NCAATHE ROAD TO DENVER
Even if you come up with something creative to simulate playing against 6'8" All-America junior center Brittney Griner, here is the painful truth for opponents of unbeaten Baylor: You can't get close to the real thing. Sure, you might be able to approximate Griner's height—one team rolled a 7-foot mannequin (a.k.a. the Silent Player) onto the court in practice—but then you must also evoke her baseline-to-baseline speed, her 88-inch wingspan, her deft footwork, her exceptional timing, her steadfast resolve and her sure hands. Not to mention the psychological impact of Griner's epic shot blocking, which daunts even stouthearted scorers while inspiring the rest of the Lady Bears to apply intense pressure and gamble in the passing lanes. "It's like in football," says Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson. "Receivers hear the footsteps in the middle of the field before they catch the ball because they know the hit is coming. It's the same thing with Griner on the defensive end."
She's so disruptive that it's even hard for her own team to prepare. Visits to the film room have become almost useless for Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey. "I can't go sit in and say, O.K., here is what they do, because then when they play us, it's two or three on Griner," Mulkey says. "You just prepare for everything you've seen in the past."
And baiting Griner into foul trouble isn't much of an option: She averaged just 2.0 personals this season and has fouled out only once in her career. So how have teams attempted to solve the Griner conundrum? What follows is how five schools prepared for her—and how Griner foiled all that preparation. Baylor junior forward Destiny Williams offers the only real solution: "I'd rather play with her than against her."
"THEY ARE ONE OF THE BEST I'VE EVER SEEN," SAYS GOESTENKORS OF THE LADY BEARS. "PLAYERS EMBRACE AND UNDERSTAND THEIR ROLES."
GRINER BY THE NUMBERS
• Career blocks, best in Big 12 history and 95 shy of the Division I record set by Louella Tomlinson of St. Mary's last season. At her career pace of 5.36 per game, Griner will break the mark in 19 games.
• Baylor's record heading into the NCAA Tournament, the best start for a Big 12 team, men's or women's. The Lady Bears are the only undefeated team in the nation.
• NCAA player—male or female—to have more than 2,000 points and 500 blocks. Her 2,289 points rank third on Baylor's career list.
• Three-pointers attempted by Baylor opponents this season (19.3 per game), an average of 3.0 more than teams attempted the season before Griner's arrival in Waco, in 2009--10.
• Opponents who have shot better than 40% from the floor against the Lady Bears in 2011--12. Baylor has not allowed a team to shoot 50% in 209 consecutive games, dating to March 25, 2006.
• Consecutive double-figure-scoring games for Griner. She has had 10 or more points in 104 of 106 games. Her average of 23.3 points leads the Big 12 and is sixth in the country.
• Free throw percentage for Griner over the last 15 games, a considerable improvement from her freshman season when she shot only 68.4% from the line.
• Straight games in which Griner has blocked a shot. Her average of 5.1 in 2011--12 ranks first in the nation.
THE MEMORY OF LAST YEAR'S TITLE-GAME LOSS TO TEXAS A&M HAS DRIVEN THE IRISH, WHILE THE HUSKIES—DESPITE A "DISAPPOINTING" 29--4 SEASON—AREN'T TO BE TAKEN LIGHTLY.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
KIM BARNES-ARICO ST. JOHN'S COACH
"We used brooms to try to simulate Brittney's length and wingspan, and to alter shots and distract our players on the offensive end. On the defensive end we changed our whole scheme and game plan. We had somebody face guard her and put somebody behind her, a kind of triangle and two."
GRINER: 17 POINTS, 13 REBOUNDS, 6 BLOCKS IN A 73--59 WIN
CHRISTINE FLORES MISSOURI SENIOR FORWARD
"If you play in fear against her, the game is over. You kind of alter your shot so you shoot it around her or drive and try to draw the foul on her. It's the mental preparation that you have to endure because there is no other player in the country like her and she's gotten so much better over the last couple of years."
GRINER: 32 POINTS, 14 REBOUNDS, 12 BLOCKS IN A PAIR OF WINS (90--46 AND 71--41)
SHERRI COALE OKLAHOMA COACH
"She can stand at the free throw line and keep you from getting to the lane in any direction. We try to throw the ball to the post. She has to guard the ball, which gives you the opportunity to get some cutters going to the basket."
GRINER: 45 POINTS, 14 REBOUNDS, 15 BLOCKS IN A PAIR OF WINS (89--58 AND 81--54)
ZENAB KEITA YALE SOPHOMORE CENTER
"Our biggest girl is 6'2", so no one tried to simulate Brittney. I think that would have been detrimental. You wanted to make it seem attainable that you could guard her, that it wasn't some crazy feat."
GRINER: 31 POINTS, 10 REBOUNDS, 5 BLOCKS IN A 109--59 WIN
GARY BLAIR TEXAS A&M COACH
"I have a 6'10" practice player named David Benac. He's not as good as Brittney and I tell him that, and I only use him for Baylor. While we don't allow him to block shots, when he extends his hands, he is over eight feet. We have all gotten bigger in the Big 12 because of Griner—to be able to compete."
