GREENVILLE, S.C. -- LSU coach Kim Mulkey has the Tigers in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014, but she wondered Thursday whether their rapid rise over the past two years "might be feeding that monster too quickly."
Mulkey has been in this situation many times, as a championship-winning coach and player. But during her 21-year career as Baylor coach, it took four years to make it to the Sweet 16 and five years to win a national championship.
Now in Year 2 with the Tigers (30-2), Mulkey has led LSU to tie the best regular-season record in program history as it prepares to play Utah (27-4) on Friday.
"LSU has been to Sweet 16s before," Mulkey said. "The LSU folks love winners. But I don't think anybody could be fair and say that we were going to do this in two years or even do what we did last year in the first year. We're doing things at a very fast pace. Might be feeding that monster too quickly, but it sure beats the heck out of losing."
When asked to expand on her comment, Mulkey said it was important to keep perspective on where LSU is as a program after a few short years under her leadership. Last season, LSU made the NCAA tournament in her first year as coach but lost in the second round.
"People start expecting things," Mulkey said. "What are they going to expect next year? How are they going to feel if we don't beat Utah? Come on now, keep perspective. You're trying to tamper down expectations that may not be fair or real until you really have that kind of team that can talk about Final Fours and talk about longevity every year.
"What we have done in two years, where is the playbook for me to follow? I don't have one. I can think about my years at Baylor where we won the national championship in five years. To me that was unheard of. All you do is work. You get excited about it, but you keep perspective. I wanted this year for our team to show progress, and we have. That's what you want to keep doing. If along the way, you do something unexpected, it's fun."
Senior guard Alexis Morris, who played for Mulkey at Baylor her freshman year in 2018-19, had a simple answer when asked about Mulkey saying she had no playbook for their ascent.
"She is the plan," Morris said. "Coach Mulkey is the GOAT. All LSU needed was Coach Mulkey."
Mulkey remade her entire roster from a year ago, bringing in highly touted freshmen and multiple transfers -- none bigger than Angel Reese, an AP All-American who has dominated, averaging a double-double with 23.8 points and 15.7 rebounds. In a second-round win over Michigan, Reese had 25 points, 24 rebounds, six blocks, four assists and three steals in yet another eye-opening performance.
Mulkey took up for Reese during her news conference because her star player was not named a finalist for the Naismith Award or Wade Trophy, given to the best player in the country.
"I don't know the last time I've seen a kid have 30 of 32 double-doubles and be on a team that has talent," Mulkey said. "Being an All-American is a pat on the back, but which do you want? Do you want to be an All-American or do you want a national championship, conference championship rings? I think all competitors would tell you we'll trade all those individual honors for something that the team can keep forever and ever."
Indeed, for Reese and her teammates, chasing that championship is what drives them -- especially after a 69-67 loss to Tennessee in the SEC tournament semifinals in the same arena in which they are playing the Sweet 16.
LSU blew a 17-point lead in that game, and Reese was called for an offensive foul on a drive to the basket, down 1 with 15 seconds left. After the game, Mulkey said, "I thought we were shooting two free throws."
Reflecting on that game, in this arena, Reese said, "I just feel like you don't get these chances twice. Being able to come back here within the last three weeks, that's God's plan right here, and I believe in that a lot. And I feel like we ain't going to walk out of here with that same feeling that we felt last time, and that's just my mindset right now."