Philip Hersh,Chicago Tribune
3:25 PM EST, December 5, 2012
Muffet McGraw isn't fooled by the polls that have the Baylor women's basketball team ranked only third.
"They are truly the best team in the country," McGraw said.
The defending NCAA champion Baylor team that comes to play McGraw's 5th-ranked Irish before a sellout crowd Wednesday (ESPN 2, 6 p.m.) fell from the top spot when Stanford ended the Bears' 42-game win streak last month.
That 71-69 loss in Hawaii came when Baylor lost All-America point guard Odyssey Sims to a hamstring injury four minutes into the game. Sims' absence left the Bears without a major offensive option as Stanford packed its defense around superstar Brittney Griner, also bothered by sore shins this season.
Sims, who played brilliantly when Baylor pounded the Irish 80-61 in last year's NCAA title game, returned to practice last week and is expected to play Wednesday after missing the last four games with the injury.
"She just picks up where she left off," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said of Sims. "She has been great in practice, the same defensive intensity."
With Sims in the lineup, the Irish will get a better idea of where they stand against a Baylor team making its first visit to South Bend in a series that began just three seasons ago. The Bears returned all five starters from the 2012 champions, although Mulkey is limiting Griner's playing time (23.6 minutes per game) to help her legs survive the season.
"I'd prefer Griner got the flu tonight and was out the rest of the week," McGraw said with a laugh. "But I do think you want to see them at full strength.
"This game will tell us where we are Dec. 5. If we play well, it doesn't mean we are going to the Final Four. If we play poorly, it doesn't mean we can't get to the Final Four."
The Irish, 0-3 against Baylor, still are searching for a consistent fifth starter. The other four — senior All-America Skylar Diggins, juniors Kayla McBride and Natalie Ochonwa and freshman Jewell Loyd of Niles West — are averaging between 14.6 and 12.6 points per game.
"We're a work in progress with great potential," McGraw said. "At times we look so good and then in the same possession we don't look so good."
It has taken Loyd little time to begin realizing the enormous potential she showed in high school.
"She (Loyd) is a special talent," Mulkey said.
Loyd had 12 rebounds in the opener against Ohio State and 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals as the Irish (5-0) won at UCLA for the only the second time in seven tries.
"We need a big contribution from her, but she is so capable," McGraw said.