February 4, 2021
Big 12 Notebook: Baylor’s vengeance, Cowgirls freshmen to watch down the stretch, and award predictions
Baylor comes one step closer to locking up the conference
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Baylor will not fall
Was Baylor ever really going to lose the Big 12?
In Sunday’s contest against Iowa State, it appeared as if the question’s metaphorical door was still ajar. The Lady Bears entered the final frame with just a one-point lead over the Cyclones. But NaLyssa Smith and the rest of the squad took over with a monstrous fourth quarter, crashing the boards and sealing an 85-77 win.
Emerging for the Lady Bears is senior guard Moon Ursin, who is averaging 14.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 4.4 assists in conference play. She also pulled down 15 rebounds on Sunday — Ursin, for the unacquainted, is 5’6.
While her skill comes on both ends of the court, Ursin’s offense has taken the next step whenever (and wherever) Baylor needs it. Ursin paints the entire shot chart, with a tight handle and a distinct ability to get to her spots. Her mastery of the midrange has been particularly important for a Lady Bears team that operates largely within 10 feet of the basket.
She’s certainly gained the confidence of head coach Kim Mulkey, who is now playing Ursin about twice as many minutes as she did last season.
“We emphasize, we’ve got to be a team that’s better offensive rebounding,” Mulkey said. “And for that reason, because Moon can leap out of the gym at her size, we need to take advantage of that she has explosive jumping ability.”
“It’s unbelievable,” NaLyssa Smith added. “I mean, you see her size, so I mean just getting 15 boards you would think that’s post numbers. Moon is real active, and she has the will to win too, so she knows what she has to do.”
Together, Ursin and senior guards DiDi Richards and DiJonai Carrington have solidified their spots in the rotation and have created a more complex Baylor offense.
Of course, nothing was guaranteed for this trio. Ursin and Richards were part of a scary collision mere weeks before the season started, and Richards’ recovery time was about as fast as she could have hoped for. Carrington, meanwhile, missed the last month of basketball following COVID protocols but it appears that she has returned to her dominant self after the weekend’s win.
“Shooters matter,” Mulkey said of Carrington’s return. “And when you play a team that plays you sagging man-to-man … it matters, make some of those shots and it’s not as congested in there.”
Carrington is a high-octane defensive player too, snagging three steals per game and roaming the perimeter for Baylor. That three-steal figure is tops in the Big 12 — and is more than double the rate she had in her career at Stanford. Her presence creates far more than turnovers, though. Mulkey said the team is better defensively when it only has one post player in the game, and Carrington’s return allows Baylor to experiment with that.
While the defensive rating is far from a perfect stat, it can confirm what we’re watching on the court. Carrington ranks second in the country with a DRTG of 59.1 — which means that, for every 100 individual possessions that she individually faces, she allows 59.1 points. That’s low. Carrington is more than a ballhawk — she’s a smart on- and off-ball defender, and is thriving in Mulkey’s aggressive defensive system.
If the trio can stay on the floor through March, Baylor’s ceiling will remain high. Most would bet against the Lady Bears to repeat as national champions, but do they have an outside chance if everyone remains healthy? Absolutely.
Two freshmen flying under the radar at Oklahoma State
Right now, the stats paint Oklahoma State freshman guard Lexy Keys as a dependable, all-around starter for the Cowgirls. But watch her game closely, and you’ll see her ceiling is actually sky-high.
That much was evident in Tuesday’s bout against Kansas when the young guard dropped a season-high 19 points while adding five rebounds, three assists, and two steals on 3-4 shooting from beyond the arc. While the Cowgirls love to have her float around the perimeter, as she is one of the few true marksmen on the roster, the “sharpshooter” label is much too constricting for a player with her skillset.
“Honestly, I know my job is to shoot threes,” Keys said. “I know during a game when I’m in rhythm, I have a good chance of it going in. I haven’t been very confident in my shot lately, so it was good to get my confidence back a little bit. I’ve just been staying after practice and working on it.”
Of course, her prowess on the perimeter has been one of the primary reasons for head coach Jim Littell to keep her on the court. Keys has no hitch in her stroke, and her zippy release will fit in nicely for the Cowgirls in the years to come.
The rest of her offensive game is progressing comfortably, too. While Keys isn’t a true point guard, so-to-speak, she’s a smart playmaker and doesn’t try to force the issue.
What raises her ceiling the most, however, is her agility on the floor. Keys is a quick-twitch athlete, which could come from her experience as a two-sport athlete. It’s not just that her pace is rare for a freshman — it’s that she knows how to control it. The game seems to slow down when the ball is in her hands, and on numerous instances this year, she’s found pockets in the midrange to decelerate and pull-up before defenses can react.
“In the beginning of the season, I kind of just saw myself just as a 3-point shooter and that’s kind of easy to guard sometimes,” Keys said. “So I’ve been trying to mix in some midrange, driving, stuff like that. Make it harder to guard.”
She doesn’t sacrifice much on the defensive end, either. Keys is an above-average defender at her size, thanks in large part to her agility and effort. Even though the Cowgirls don’t task her with the most challenging matchups, she communicates consistently and is quick enough to make up for the occasional ball-watching.
Freshman forward Taylen Collins, meanwhile, completes the second half of this dynamic duo, and her primary focus is on the defensive end, as the young forward is averaging 2.1 steals and 0.7 blocks per game. On offense, she’s putting up 7.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per contest.
The two freshmen are very close with each other.
