March 11, 2021 

Big 12 tournament preview: Baylor the favorite

But plenty to watch each day, from Lauren Heard to Ayoka Lee

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The Bracket

Bye team #1: What to expect from top-seeded Baylor: Heavy title favorites

What are Baylor’s expectations?
The Lady Bears aren’t just heavy favorites to bring home their third straight conference tournament championship — they have their eyes are set on a national championship.

How does Baylor reach its apex?
There is little doubt that Baylor will walk out of the weekend with a conference title. The question is whether any team will give the Lady Bears cause for concern.

It starts on the block. The Big 12 has had plenty of post players who have made national news this year: Esmery Martinez, Charli Collier, and Natasha Mack, to name a few. And yet, none of them have outmatched Queen Egbo and NaLyssa Smith.

Baylor’s guard rotation, which was suspect to enter the season, is clicking at the right time and shows no sign of letting up. Dijonai Carrington, Moon Ursin, and DiDi Richards are everywhere on the court. Ursin is a ferocious two-way assassin and probably the best 5’6 team defender in the country. Richards, who couldn’t walk just weeks before the season, is one of the best playmakers in the world and has garnered apt recognition as a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which is awarded to the nation’s top point guard. For those of you unfamiliar with her past — this is her first year at the one. She’s also the reigning national Defensive Player of the Year and hasn’t lost a step on that end of the court. And Carrington, the team’s best shooter (read as: the only shooter in the rotation) has ice in her veins. This team is a force.

As it does every year, Baylor rebounds, passes, and defends better than every team in the nation. Baylor’s rebounding margin of +19.3 isn’t just the best in the Big 12 — it’s the best of any Division I team by a wide margin.

If you had to sum up the Lady Bears, it’s that they play as a unit, and they’re only getting better. Baylor is going to be a near-impossible out in March.

DiDi Richards and NaLyssa Smith on March 8 against West Virginia. (Photo: Rod Aydelotte Waco Tribune-Hearald)

What’s the blueprint for stopping the Lady Bears?
There isn’t one, really, but there are ways to make them sweat. Teams that rain 3-pointers down at a high clip have overperformed expectations against the Lady Bears, but their defense is a cohesive unit that doesn’t give an inch on closeouts.

Earlier in the year, teams would goad Smith and Egbo into picking up quick fouls. But both posts have cleaned up their defensive tendencies, and refs are more hesitant to blow the whistle in March. If that course is reversed, it could spell trouble.

The only program that has given Baylor a real run for its money is Iowa State. Not only is Iowa State the only Big 12 team to defeat Baylor: no other conference opponent has even gotten within six points. In its lone loss, Baylor was coming off a two-week coronavirus pause and didn’t have Carrington in the rotation. That isn’t the case now.

Baylor is not going to beat itself. A team in the 2-5 range will need to have its best game of the season to upset the Lady Bears — and even that still might not be enough.

During the tournament, do yourself a favor and watch NaLyssa Smith. The Next’s Nia Sapp had a great breakdown on Smith’s game, which I highly encourage you to watch.

The other bye team: The Mountaineers’ top five is deadly, but can they break a cold spell?

The Mountaineers won 11 straight games from Dec. 20, 2020, to Feb. 10, 2021. That isn’t something to take lightly… but they’re in a cold spell now. These are their final scores since the win streak ended:

1-point loss to 9-9 Oklahoma
3-point win over 4-14 TCU
17-point loss to Iowa State
3-point win over 3-15 Kansas
8-point win over 3-15 KState
23-point loss to Baylor

Now for the positives: West Virginia’s starting five was sculpted by the basketball gods. They have their lead creator in Kysre Gondrezick; the rebounding phenom and inside presence in Esmery Martinez; a defensive stalwart in Kari Niblack; a sparkplug scorer in Madisen Smith; and a do-everything guard in Kirsten Deans. Smith will miss the tournament with the tournament, but Jayla Hemingway has filled in nicely.

When opposing defenses want to take Gondrezick away, they’re haphazardly giving other Mountaineers space to cook. Fording one of West Virginia’s starters into foul trouble opens a window, however. The top five can go toe-to-toe with the eight teams below them in the standings. Beyond that, they’re shallow.

West Virginia has a first-round bye, so it likely won’t face a real challenge until the semifinal round against the winner of Oklahoma-Oklahoma State. That gives head coach Mike Carey a little room to breathe and prepare. But the tailspin at the end of the season has put his squad in a precarious spot.

Make sure you keep an eye on Gondrezick. She’s one of the best shot creators in college basketball, and surely one of the most fearless. West Virginia will feed her the ball.

Lexi Gordon takes a shot against Kansas State on Feb. 3, 2021 (Photo: Texas Tech Athletics)

Day 1 matchup to watch: No. 7 Texas Tech vs No. 10 Kansas State

Why you should tune in: This is the best shot you’ll have to see two players on opposing teams drop 30+ points.

