A lot on the line for Aggies, Lady Bears
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Tune in for the present; stick around for the future.
Plenty is on the line in the moment when No. 15 Texas A&M hosts No. 19 Baylor on Monday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET). A pair of teams ranked in the top 10 nationally early in the season now find themselves fighting just to keep up with the pace in the rugged Big 12.
Nebraska's dominance leaves the regular-season conference title all but done and dusted, but both Texas A&M and Baylor -- particularly the former -- are still within range of a top-four finish and the accompanying first-round bye in the Big 12 tournament. Beyond that event in Kansas City, both the Aggies and Lady Bears are playing for seeding in the NCAA tournament, hoping to land spots as one of the top 16 seeds in the bracket.
Both have been slowed by injuries limiting veteran leaders. Baylor's Melissa Jones -- whom coach Kim Mulkey earlier this season said needed to be a household name -- has missed 10 games, including the past six in a row, with a stress condition in her right lower leg. Texas A&M junior point guard Sydney Colson played limited minutes in Saturday's win over Texas but hadn't practiced for two weeks leading up to the game, struggling with a stress reaction of her own, in her left lower leg.
After Monday's tilt, both teams close the regular season by playing two of their final three games against teams behind them in the standings and the other game at home -- against Oklahoma for Texas A&M and against Texas for Baylor. So with a win, momentum would be there for the taking, as the victors head toward postseason play.
But as much as it should have all the intensity of two Lone Star neighbors in a highly-recommended-win game -- if not a mathematically-inaccurate-but-feels-like-a-must-win game -- that's only part of the appeal. This might yet be a game with implications for this season's Final Four, set to take place about three hours down the road in San Antonio. But it's very much a game with Final Four implications for next season in Indianapolis.
On display will be the foundations potentially capable of breaking Connecticut's and Stanford's hold on the top two spots in the rankings -- eventually.
"[Baylor] is going to be so good in years to come, we'd better take our chances now while we can," Aggies coach Gary Blair said Saturday. "We're going to be pretty good, too."
Much of the former promise, of course, revolves around Brittney Griner, Baylor's freshman post who is already the most visible defensive force in the sport; she has as many blocks in conference play as any other entire team in the Big 12. She fell short of her season average in blocking a mere five shots in Baylor's 61-53 win against Texas A&M nearly four weeks ago, but that doesn't include how many mindsets, let alone shots, she altered.
"We were intimidated, even though we shouldn't have been, when we played at Waco," Blair said of the first game, particularly the first half when Baylor jumped to a 17-6 lead. "I mean, we walked in and our kids were missing wide-open layups, and she'd be 4 feet behind us. But you'd hear the footsteps coming. We were intimidated."
But Griner's considerable shadow has obscured the depth of the youth movement in Waco. On Saturday night, with Oklahoma State daring anyone not named Griner to beat its zone, Kimetria Hayden did just that. Playing against her former high school teammate, Andrea Riley, Hayden scored a career-high 27 points and hit four 3-pointers. Without Jones and freshman Jordan Madden, who injured her knee last week against Iowa State and hasn't played the past two games, the Lady Bears were missing more than half of their season total in 3-pointers. But when you're dealing with talented freshmen, the simplest truth might be best paraphrased from late-night investment infomercials.
Past performance is no guarantee of future failure.
"I'm confident in all of them," Mulkey said of her newcomers. "I get aggravated as heck with them, but I'm confident in all of them. I recruited them, so these are my players. These are our players. And that's a bunch of a bull they can't shoot it. They can shoot it. They're freshmen. These kids are going to be fine."
The same is true at Texas A&M, where despite a game to forget against Texas over the weekend, standout junior Danielle Adams has picked up her production during conference play in the best league in the country. And sophomore Sydney Carter, already a valuable contributor off the bench, has come on strong of late while playing 30-plus minutes a night with Colson out of action or limited.
Neither team is completely immune to the toll of time. Baylor is entering its final weeks with the services of Morghan Medlock, the outstanding rebounder whose post presence has surely helped Griner. And Texas A&M will lose Tanisha Smith after this season, its leading scorer and best bet to create a shot for herself when needed.
Yet as Blair said Saturday, stars will replace stars. The nation's top-rated post recruit, Karla Gilbert, is headed to the Aggies to help battle Griner. The top-rated point guard, Odyssey Sims, will help the Lady Bears counter Colson and Carter. And for now, the present should be good enough to produce a compelling strategic duel.
"I think it's going to be a great atmosphere for the country to sit back on Monday night and see the best of the best play," Blair said. "It's a shame both of us are not playing for first and second place, but I think with Melissa Jones, with her injury, and with Colson, with ours, and Nebraska playing as well as they did, we're just worrying about seeds to get to the Big 12 tournament. We just want to win games now. There's no goals out there anymore. Win games."
Expect both programs to be winning a lot of games for a long time to come.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.