Dallas Region Primer: Griner, Baylor poised for another Final Four
Looming high above the interstate between Dallas and Waco is an image of Brittney Griner. Baylor's 6-foot-8 center is flexing her muscles with a basketball resting on her arm.
That billboard, meant to provide publicity for Baylor's program, is also a reminder for opponents in the NCAA tournament. If you want to get to Dallas, you're going to have to get past Baylor. That means, getting past Griner, the most dominant player in women's college basketball.
With a wingspan that reaches more than 7 feet, Griner can control the game on both ends. She is the Bears' first option on offense (22.6 ppg) and a shot-blocking machine (4.5 bpg). Those skills were on display in the Big 12 title game during which she set records in points (31) and blocks (seven) against Texas A&M. That doesn't even come close to the number of shots Griner alters.
"I think she's the most dominant player in the world," Oklahoma State coach Kurt Budke said after his team's early-season loss to the Bears. "I think she's changing basketball. If I had to take one player, I don't know how you wouldn't take her. She's not maxed out yet. She's going to continue to get better, which is scary for all of us. Brittney Griner is the difference maker."
Just a sophomore, she's already helped the Bears muscle their way to one Final Four. This season, she led them to the regular season and conference title in the Big 12, a league that sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament. Baylor has already beaten top-seeded Tennessee and a pair of two seeds in Texas A&M and Notre Dame.
The Phoenix have won 23 straight since their only slip of the season, a three-point loss to Marquette. Despite having just one senior on its roster, Green Bay is disciplined and spreads the ball on offense. Julie Wojta, Celeste Hoewisch and Hannah Quilling all dish out more than three assists a game. Holding opponents to 36.6 percent from the field, Green Bay doesn't give up points easily, either.
The Bulldogs have lost four of their last five games and have beaten just one tournament team. It doesn't help that they have a tough first-round matchup with Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders are playing for teammate Tina Stewart, who was stabbed to death on March 2.
These teams know each other well. They've met three times already this season, most recently in Saturday's Big 12 championship game. Despite losing all three matchups, the Aggies have played Baylor as tough as anyone, losing those three games by a total of 15 points. With a Final Four berth on the line, expect another close, physical game.
With Griner drawing so much attention inside, Sims is finding opportunities outside. where she is knocking down 45 percent from three-point range. And the bigger the game, the better Sims does. The Big 12 Freshman of the Tear trails only Griner in production for Baylor with 13.8 points a game. But against ranked teams Sims is averaging 18.3.
Johnson is one of the top scorers in the country, averaging 22 points a game. She's also one of the most accurate, hitting 52 percent from the field. And don't think she's just lighting up the WAC. Johnson averaged a double-double (24.3 ppg, 11.7 rpg) against tournament teams Marquette, Georgia and Houston.
Three years ago, Rutgers had a freshman class that had five McDonald's All-Americans. Two have transferred, but April Sykes, Nikki Speed and Chelsey Lee remain. They have yet to help Rutgers build on its previous successes, though. The Scarlet Knights were bounced in the first round last year and face a tough matchup in Louisiana Tech this year.
That's the percentage of shots opponents are knocking down against Baylor. No team has hit 50 percent since Maryland knocked off Baylor in the Sweet 16 before winning the 2006 championship.
The table is set nicely for the Bears, who host the first two rounds and have just a 90-mile trek to Dallas for the regionals, where they could meet Texas A&M again. All that leads to yet another familiar place -- a return trip to the Final Four. And that, of course, is in Indianapolis, where Baylor won the title in 2005.