down the likes of Florida, Georgia, and Iowa State. The Tigers hadn’t seen the Top 10 in 13 years, but here they are, back again, not only headed to the tournament but likely poised to go a long way. With over half of her roster in their fourth or fifth year of eligibility, Mulkey may be in an even better position next year, as she’ll be able to recruit her own athletes. But she doesn’t need that excuse or that buffer year waiting around for players that she personally chose, because she turned it around with the team she had.
Baylor is still excelling, as well, sitting at No. 5 under former Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen, but it will certainly be interesting to see how they fare after the Mulkey effect has worn off there — for comparison, it’ll be hard to give Nick Saban’s successor at Alabama too much credit until he has four years of his own recruits on that squad.
She’s not without her controversial moments, but in terms of raw coaching ability, she’s a unicorn. LSU should be a fun one to watch come March.