Can Kansas State do enough on the interior?
On the Kansas State side, we find Ayoka Lee, a sophomore big who is putting forth a Herculean effort for the Wildcats. At 6’6 she is one of the NCAA’s most overpowering forces on the low post, and Kansas State isn’t afraid to feed her the ball. Her two-person game with Christianna Carr is more than enough to make Texas Tech stumble. These teams are competing for a chance to play West Virginia in the quarterfinals — and each has enough in the tank to at least make that game competitive. The same can’t be said for Baylor’s future opponent from the 8-9 matchup.

Who will Texas Tech turn to?
Vivian Gray and Lexi Gordon are a formidable backcourt tandem to match Lee’s interior presence, but that doesn’t change the fact that they fell to the Wildcats just two weeks ago. And the Lady Raiders probably won’t have Naje Murray go 8-11 from deep again, as she did in that contest.

Gray and Gordon are more than capable of taking Kansas State’s guards off-the-dribble. Teams are typically wary of attacking the rim with Lee looming, but Wildcat opponents are shooting 53.4% from within 10 feet over the past 10 games. Having two guards who can knocks shots down at all three levels — with Gordon preferring the 3-pointer, and Gray more apt to attack the paint — will suit Texas Tech well. In a win-or-go-home environment, their experience and moxie will matter that much more.

Also on Day 1: No. 8 TCU vs No. 9 Kansas

Why you should tune in: A veteran looking for her collegiate swan song against hungry young gunners.

Is this the last college game Lauren Heard plays?
TCU senior guard Lauren Heard is not to be messed with. As a junior, Heard led TCU to a second-place finish in the conference. But the team lost a boatload of seniors this summer, leaving her to carry a young and depleted roster.

Her 32.5 percent usage rate is second in the Big 12, just behind Oklahoma’s Madi Williams, and that number could creep to the 40 percent mark in an elimination game. Heard is also catching fire at the right time — she’s averaging 28.2 points over the past five games, making her one of the scariest opponents heading into tournament week — she’s a threat on or off-the-ball and will be a lot for Kansas to handle. Heard is a talented scorer who could be playing her last collegiate basketball game on Thursday. She’s going to want to go out with a bang.

TCU’s secondary creators will also have to step up. Grad forward Michelle Berry is the second-leading scorer (9.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and hasn’t broken 15 points this season. Junior forward Yummy Morris hasn’t broken 10 points in 12 games. Sophomore guard Tavy Diggs has had the hot hand recently — look for her to be in attack mode all game.

Can the Jayhawks young squad put four solid quarters together?

Kansas has lost eight straight, 12 of its last 13, and is 0-10 on the road. That doesn’t mean the Jayhawks can’t pull out a win in round one, but TCU is certainly favored.

Sophomore guard Holly Kersgieter has been waiting for her moment to shine all season. The young guard has improved nearly every facet of her game this season and is a capable primary option for the Jayhawks. But Kansas doesn’t have a ball-dominant scorer like TCU — its key to success comes from their depth. Tina Stephens, Zakiyah Franklin and Ioanna Chatzileonti are all weapons to watch on the offensive side of the ball.

It’s the defense that will get Kansas in trouble. While the Jayhawks can hold their own in the paint, teams are lighting them up from the perimeter and midrange — places where TCU knows how to cook. Whoever advances in this game will face an impossible task in Baylor. This is game is their championship.

Charli Collier faces off against three Iowa State defenders on Jan. 23, 2021. (Photo: Luke Lu / Iowa State Athletics)

Day 2 matchup to watch: No. 4 Iowa State vs No. 5 Texas

Why you should tune in: The most exciting offense in the Big 12 meets its Kryptonite for the third time this year.

What version of Charli Collier are we getting? It likely depends on guard play.
This will be one of the last games that WNBA teams have to scout Charli Collier. The junior big declared for the 2021 WNBA Draft Sunday, and is widely projected to go in the top 3 — many have tabbed her first overall. Against Iowa State, she’ll have a favorable head-to-head matchup with the Cyclones posts. Though Iowa State forward Kristin Scott can hold her own on the defensive end, Collier has a substantial size advantage and has the lower body strength to power through. In their last matchup, Collier went for 22 points and 19 rebounds, so the Cyclones will have to do more than swarm Collier on the block — they’ll have to trust Scott to make her uncomfortable.

It’s odd, but the most important thing for Texas might be whether or not the guards can deliver an entry pass to their star center. Collier certainly isn’t a traditional big, but she’s isn’t going to bring the ball up and initiate her own offense. When she touches the ball, good things happen — teams have and will continue to do everything in their power to prevent that from happening. If the Texas guards can make those passes and hit catch-and-shoot opportunities, Iowa State is in trouble. Texas continues to play more cohesive defense, but their shooting numbers have dipped. Can they put a couple of hot shooting nights together and make things interesting?

