What Texas A&M Proved Against Baylor: Who should join the Big Three as Final Four favorites?

In her summary of last night's game, ESPN's Mechelle Voepel wrote, "The question will be: What else can Texas A&M do to beat Baylor?"

With there being plenty of Big 12 season left to play and the potential for one more meeting between these two teams, that's certainly a good question to ask.

And being up by 9 points with ten minutes left in the game it would seem that we got the beginnings of an answer.

They came out and established their style of play early by forcing Baylor into turning the ball over on about a third of their first half possessions, dominating the offensive boards by a margin of 50% to 37% in the first half, and holding Brittney Griner to three points in the first half.

And then what appeared to happen was, well, Brittney Griner happened and they ended up losing 67-58.

But as the top-ranked team in the nation right now, we already knew that Baylor was good.

The real statement made in this game might have been by Texas A&M.

TAMU statistical MVP: Tyra White's fearlessness carries the Aggies

Play-by-play commentator Dave O'Brien mentioned that Texas A&M Aggies coach Gary Blair just wanted to be there at the end with the #1 Baylor Lady Bears and see what happens.

And in between outbursts from Griner and Sims, Tyra White was a significant reason why the Aggies were in fact "there" at the end of the game.

While her career-high 29-point performance has rightly drawn attention, the way she got it was more impressive.

Tyra White attacked the rim as though she considered Griner to be some normal defender instead of an athletic 6-foot-8 shot blocker that everybody says is changing the face of women's basketball. As a result she finished with a team-high 62.5% free throw rate going 8-for-10 from the line. Taking into account that only two other TAMU players got to the line at all (2 attempts each) and TAMU's 20% free throw rate is about average for Baylor opponents, White's fearlessness in attacking the basket is noteworthy: most Baylor opponents still fear going to the rim hard against Griner.

So the fact that TAMU was right there and couldn't capitalize on White's courageous performance has to be disappointing.

"We didn't capitalize, we didn't hit shots when we needed to and we turned the ball over unforced," TAMU guard Sydney Carter was quoted as saying on the Baylor website. "It was just bad offense on our part. We didn't capitalize at all and we didn't hit shots that we needed to. And we weren't stopping them on defense."

Nevertheless, just in hanging with Baylor, it's time to talk about where Texas A&M stands among Final Four contenders.

Who will join the Big Three in the Final Four?

In last week's Capital One Cup mid-season review, I noted the conventional wisdom that there's a consensus Big Three - Baylor along with the Connecticut Huskies and Stanford Cardinal - and then pretty much everyone else.

And while people have talked about Tennessee as a fourth contender and it has been accepted as common sense that the Lady Vols' RPI (#3 ahead of Baylor entering last night) will earn them the fourth number one seed it's not actually that clear that they'll be the lucky team to earn a trip to the Final Four.

David Hooper of SBN's Tennessee blog Rocky Top Talk has made this point on numerous occasions.

Tennessee Lady Vols: Not Yet Ready For A National Title - Rocky Top Talk
I'm being critical because the team is talented enough to go as far as they want. But they, like all of us, are creatures of the habits they develop; if they play this on/off game against teams that can't find a win in the SEC, they'll lapse into it against the other top-5 teams during the NCAA tournament. (Heck, they already did against Georgetown.) 40-minute focus does not come to those who don't practice it, and this team chooses to practice it only about half of the time. Against Mississippi State, they reinforced 20 minutes of careless and 20 minutes of focus. There are two tournament games every weekend; at their rate, they'll play well for one and fall asleep at the wheel for the other. And if they give away a half to a team like Stanford or Baylor (two teams who always come out full force), they won't have a half left to make it up.

I really want to see this team live up to their potential and win it all, but if they don't start preparing their minds for it now, they won't have the focus needed to get there.

More specifically, as good as Tennessee's numbers have been, part of the problem has been turnovers.

To be clear, the Lady Vols do have a positive turnover differential. However, what they don't have is particularly efficient ball handlers, especially without wing Angie Bjorklund healthy. Every other rotation player except Alicia Manning (who averages 15.77 minutes per game) has an assist to turnover ratio under one and even Bjorklund has a negative pure point rating.

In other words, it's not just about a mentality - it's a mentality compounded by the fact that they don't have a ball handler they clearly rely on. That was part of why freshman Lauren Avant's performance at point guard against Vanderbilt was so important - with her running point and fellow freshman Meighan Simmons at the off guard spot, the team was more efficient.

However the reason to belabor this point about Tennessee is that every other Final Four contender is either a) extremely well-balanced in exactly the way Tennessee is not or b) an extremely strong defensive unit capable of exploiting Tennessee's vulnerability.

After last night, that has to start by looking at Texas A&M.

The case for the Aggies as that "fourth team"

Throughout the broadcast, O'Brien and color commentator Doris Burke noted how the Aggies like to push the pace by pressing and creating transition scoring opportunities. The result is that their turnover differential is a rather significant strength and stronger than Tennessee's. But the big difference that allows them to be a little more aggressive offensively is that unlike Tennessee, they have multiple extremely efficient ball handlers.

