If you've had any conversation about the Baylor women's basketball program this last year, chances are it went something like this:
Anybody: "Hey, did you know that Baylor has a 6'-8" basketball player?
You: "Yeah, I caught that the first billion times I heard about it.
"Hey, did you know that Baylor has a 6'-8" basketball player?
The only variation was when she punched at a Texas Tech player a few weeks ago, but the theme was still Brittney Griner, all the time. However, Baylor has a talented team outside of their center, and it is the rest of the Baylor team where Bears fans must place their hopes on Saturday, not on Griner.
It's not that Griner won't be important; indeed, if she doesn't have a good game, Baylor doesn't stand a chance. However, Tennessee is talented enough and is currently playing well enough that they can neutralize a one-player team, no matter who that player is. In the season-opener in Knoxville, Tennessee surprised Baylor with an effective zone defense that prevented passes to the interior. The rest of the Baylor team was unprepared to step up and make the difference, and the rest was history. This time around, Baylor has more experience against zone defenses and will not likely be caught so flatfooted. Yet teams that have beaten Baylor have all found success by forcing the other players to make plays:
- 1/17: Nebraska 65, Baylor 56 Despite Griner having played 39 of the 40 minutes of the game, Baylor could not overcome the Huskers. Griner accounted for 18 of Baylor's points on 8-14 shooting, but the rest of the team failed to produce a single double-digit scorer. The 'Other Bears' went 14-48 from the floor and 0-10 from three-point land.
- 1/23: Missouri 70, Baylor 62 Griner only played 24 minutes, due partly to early foul trouble. She score 14 of Baylor's points (tied for the team lead) on 5-7 shooting. Despite 18-21 team free throw shooting, the Other Bears went 16-42, including a 5-16 night from Kelli Griffin, a guard who played all 40 minutes.
- 1/31: Texas 61, Baylor 50 In a 35 minutes night, Griner scored 21 for Baylor, including 7-11 on free throws. Their best shooter was backup Jordan Madden, who went 4-4 (2-2 on three-pointers). After those two, Baylor shot 7-36 from the field as a team.
- 2/13: Iowa State 69, Baylor 45 Griner had another long night (37 minutes) and was the only Bear in double figures - 10 points. The Other Bears shot 15-49 on the night. Also, Griner had the highest FG% at 50%.
In all of these losses, Baylor visited the free throw line more than their opponent (and scored more points off free throws).
In short, Baylor is a team that survives off two things: getting huge stats for Griner, and getting the other team in foul trouble. The rest of the team is susceptible to falling collectively flat; during the first game of Griner's suspension, Baylor fell to Texas 70-54 due largely to 25% team FG shooting. And Baylor's most complete game in a loss came against Tennessee, where Melissa Jones was their best player, and Cain fouled out with Brewer earning 4 fouls in their effort to shut down Griner. Looking more recently, Baylor's win against Georgetown came with Griner on the bench with foul trouble for much of the first half. While it would sound like the rest of the team stepped up, the real culprit was Georgetown's start: making only one of your first twenty field goals tends to doom a team. (And Georgetown shot worse in the second half than the first!) The Hoyas shot 17% on the night, making Baylor look like a team of snipers in the process.
Shut down Griner, and you shut down Baylor.
Head coach Kim Mulkey has staked the success of the team on the Manute Bol of women's basketball, and it's a little late for Baylor to change their stripes. They will try to make Griner the focus of the game because they have to. A part of the problem is that much of the Baylor team is very young and Griner is not the only freshman playing significant minutes, but the rest of the problem is that the team is not prepared to share the load.
Earlier this year, I could have seen a good Baylor effort getting the best of Tennessee. Now, I really can't see Baylor winning this game without a surprising (and, quite frankly, out-of-character) performance by somebody - anybody - not named Brittney Griner. Tennessee just has too many weapons on the floor to suffer a similar fate.