Coaches are almost always gracious when talking about your opponents. The loser gives credit to the victor while the game-winner always credits the team they just beat as being a tough opponent.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey was no different after the Bears notched their 21st victory and best start in program history.
Mulkey talked about the Oklahoma State Cowgirls' improvement since the last time they played in Waco. She said the young Cowgirls were getting better and that you can never overlook a Big 12 opponent.
The Bears aren’t overlooking anyone and every night work to earn and retain their first place standing in the nation. Baylor beats teams by an average of over 30 points a night. The Bears have only played two contests this season decided by under 10 points, a 1-point loss to Connecticut and a 3-point win at Texas A&M. They run away with games due in part to hitting a league-leading 47.7 percent of their shot attempts and scoring over 82 points a game. They lead the league with a +10.7 rebound margin. But it’s not just offensive firepower that the Bears possess.
The swarming defense, anchored in the middle by the intimidating 6'8" frame of shot blocker Brittney Griner extraordinaire. The Bears are tops in the nation in field-goal defense. Opponents – even very good opponents – shoot scared and only connect on 31.4 of their shots.
"Every tape you watch on Baylor, you see very good teams – I won’t say who, but one of their latest games I saw a very good shooting team shoot six air balls in the first 10 minutes," Oklahoma State head coach Kurt Budke said. "That’s what they do to you."
I’m fairly certain the "who" that Budke saw on the tape was a top-tier team in the Big 12 Conference. That lost by 22 to the Bears.
But Baylor is more than just intimidating. Baylor is becoming more well-rounded, involving everyone in their game plan from preseason all-Big 12 players Odyssey Sims and Melissa Jones to post player Brooklyn Pope and guard Kimetria Hayden to the team’s newcomer and one of the bigger game surprises to me, Destiny Williams.
Williams, a transfer from Illinois, joined the squad at the semester and is well-past the Bears' lone defeat on the season to UConn. In her 11 games she’s already averaging double-digit points and providing a much-needed alternative for the Baylor offense.
"(Iowa State head coach) Bill Fennelly told me that he had her in junior worlds or whatever they played this summer, and he said she’s an all-Big 12 performer on any team," Budke said. "She’s powerful, she’s strong, she’s got a nice touch from 15’ on in. That girl is really, really talented and nobody really knows about her. You saw today how good she can be."
Against the Cowgirls, Williams tossed in 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting and was a perfect 5-for-5 from the line. She also added an assist, a block and two steals to her stat line. And she’s still learning how she fits in on the court.
"I give all credit to the team and to BG. Because of BG I’m getting this many wide open shots and the guards were giving me the ball at the right times," Williams said after her new collegiate high. "I’m knocking the shots down, but it’s all because of the team. Two good back-to-back games is because of my teammates passing me the ball and BG. They’re collapsing on BG and leaving me wide open at the top. I’m still learning each and every day, in practice and during these games, I still have a lot to learn but I have my teammates to help me through each game and the coaching staff. So each game is going to get better."
So, of course, there’s Griner.
While I think there is still a lot the sophomore can improve on – namely rebounding, ball handling and overall strength – you can’t deny she is skilled on the court. Griner is averaging over 22 points a game and swats away four shots a night. Against Southeastern Louisiana this season she even netted a triple-double in a not-so-obvious way with 28 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks.
A lot of teams have one anchor player and how she goes, the team appears to go. Baylor is not one of these. Griner was in early foul trouble only playing 11 minutes and scoring four points in the first half at OSU. But Baylor didn’t seem to miss her all that much. Rather than keeping the game close, Baylor extended the lead to 20 points at halftime before cruising to a 27-point win. This team doesn’t rely on only their big name, they rely on every name that dots the roster.
And Budke didn’t mince words when talking about just how good the Bears are, or how far he expects them to go this season.
"Well that’s obviously – obviously – a great team. I picked them from day one to win the national championship and they’ve done nothing to change my mind," Budke said. "I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to have a chance to compete against the great Connecticut teams with Taurasi and the great Tennessee teams with Catchings and those people, and this team is right there with them.
"They’ve got an unbelievably dominant force in the middle and their role players are just getting better and better. And I mean when they make shots like that from the perimeter, I’m not sure what the answer is to beat these people. But if they stay healthy, I think Baylor’s on their way."