Not only do six Aggies players have positive assist to turnover ratios and two rotation players had very strong pure point ratings entering the game: Sydney Carter (2.63) and Sydney Colson (8.00). To put that in perspective, Oklahoma Sooners point guard Danielle Robinson had a pure point rating of -1.65 and Gonzaga Bulldogs point guard Courtney Vandersloot - who recently became only the fourth player in history to reach the 1000 career assist mark - has an insane mark of 10.26. Colson has become an elite distributor, Carter is very good this season, and four other players on the roster with positive assist to turnover ratios. They have the personnel to execute their style of play and as they showed last night, when they're not particularly efficient with the ball they have players like White or Danielle Adams who are capable of manufacturing points.

When you compare just the mentality the Aggies played the Lady Bears with vs. that of the Lady Vols, the Aggies ability to remain aggressive and impose their will on the game is something the Lady Vols struggled with against Vanderbilt and Kentucky in addition to Baylor. It's not that Tennessee is incapable it's that they're a mistake prone team that will literally play themselves out of games. Texas A&M is built to stay aggressive and that's what it takes to compete with a team like Baylor.

Other Final Four contenders (in no particular order):

Although the #7 Duke Blue Devils did beat Texas A&M by 2 in Durham, after a blowout loss to UConn, most people are probably counting them out of the Final Four race. Duke's offensive deficiencies showed through very clearly against UConn - they live off their defense and should want to avoid half court play at all costs.

But here's the challenge before passing judgment: how many teams can do to them what UConn did? Realistically, outside of the Big Three teams, it's difficult to imagine any team doing to Duke what the Huskies did. But the number seven ranking behind TAMU is probably appropriate - the Aggies are simply have a better balance of offense and defense that will help them significantly in adapting to competition in a tournament setting. That's not to say Duke can't do it, but after second loss to North Carolina and scare against NC State, perhaps it's time to revisit how good this Duke team is relative to the competition.

The #8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish were also mentioned among the Capital One Cup's top contenders and I'll defer to what Loyola Marymount coach Julie Wilhoit said about them after getting routed at Seattle University's State Farm Holiday Classic.

 

UConn at Notre Dame: What the Fighting Irish's Best Win Means Against The Huskies - Swish Appeal
"UCLA is extremely athletic," said LMU coach Julie Wilhoit, whose team lost to Notre Dame 91-47 on the second day of the tournament. "And I think Notre Dame, they have athleticism within their players, but within their system they're very sharp and crisp. And what they look like - they're just a machine. They just are well-tuned, into each other, and they execute so well together...today, as everybody is preparing for conference, Notre Dame looks like they are really ready."

There are very few teams as balanced or disciplined in what they do as Notre Dame and perhaps more importantly they're not nearly as reliant on one star player as some of the other top contenders are. The only justifiable reason to have them ranked below Duke at this point is that they've lost more games. But those games came against UConn (by less than 30), Baylor, Kentucky and UCLA early in the season. It's sort of hard to make that simplistic an argument against Notre Dame.

So, while we're on the subject of the Bruins' athleticism and beating Notre Dame, UCLA is also an interesting contender.

Charlie Crème has the #9 UCLA Bruins just ahead of Notre Dame for a 2-seed and that makes a lot of sense given that the Bruins beat them in South Bend. But there is no pretense of finesse with the Bruins - coach Nikki Caldwell's team aims to make games ugly with a press that just harasses opponents into making mistakes, even as they make a fair share of their own. While their loss to LSU will look bad and the more recent road loss to Stanford certainly doesn't bode well, a mistake-prone tournament opponent could find themselves in a deep hole against the Bruins.

If there's an argument to put Notre Dame ahead of Duke, then UCLA is no more offensively challenged and might deserve more respect than their getting by the east coast folks who don't see them much. One easy way to prove themselves: this Sunday against Stanford.

Of course, that was also the thinking for the #6 Xavier Musketeers when they went into Maples Pavilion - that they'd get to prove themselves. And unfortunately, they failed to show up. But here's why that loss is far more excusable than UCLA's loss to Stanford or Duke's loss to UConn (or North Carolina): Amber Harris didn't start that game for Xavier because she didn't participate in the previous practice due to concussion symptoms. For those that haven't seen Harris play, she has consistently accounted for more than 20% of the team's statistical production and is arguably talented enough to do more than that on any given day.

By the time she did come in against Stanford, Ta'Shia Phillips was already completely off-kilter from the swarms of double-teams and in scrambling to find something that worked, Xavier's guards just stopped looking inside entirely. Unfortunately, they just never regrouped and they took a bad loss.

What Stanford did expose about Xavier is that they're not deep. But here's the thing about Xavier that we actually saw last season in the tournament: to beat Xavier you have to stop two players over 6'5", one of whom literally has guard skills that make her a WNBA lottery prospect. There aren't many teams in the nation that can accomplish that feat. And a lopsided final score in December won't matter much in March unless it's about revenge.

Aggies advantage...for now...

We could go on and DePaul and Michigan State aren't far behind this pack at all. But what might really make Texas A&M stand out right now is that they are an extremely well-balanced team, with the personnel to fit their style and the capacity to at least stay with one of the Big Three on two occasions. That's more than anyone else can attest to lately. And assuming they handle the rest of their Big 12 schedule, the question might be what else can they do to show that they should be that common sense "fourth team"?

And of course, that could all change as we continue to learn more about all these teams.

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