December 7, 2020
Brutal day in the Big 12: Takeaways from Baylor’s loss to Arkansas
Foul trouble was the final nail in Baylor’s coffin
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It’s about time someone said it: Baylor women’s basketball looks vulnerable. After Sunday’s 83-78 loss to No. 16 Arkansas, head coach Kim Mulkey acknowledged that, as hard as her team works, there is no substitute for experience.
“You put them at the line 39 times, you had 22 turnovers, and you only lost by five with a bunch of inexperienced players,” Mulkey said. “We played hard, you had a chance to win the game. We just didn’t do it.”
Mulkey, a winner of 10 straight Big 12 championships, is still a better coach than at least 345 of her peers in Division I women’s basketball. History tells us that Baylor will figure it out. And luckily for the Lady Bears, the rest of the Big 12 is sputtering, with No. 23 Iowa State and No. 25 Texas also dropping games on Sunday. But Baylor’s goal is to repeat as the national champion, and this squad does not look ready for the task.
As Mulkey said, Baylor committed 22 turnovers on Sunday night. If that seems uncharacteristic, it was — Baylor had the second-fewest turnovers in the Big 12 last year (13.3), and it’s tied for the highest figure from a Lady Bear team since 2016. But just because it’s an outlier doesn’t mean there isn’t a future cause for concern.
It’s not as if the team lacks playmakers. Rather, spacing is Baylor’s true Achilles heel. While cluttered lanes can create issues for teams that like to drive in the paint, Baylor’s ice-cold shooting closes off windows for entry passes when multiple defenders pack the paint.
The Lady Bears offense has never relied on perimeter shooting, but even a semblance of spacing can help. Averaging two 3-pointers per game on 16.2% shooting won’t do the trick. Baylor’s success is predicated on its ability to set up the halfcourt offense and then get the ball inside, and the team hasn’t found that rhythm this year with such a cluttered offense. Come tournament time, a quick top-25 team like Arkansas will capitalize on those mistakes.
“You can’t turn the ball over like that on the road,” Mulkey said. “Just lazy passing, inexperienced passing. 24 assists to 22 turnovers… you’re not going to beat many teams [like that], even if they don’t go to the foul line.”
Mulkey has harped on her team’s lack of experience as a partial cause for early struggles and for good reason. Three of Baylor’s key rotation players from last season — Lauren Cox, Te’a Cooper, and Juicy Landrum — left for the WNBA Draft.
“We’ve got a long way to go, we have new players on the floor, players are playing new roles,” Mulkey said on Dec. 5. “We have inexperience all over the floor with the exception of NaLyssa Smith and DiDi [Richards].”
Foul trouble was the final nail in Baylor’s coffin. Before the game, Mulkey said her team had to prevent Arkansas from getting to the free-throw line if it stood a chance to win. The Razorbacks entered Sunday’s contest with 32.5 attempts per game, good for sixth in the nation. They attempted 39 free throws, the most from a Baylor opponent since at least the 2015-16 season, per Her Hoop Stats.
If Baylor wants to compete with an inexperienced roster, its veterans have to be out on the court. Egbo, arguably the Lady Bears’ most impressive player through its first two games, played just 10 minutes with early foul trouble. DiJonai Carrington also fouled out late, as did freshman guard Sarah Andrews.
Baylor isn’t going to commit 30 fouls in every game. But opponents that are less talented than Baylor, and in the past have been outcoached by Mulkey, could upset the Lady Bears if they’re able to force Egbo and others into foul trouble.
What is working
Baylor runs its offense through the post, and lest we forget, still trots out Preseason Player of the Year NaLyssa Smith, reigning Sixth Woman of the Year Queen Egbo, and impressive freshman Hannah Gusters at those spots. Even when the defense collapses on Baylor’s bigs, Smith and Egbo are just such great interior scorers that they create something.
Smith does not look like the Big 12 Player of the Year — a betting man would lean toward Iowa State junior Ashley Joens — but it’s still early in the season and she started to find her rhythm in the second half against the Razorbacks.
Baylor kept this game close because of its effort on the offensive glass and at the defensive end. The defense is still elite, and the Lady Bears brought 2020 Defensive Player of the Year Richards back much sooner than expected. She led the team in minutes on Sunday.
Richards is the heart of this team on both ends of the floor, and Baylor is comfortable leaving the ball in Richard’s hands: she draws plenty of attention running around the court despite being a pass-first player with zero career 3-pointers. Despite a terrifying injury in late October, she played fearless as ever on defense and even drew two late charges that kept Baylor in the game.
These are hard-nosed players, and if there’s one team in the conference that won’t go down without a fight, it’s Baylor. Richards, Egbo, Smith, Trinity Oliver, and most everyone on this squad is gritty and determined.
On offense, Carrington finally turned her game around, leading the team in scoring with 24 points on 8-16 shooting. Most importantly, she’s one of the few players that create her own shot on the perimeter — so if Baylor wants to make a deep tournament run, she’ll need to show up every single night, ready to carry that load.
“I’ve needed to step up since I got here, and I think today I finally put that into my head,” Carrington said. “It definitely felt like I needed to step up. It’s a big game. We needed experience, and we needed offense.”
Teams like Arkansas have a bevy of shot creators. The Lady Bears have plenty of talented two-way role players, but they do not have that same luxury outside.
“It’ll be a grind, it won’t be easy, but I think time and playing more games will help us find that,” Mulkey said. “We didn’t have enough poise and composure and experience to win today.”
Other notes around the Big 12
Oklahoma State blew a 15-point third-quarter lead to Alabama this weekend, thanks in part to its six-minute scoring drought in the second half.
Texas Tech lost to Rice University by 19 points on Saturday. It was Rice’s first win over a Power 5 school since 2006.
Last week, Oklahoma had to miss its three games at the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic in South Dakota since it could not meet the player threshold. This weekend, it dropped to 0-2 with a 93-80 loss to Georgia.
Through Dec. 7, among teams with at least two games played, Iowa State’s Ashley Joens leads the nation in scoring with 31.5 points per game.
“If there’s a better player in the country, somebody better call me and tell me,” head coach Bill Fennelly said of Joens after the team’s loss to top-ranked South Carolina. “When you look at what she’s doing against the No. 1 team in the country and the athleticism and defensive intensity of that team — and if you’re honest, she’s kind of doing it on her own. She’s not getting a ton of help.”
Despite an underwhelming performance from Charli Collier, Texas nearly upset Texas A&M on Sunday. Ultimately, the team fell 66-61.
West Virginia is the final undefeated team in the conference after Sunday’s OT win over Tennessee and will face a hungry Baylor team on Thursday.