December 17, 2020
Where do Baylor, West Virginia, and the rest of the Big 12 go from here?
Baylor and Iowa State are trending up, but what about the rest of the conference?
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In her first two Big 12 contests, NaLyssa Smith finally started looking like NaLyssa Smith again. The senior is averaging 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in conference play on 52.6% shooting. With her success, there’s a lot of confidence around the Baylor program that the Lady Bears are starting to figure themselves out.
DiDi Richards has started to live in the midrange (not all drives this year, surprisingly), and her defensive tenacity could earn her yet another Defensive Player of the Year award. DiJonai Carrington is thriving despite a limited opportunity to create inside and will be especially dangerous if she gets hot around tournament time. Moon Ursin has also stepped up her role as a shot creator this season, which the Lady Bears desperately needed on the perimeter.
“I feel like we found our groove, just over time we’re going to keep getting more and more comfortable,” sophomore guard Jordyn Oliver said. “I think it’s only Game 5, like coach always says, so over time we’re just going to keep getting more and more comfortable.”
The biggest challenge in the coming weeks is finding a way to keep Queen Egbo out on the floor. Egbo continues to find herself in foul trouble, with one of the highest foul rates in the country, averaging 3.5 fouls in just 17.9 minutes of play.
Of course, West Virginia earned its first wake-up call in a 65-45 loss to Baylor last week. The Mountaineers were the final undefeated team in the conference, and it looked as if they could remain that way with a tie at the half against the Lady Bears. But even as an atrocious third quarter sealed West Virginia’s fate, not all messages coming out of the Mountaineers camp were negative.
“I don’t think they’re 20 points better than us, no doubt I think we’re right there with them,” head coach Mike Carey said of Baylor after the game. “I told them after the game, if we don’t learn from this, then we’re going to have these types of games. So hopefully our veterans learn from this.”
In particular, this team is going to have to grind consistent performances out of Kysre Gondrezick. While she is one of the most talented players in the Big 12, and she has added a quicker first step this season, her shot selection leaves a little to be desired.
The Baylor game may have been a bit of an outlier — never before has she scored less than nine points on 16 shots — but she followed the game up with a 6-16 shooting performance against a middling James Madison team.
“She’s such a good scorer, and we need her to score, but she’s got to let the game come to her,” Carey said of Gondrezick. “She just can’t force things.”
Iowa State may have fallen out of the top 25 last week, but the inconsistent play is no fault of Ashley Joens. Joens may be the best scorer in the country, and neither her team’s lack of options nor a challenging schedule has seemed to throw her off.
The Cyclones’ challenge thus far seems to be with its inexperience and tough opposition, according to head coach Bill Fennelly. Four of its rotation players are freshmen, with Lexi Donarski’s uber-efficient offensive game and Emily Ryan’s do-everything dexterity leading the way.
“We’re in a process of trying to build our team with a lot of young kids and we played a really hard schedule,” Fennelly said. “The teams that we’ve lost to, South Dakota State and Iowa are undefeated, South Carolina at the time was the No. 1 team in the country, so, you got to make choices and we got to come back out.”
“I think our kids showed signs of having the chance to be a solid team, but we got to coach them better we got to get them in better situations,” he added, speaking of the young players. “We’ve got to do the uncomfortable stuff. And that’s the challenge with a lot of young players is can you do the uncomfortable stuff. And if you can do that, you’ll grow from it.”
What we have seen, and need to see, from the rest of the Big 12
Kansas: The Jayhawks are off to a 1-0 start in conference, thanks to a 74-64 win over a depleted Oklahoma roster. Compared to last season, the Jayhawks’ numbers are up a smidge from nearly every statistical category. Moving forward, they’ll need sophomore Zakiyah Franklin to return to her freshman form, as her point totals have nearly halved.
Kansas State: What gives with the Wildcats? They’re playing slower than almost any other team in the country — a sharp turn from last season. Over 32% of the Wildcats’ shots have come from beyond the arc, the highest in the conference. Baylor, for comparison, attempts just 11.7% of its shots from deep. But Kansas State hits just 25.4% of its 3-pointers. That number has to climb.
Oklahoma: Oklahoma is 1-4, and it isn’t a good 1-4, with double-digit losses to Oklahoma State and the aforementioned Jayhawks. Its leading scorer, Madi Williams, has been out since Dec. 6. Taylor Robertson, widely regarded as the nation’s best shooter, is averaging just 10.6 points per game, down from 19.1 last season.
Oklahoma State: Natasha Mack is still doing Natasha Mack things. Among players with at least three games under their belt, Mack is tied for the most blocked shots per game and is putting up a cool 14.8 points and 10.0 rebounds to go along with her defensive effort. The Cowgirls have to start handling the ball better if they expect to make noise in the conference.
TCU: Though four games TCU is 4-1 thanks to the stellar play of Lauren Heard, who was named a co-Big 12 player of the week this past week. Heard’s splits were ludicrous: 54.2/60/85.7. Looking ahead, the Horned Frogs have got to start protecting the glass, and their lack of frontcourt depth will show against Big 12 competition.
Texas: The Longhorns’ most recent week was uneventful on the court, as they have not played since Dec. 9 due to COVID cancellations. Texas is up to No. 22 in the rankings. While many are anointing Charli Collier as the prospective top pick in the upcoming WNBA Draft, the most interesting name out of Texas right now is freshman DeYona Gaston, who fell in high school rankings after injuries but will be a force in the conference for years to come.
Texas Tech: The Lady Raiders are flailing after losses to Baylor and Rice, and hope to bounce back against TCU on Dec. 19. To do so, they’ll need to keep getting to the line. Despite their lack of success from the field (36.4%), Texas Tech employs an effective foul-drawing, free-throw shooting rotation (75%).