GRINER: 57 POINTS, 21 REBOUNDS, 13 BLOCKS IN THREE WINS (71--48, 69--62 AND 73--50)
The team to beat is Baylor, but three hungry and battle-tested squads are ready to give Griner & Co. their best shots in Denver
Having coached in four Final Fours and a pair of national championship games in her 20-year career, Gail Goestenkors of Texas has faced her share of superteams. So where does Baylor rank? "They are one of the best I've ever seen," says Goestenkors, whose Longhorns lost twice to the Lady Bears this year. "You have to have a good inside-outside presence, and they have All-Americans in [junior center] Brittney Griner and [sophomore guard] Odyssey Sims. Their other players are tremendously athletic and work their tails off. That's the thing with championship teams: Players embrace and understand their roles, and at Baylor they do."
It will be a major upset if the Lady Bears (34--0) fail to win the NCAA final in Denver on April 3. The 6'8" Griner, who averages 23.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 5.1 blocks, is the favorite for player of the year honors and a near-certain U.S. Olympic team selection. Sims is the nation's best on-ball defender as well as a dependable scorer (14.8 points per game). Junior forwards Destiny Williams and Brooklyn Pope and junior guards Kimetria Hayden and Jordan Madden form a deep and athletic rotation. Baylor can become the seventh team to win a title without a loss, but, says coach Kim Mulkey, "Six games are what matter to us right now. That's what we failed to achieve last year [when the Lady Bears lost to Texas A&M in the regional finals], and it motivates every one of us."
The memory of last year's championship game defeat to A&M has driven Notre Dame (30--3), and especially 5'9" junior point guard Skylar Diggins (17.0 ppg), to win the school's first Big East regular-season title. The Irish are second in the nation in points (79.6), third in field goal percentage (47.3%), and have the two-time Big East defensive player of the year in 6'2" senior forward Devereaux Peters (12.2 points, 9.4 boards per game).
It's indicative of how dominant UConn has been in recent years that its 29--4 record can be seen as disappointing. But after the Huskies beat Notre Dame for their fifth straight Big East tournament title, no team can afford to take them lightly. UConn leads the country in scoring defense (45.7 points per game), and every player in the rotation except 6-foot freshman forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who averages 14.8 points, has Final Four experience. Sophomore 5'7" point guard Bria Hartley is a big-game player—she had 25 points in a 66--61 loss to Baylor on Dec. 18—and if 6'5" sophomore center Stefanie Dolson can play well more consistently (she has as many two-point games as 22-point games), UConn can earn its fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four.
Stanford (31--1) coach Tara VanDerveer is tired of hearing that the Pac-12 conference is down this year. "Our team knows we can play with anyone," she says. "We just want the chance." Skeptics say that a soft nonconference schedule makes the Cardinal vulnerable in the Big Dance, but 6'2" senior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike (21.8 ppg and 10.5 rpg) is a tournament-tested player, having led Stanford to three consecutive Final Fours. She'll get help from a pair of sophomores—6'3" forward Chiney Ogwumike, her sister and the conference's defensive player of the year (15.8 ppg and 10.3 rpg), and 5'11" shooting guard Toni Kokenis (9.5 ppg). Depth at guard remains this team's biggest question mark. Both freshman Amber Orrange and senior Lindy La Rocque (each has a 1.74 assist-to-turnover ratio) have been unsteady.
Photographs by GREG NELSON
LEAN ON ME Griner casts a long shadow in the Big 12, scoring 29.6% of the Lady Bears' points, grabbing 20.5% of their boards and collecting 64.8% of their blocks.
Photographs by GREG NELSON
IT'S EASY BEING GREEN Griner's singular talents and the team's perimeter depth will keep Baylor dancing all the way to Denver.
PORTER BINKS (SIMS)
MILE-HIGH VALUE The quartet of (clockwise from top left) Sims, Diggins, Dolson and Ogwumike has a combined five Final Four appearances.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (DIGGINS)
[See caption above]
FRANK VICTORES/US PRESSWIRE (OGWUMIKE)
[See caption above]
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (DOLSON)
[See caption above]
Photograph by MICHAEL PIMENTEL/STANFORDPHOTO.COM
NNONSTOP Nnemkadi Ogwumike (middle), the Pac-12 player of the year, will try to reach her fourth straight Final Four and lead Stanford to its first national championship in 20 years.
Photograph by DAMIAN STROHMEYER
FINAL FOURTH? Notre Dame swept UConn in the regular season behind the defense and rebounding of Peters (14) before the Huskies took the Big East tournament final; another meeting in Denver would not come as a surprise.
Photograph by GREG NELSON
EPIC PERFORMER The bigger the stage, the better Sims (0) plays: The sophomore point guard averaged 20.8 points in Baylor's nine matchups against ranked opponents.