Freshman Brittney Griner is pressured by fellow USA Basketball finalist Tina Charles and Caroline Doty at the 2010 Final Four. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Baylor basketballer extraordinaire Brittney Griner is reserved when she talks about her phenomenal skills. She talks with a low and hushed voice and brushes off accolades with an air that she's just ‘doing her job' for the No. 1 ranked Bears.
And that she is.
Griner is averaging 22.9 points (7th in NCAA D1) on 61.7% shooting (2nd in NCAA D1), 9.6 rebounds and a division-best 5.4 blocks per night. Along with an effective supporting cast, she has helped Baylor to an unblemished record through 25 games that includes contests with No. 2 Connecticut and No. 4 Notre Dame.
But when asked about the recent inclusion on the list of finalists for the 2012 United States Olympic team, even Griner gets a smile on her face, albeit a little sheepish.
"I feel like everybody that plays ball that's kind of like the dream," Griner said of the potential to play in the 2012 London Games. "It's the top team, playing for the USA, so (I'm) definitely happy."
Her somewhat tempered response was explained away by Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey.
"She's just a finalist, and she understands that she's a baby, and those guys that are on that list.... you know, Brittney may not make it," Mulkey said realistically of the final cut from 21 to 12. "Those guys are in their 30s, they've been around the international game and she's just now being exposed to it. So she's not trying to not sound appreciative and excited, but she hasn't made it."
Griner's international experience with Team USA is indeed limited, but definitely not nonexistent. In 2011, she was named to the team in August, and competed for the US in the European Tour. She averaged 12.8 points and 7.0 rebounds in five games. Griner, a shot-blocking specialist, swatted nine balls during the tour. She posted a team-high 22 points on 10-of-19 shooting against Ros Casares on Oct. 5, grabbed eight rebounds, picked up three steals and three blocks in 24 minutes. She finished the fall tour with 116 minutes of international experience.
In Mulkey's eyes, Griner is the only collegiate player on the list of 21 because she's the only one that deserves to be included. Indeed, if Griner does make the final roster, it will be a rarity in the modern era. She'll be the first collegian to compete in the Olympics for the USA women's team since 1988 when Maryland's Vicky Bullett and Tennessee's Brigette Gordon won the gold medal in Seoul. Griner would be the first player affiliated with Baylor to compete for the US Olympic team. Fellow BU alumni Sophia Young, who gained her US citizenship on Sept. 2, 2011, is also vying for a spot on the final roster.
The international game is one that suits Griner's skills and abilities, so say the coach and the player. Mulkey think that the vast differences in the court, the players and the officials have helped Brittney grow her game at the collegiate level as well.
"It's a different animal in the international game and not just the wider lane; the physical play, the officiating is different and it's an adjustment period," Mulkey said. "But it's helped Brittney become a more physical, more dominant force maybe.
"But I do think this, and she can answer, I think the international game allows her the ability to get seen more on a one-on-one situation. College, it's so congested in there with two and three players guarding her that maybe the international scene gives her the freedom to be a basketball player around that rim. She doesn't get to do that very much in the college game."
Griner added with a wide grin, "I love it. I saw a lot of one-on-one ... and you can go over the back and you can snag it off of the rim too - I loved it."
Just imagine watching a more physical, more free player around the rim helping in the middle during the Olympics. Now the choice is that of Geno Auriemma to see if we'll get that opportunity this summer.
In the teleconference announcing the 21 finalists on Feb. 13, Auriemma commented on just what Mulkey said - Brittney's experience in the international game might be a factor on her selection.
"The thing that's going to be a major issue is the lack of international experience that Brittney has," Auriemma said. "So that's going to take some getting used to."
He also addressed her youth - by recalling youth of others and the impact they made despite being relative newcomers to international competition.
"Well, you know, young is just an age," Auriemma said before recalling, "I remember when Sue and Diana and Swin were coming out of college, and they went and played in Athens, and they were really young. And I remember the impact that they had, as did Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings.
"Being young is an age; it's a number."
Auriemma is fully aware of the potential impact including Griner on the final roster would have for the team in their quest to five-peat. An unparalleled advantage, in his eyes.
"She brings an element to any team that is impossible to find. You don't just get players that are game changers like that.
"I don't think anybody else in the world has anybody like Brittney Griner."