Griner to debut at Thompson-Boling
All eyes are on 6-8 Brittney Griner, who will match up with Lady Vols' 6-6 Kelley Cain
Four years ago, a question went around about the Big 12 concerning Oklahoma freshman Courtney Paris. How in the world was anybody going to stop her?
Sure, Paris took some criticism about her fitness as her career progressed. But the bottom line is that she still finished with more points than anyone in Big 12 history and more rebounds (and double-doubles) than anyone in Division I history.
Which brings us to the player who'll make her official college debut Sunday on a stage that for women's basketball is akin to what the Grand Old Opry is for country music.
Baylor and 6-foot-8 freshman Brittney Griner will take on Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sunday (ESPN2, 5 p.m. ET) in a contest that has several interesting storylines but will be dominated by the "biggest" one. The Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic -- formerly a doubleheader event -- has been condensed to one game.
It's quite a place to debut for Griner, who has already dunked in an exhibition game on Nov. 7 in Waco, Texas.
"It excited me a lot, but it really motivated the team and gave the crowd a spark," Griner said. "We feed off of the crowd, so it got us going."
Her teammates know all eyes will be on her everywhere, home and away, but they believe she can keep things even-keeled.
"I'm not so sure she feels that pressure," Baylor's Melissa Jones said. "She's not out there trying to make a name for herself. She's about getting this team as far as we can go."
Senior teammate Morgan Medlock added, "Even with all the hype surrounding her, like with every freshman she's just trying to fit in with the upper-class players. She's really a sweet kid."
Yeah, but an agile, powerful, leaping 6-8 kid who can swat away shots like nobody's business.
So again, that question previously asked about Paris is being asked about Griner: How will teams deal with her?
"They're going to try to push her off the block. We don't want them to," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "That's what we're trying to teach her. With weight training and being pushed on every day in practice and being conscious of it, hopefully we won't have her taking that many shots away from the block.
"But she is an athlete who can face the basket, drive, put it on the floor. We're not going to eliminate that part of her game. But I want as many points in the paint as I can get from her."
Asked how she would defend Griner if she had to face her, Mulkey said, "I'm not sure I have the answer."
Of course, even if she did, it's not like she'd actually tell everyone. Mulkey said she expects to "see it all" in terms of defenses against Griner -- even those who might try (probably futilely) to front a 6-8 player who can jump.
"From watching Brittney, she's the type of player who's going to go all-out," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "Her ability to score in the paint, her shot-blocking -- what we can't do is be intimidated by her. We've got to welcome the challenge and attack just as we would if we were playing any other team."
But, again, from all indications, no other team has a Griner. So facing her might require real out-of-the-box thinking.
All coaches tailor game plans to opponents. But not all are willing to say, "Let's do something completely, fundamentally different because this situation is so different."
Other coaches, though, might be willing to roll the dice on a more radical strategy based on one element of an opponent. For instance, Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly had to deal with Paris for four seasons in the Big 12. And it influenced his approach to Michigan State and Stanford in the Berkeley Regional last season.
He had to face Spartans 6-9 center Allyssa DeHaan in the Sweet 16 and then Cardinal 6-4 center Jayne Appel in the Elite Eight. Well, Iowa State didn't have anyone who could match up with either of them. So Fennelly's strategy was to not expend too many resources trying to shut them down.
DeHaan ended up with the highest scoring total of her junior season, 24 points. Iowa State, with a furious late rally, won that game. Appel ended up with a program-record 46 points. Iowa State lost that game 74-53.
Some might have faulted Fennelly's strategy against the Cardinal since Appel is such a known quality as a star player. But I think it made sense.
Stanford was more talented; playing the Cardinal straight-up was not going to work. So why not gamble? If Appel had enough of an off game, Iowa State could have sneaked away with a Final Four trip. It didn't work but it's not like any other option was better.
So what we will watch for especially this year, as teams face Griner for the first time, is the sort of risks they might take. Both to defend her and to deal with her defense against them.
Summitt has the advantage of having 6-6 sophomore Kelley Cain in taking on Griner.
"I think we'll stick to our normal game plan -- but at the same time, that matchup is going to be very interesting," Summitt said. "Kelley is healthy and looks good. You're talking about two of the bigger centers in the game.
"Kelley has a lot of composure, and she has the size and skill set. Our team really has looked for Kelley almost on every possession so far [in the preseason]. She's done a good job of getting up and down the floor. I'm just really pleased with her progress and maturity."
There is more, though, to this Tennessee-Baylor game than just the center battle. Tennessee, coming off perhaps the most tumultuous season of Summitt's career, lost to Ball State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, an unprecedented early exit for the program.
Summitt had brought in a crop of blue-chip recruits to fill the void after five senior starters left the 2008 national championship team, and their talent was unquestioned. The problem was the youngsters never quite got their act together.
Their heart and effort were questioned, and at times they had to wonder what they had gotten themselves into. They finished 22-11, 9-5 in the SEC -- which is not a horrible season unless you are a program like Tennessee.
Meanwhile, Baylor really exceeded a lot of expectations after losing top scorer and rebounder Danielle Wilson to a knee injury -- winning the Big 12 tournament and reaching the Sweet 16.
Baylor has brought in what was considered the nation's top-ranked recruiting class: Griner, Mariah Chandler, Kimetria Hayden, Jordan Madden and Shanay Washington. Tennessee's 2008-09 season is proof that even gilded freshmen can't be banked on. But Baylor does have three upper-class leaders who will play a lot -- something Summitt didn't have last season.
Medlock and juniors Jones and Kelli Griffin are aware they'll have to shepherd the youngsters but also push them.
"We have longer practices," Medlock said matter-of-factly. "Coach Mulkey doesn't necessarily like to be on the floor for long periods of time, but we have to prepare the freshmen for some games where they have no idea what it's going to be like to be out there.
"A lot of the teaching that we're doing on and off the court is going to help tremendously. And they're going to have to grow up quickly."
We heard that from Tennessee last season. We'll see how it works for Baylor this year.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
2009-10 Season Preview
Get ready for 2009-10 with ESPN.com's women's college basketball preview.
Friday, Nov. 13• ESPN.com's Preseason All-America teams
• Moore is preseason player of year (again)
• Voepel: Baylor's Griner set for debut
• Voepel: Spartans ready to move on in Big Ten
Thursday, Nov. 12• Voepel: UConn's Charles all-business
• Hays: Greene fits holes, roles for Huskies
Wednesday, Nov. 11• Top five players at each position
• Voepel: A difficult decision
• Hays: Players to watch
• Voepel: OU shifts to guard-oriented attack
Tuesday, Nov. 10• Hays: Appel leads Stanford
• Voepel: Academics first for Ogwumike
• Hays: Mid-major top 10
Monday, Nov. 9• ESPN.com preseason top 10
• Voepel: Five questions
• Hays: Teams to watch