“We’re together all the time,” Keys said. “The work that she puts in behind the season that kind of goes unnoticed — she brings energy every day.”
Collins isn’t the most versatile scorer, but she can beat you with the ball in her hands and gets it done in the paint. While a bucket outside of 10 feet is rare, she’s efficient and understands how to play within the flow of the offense — in essence, even with her shallow range, she rarely clogs the lane for others.
It’s been well-documented to this point, but the Cowgirls play a very in-your-face defensive style. That’s delivered results and helped them shoot up into the top tier of the Big 12, and Collins plays an important role in that case. While she’s only played 16.9 minutes per game in the Cowgirls’ last two games against Kansas, her value on the court hasn’t dissipated. Looking forward, Collins could stand to bring her fouls down and work on her free-throw shooting in the gym to keep her minutes high.
You won’t see many post players playing big minutes down the stretch, though players in the Hannah Gusters (Baylor) / DeYona Gaston (Texas) / Ioanna Chatzileonti (Kansas) group will have plenty of time to showcase their talents in the years to come. So while Iowa State may draw the most attention with its freshman class — the Cyclones have the most starts by freshmen in the country — the Cowgirls have a talented tandem in their own right, and they appear poised for a late-season run.
Matchup to watch this weekend: Charli Collier and Kysre Gondrezick
Texas and West Virginia will face off this Saturday in Texas. The Mountaineers are red-hot in conference play, and through the past couple of weeks, Longhorns center Charli Collier and Mountaineers guard Gondrezick have played some of the best basketball in the country.
Lest we forget, the Mountaineers beat the Longhorns by 34 points just a month ago. Collier had just 5 points in that contest. Since then, she’s had seven straight double-doubles and is averaging 22 points and 17 rebounds per game.
Collier could continue to feast on West Virginia’s bigs. But West Virginia has a pair of strong defensive bigs in Esmery Martinez and Kari Niblack who slowed her down last time, so she and head coach Vic Schaefer will need to make adjustments.
“I feel like it has a lot to do with me and my maturity,” Collier said of her growth. “It makes it so much easier on the coaches when you have a player that’s competitive and relentless and just dominant on the boards. I pride myself on just being dominant on the boards. I don’t focus too much on the points, that’s going to come.”
Watch the battle on the boards between Martinez and Collier, two of the nation’s best rebounders.
As is well-documented at The Next, the Mountaineers can score from any spot on the court — everyone can do everything with the ball. On the Mountaineers side, there’s a decent chance that Gondrezick will keep up her blazing run of 30-point performances — if her confidence gives us any indication, anyway.
“When I get the ball now, I have absolutely no fear,” Gondrezick said. “Whether that’s creating my own shot or creating for someone else, and I have the green light to do that from both coach Carey and the other girls on the team. They trust me, and I trust them as well.”
A quick aside on Iowa State
Iowa State, meanwhile, is falling fast. The Cyclones are just 2-3 after defeating the Lady Bears three weeks ago, with the two unimpressive wins coming in a 1-point victory against Oklahoma (7th in Big 12) and a 2-point victory over Kansas State (10th in Big 12). Their prior win in Waco makes the Cyclones a virtual lock for the tournament, but this team has work to do. Its best performance in the past five-game stretch was in the loss to Baylor.
Among other issues, offensive rebounding has been a serious challenge for Iowa State.
“Often with rebounding everyone looks at the stats of your interior players, but our guards have to rebound better, and I think that’s the number one thing we have to clean up,” head coach Bill Fennelly said. “We’re not going to be a great rebounding team, our size prevents that. But we’ve got to be better, and if you look at the games where we struggled, that has probably the number one thing that has caused us to not have success.”
Of course, the woes don’t end at rebounding. The shots aren’t falling, the team is turning the ball over more, and opposing offenses are scoring with ease. That isn’t a recipe for success, even when you do have Ashley Joens.
Award predictions with five weeks left
Three of these races are still wide open.
Player of the Year: Ashley Joens, Iowa State
Still in the hunt: NaLyssa Smith (Baylor), Charli Collier (Texas), Kysre Gondrezick (West Virginia), Natasha Mack (Oklahoma State)
Margin: No clear front-runner.
Coach of the Year: Kim Mulkey, Baylor
Still in the hunt: Mike Carey (West Virginia), Jim Littell (Oklahoma State), Vic Schaefer (Texas)
Margin: If another team can steal a game from the Lady Bears, they could probably win the award. That tells you all you need to know about the front-runner.
Defensive Player of the Year: Natasha Mack, Oklahoma State
Still in the hunt: DiDi Richards (Baylor)
Margin: Richards won national DPOY last year, but Mack is averaging 4.2 blocks per game (first in the country), 2.2 steals per game (in the 96th percentile nationally), 9.3 defensive rebounds (third in the country) and is anchoring an aggressive defense that never fouls. This doesn’t take away from anything that Richards is doing on the court. But it’s Mack’s award to lose.
Freshman of the Year: Lexi Donarski, Iowa State
Sixth Woman of the Year: DiJonai Carrington, Baylor
Newcomer of the Year: Vivian Gray, Texas Tech
60 words on Kansas State
Kansas State sophomore center Ayoka Lee put up 37 points and 18 rebounds in a loss to Oklahoma. Kansas State’s last three losses have either come in overtime or by less than one possession. If just a few minor tweaks broke right for the Wildcats, they could be 4-4 right now. That is not the case.
Get her some help.