Iowa State will make it a fun game, but can it win?
Iowa State has a top-5 prospect of its own in junior wing Ashley Joens, though she doesn’t become draft-eligible until 2022. Joens has scored 20+ points in seven straight contests, and is one of the best bailout shot creators in the NCAA. In her two games against the Longhorns, Joens is averaging 18 points per game, a step below her season average of 23.4. Joens gets to the line more than almost anyone in the nation, and the Longhorns send their opponents to the line more than any team in the conference. There’s no doubt that head coach Vic Schaefer is prepping his bigs not to foul.

But the Cyclones are more than just a Joens show. All season, Iowa State’s freshmen have been prepared for the limelight, and they’ll have a chance to show that on a national stage Friday. The four freshmen, led by guard Lexi Donarski, combine for 31.9 points and 8.9 assists per game. They do more than make the Cyclones dangerous for three more years — they’re contributing right now.

Also on Day 2: No. 3 Oklahoma St. vs. No. 6 Oklahoma

Why you should tune in: These are the two teams that most-exceeded their expectations — and a win for the Sooners might put them in the NCAA Tournament.

Are the Cowgirls the second-best team in the Big 12?
It isn’t baffling that four teams in the Big 12 spent time in the Top 25 during the regular season — what isn’t clear is how none of them were Oklahoma State, arguably the best team not named Baylor.

But everything about the Cowgirls is understated. They were picked to finish eighth in the conference. Their best player was playing JUCO two years ago. Their second-best player averaged 6.8 points per game last season. Their best player from last season is a grad transfer at Texas Tech, which finished… seventh in the conference.

The Natasha Mack-Ja’Mee Asberry two-person game is so seamless, and it would serve the Cowgirls well to put the pair in more pick-and-roll opportunities.

Mack is very underrated as a passer and has made countless reads from the low post in the past month. While her assist numbers don’t jump out, the film tells a very different story. She knows her own game. She can hit a one-legged fade and spin move, or she can find open shooters on the perimeter. The Cowgirls won’t kill you from deep, but they’ll hit open shots and take care of the ball.

Freshman Lexy Keys, who looked like an emerging star early in conference play and is the Cowgirls best shooter, has fallen off a bit, shooting just 22 percent from the field over her last five games. Thankfully for the Cowgirls, Mack and Asberry are near-locks to combine for 35+ points every night, and the Oklahoma State defense is one of the stingiest in the nation.

The rebounding figures have floundered in recent weeks but luckily for the Cowgirls, that isn’t a strength of their opponent, who ranks last in the Big 12 in rebounding margin. Their offense is created by their defense and rebounding. Lauren Fields is a good defender who can slow down Madi Williams and Taylor Robertson.

How on earth did the Sooners win nine games in the Big 12? And do they have enough to steal a game from their cross-state rival?

Oklahoma has a shallow rotation with a lot of heart. Injuries and pauses have plagued the Sooners and it showed early on in this season. Then it went 6-2, including wins over Iowa State, West Virginia and Texas. There might not be a team with more on the line on Day 2: a win might punch the Sooners ticket to the Big Dance. A loss would probably keep them out.

It is honestly incredible that the Sooners are a bubble team right now. They have seven players in their rotation and the tallest player in their starting lineup, Madi Williams, stands at just 6’0. That makes Natasha Mack a really tough matchup on both ends of the court — expect the Sooners to run all around the perimeter Friday. As the nation’s best marksman, Taylor Robertson could shoot Oklahoma into the game. But Mack could take them out.

Big 12 Awards

Player of the Year: NaLyssa Smith, Baylor, Forward
Coach of the Year: Jim Littell, Oklahoma State
Defensive Player of the Year: Natasha Mack, Oklahoma State, Forward
Freshman of the Year: Lexi Donarski, Iowa State, Guard
Sixth Woman of the Year: Dijonai Carrington, Baylor, Guard
Newcomer of the Year: Dijonai Carrington, Baylor, Guard

All-Big 12 First Team:
NaLyssa Smith,
Baylor, Forward **
Ashley Joens, Iowa State, Guard/Forward **
Ayoka Lee, Kansas State, Center
Madi Williams, Oklahoma, Guard/Forward **
Natasha Mack, Oklahoma State, Forward **
Lauren Heard, TCU, Guard
Charli Collier, Texas, Forward/Center**
Vivian Gray, Texas Tech, Guard
Kysre Gondrezick, West Virginia, Guard **
Esmery Martinez, West Virginia, Forward

** Unanimous First Team selection

All-Big 12 Second Team:

DiDi Richards, Baylor, Guard
Moon Ursin, Baylor, Guard
Kristin Scott, Iowa State, Forward/Center
Taylor Robertson, Oklahoma, Guard
Ja’Mee Asberry, Oklahoma State, Guard

Honorable Mentions: DiJonai Carrington (Baylor), Queen Egbo (Baylor), Holly Kersgieter (Kansas), Christianna Carr (Kansas State), JoAnne Allen-Taylor (Texas), Kyra Lambert (Texas), Celeste Taylor (Texas), Kirsten Deans (West Virginia), Kari Niblack (West Virginia).

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream and Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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