Nina Davis always in right place

WACO, Texas -- There's a quality that exists among certain basketball players that really can't quite be attributed to their size, or quickness, or even skill level. And that is their magnetism to the basketball. Or vice versa.

It seems almost freakish sometimes, doesn't it? In a good way, of course, for the people who have it. Although even they often can't explain it.

"I guess from playing for so long," Baylor forward Nina Davis said, "I just know where the ball is going next."

Well, that's not exactly it. She's only a sophomore, so we're not talking about a grizzled veteran. The bottom line is that Davis has a knack for being where the ball is, and we're probably never going to be completely sure how she does it.

But it's something that Baylor assistant coach Bill Brock noticed when he was recruiting the 5-foot-11 Davis.

"I kept watching Nina the summer before her senior year," Brock said, "and the thing that kept intriguing me about her was she was always around the basketball. Obviously, a lot of people thought she was too small. But I just threw that out of the equation and reversed my thinking: Instead of talking about her deficiencies, let's talk about what she can do."

Turns out that there is plenty to say in that regard. Davis, the Big 12's top freshman last season, recently was named the league's player of the year for 2014-15. She's been the Big 12 tournament's most outstanding player both seasons.

Monday, she had 16 points and 11 rebounds in leading Baylor over Texas, giving the Lady Bears their fifth consecutive Big 12 tournament title.

On the season, Davis is averaging 21.1 points and 8.4 rebounds for Baylor, which is 30-3 heading into the NCAA tournament. Those averages ranked first and fourth, respectively, in the Big 12.

This is the fifth season in a row that Baylor has claimed the league's player of the year award, with Brittney Griner winning it in 2011, '12, and '13, and Odyssey Sims getting it last year.

"A lot of people thought she was too small. But I just threw that out of the equation and reversed my thinking: Instead of talking about her deficiencies, let's talk about what she can do." Baylor assistant coach Bill Brock

Those two were very different as players: the dominant center Griner who had great size and mobility versus the combo-guard Sims who could hurt teams with her scoring and passing. And both were also excellent defensive players, with Griner serving as one of the best rim protectors ever in the women's college game, and Sims being an exceptional on-ball defender.

Now the Baylor star is Davis, who is not like either Griner or Sims. Nor, really, like most top-level Division I players who are mainly in the 4, or power forward, spot. She's a little smaller and a little leaner than many of her competitors. Yet there she is time after time, putting up shots that you think might get blocked ... but don't.

And there she is, again and again, grabbing away rebounds you think would go to opponents with a size advantage over her ... but don't.

"She has an uncanny knack for the basketball, and gets a ton of her points off offensive rebounds," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said of Davis, adding that she reminded her of former Sooners player LaNeishea Caufield. "LaNeishea also had an unbelievable knack for getting fouled, and Nina has that knack, too. Even though you know that, it's a hard thing to stop.

"And you've got to play such attention to Nina, you get so locked up in worrying about her, that their other players then can hurt you."

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

Brock jokingly refers to Davis by the nickname Squirrel, but not because of her personality.

"The reason for that is so many of her shots are what you would term 'squirrelly'" Brock said. "I have no idea how she gets those shots off with that much traffic down there, and how she finishes shots.

"The only thing we've worked with her on is her free throw release. Everything else is very ugly, but it goes in the goal, and we're not going to try to change that. And 'ugly' is meant in a complimentary way."

Davis laughs when you ask about how she developed her shot mechanics.

"I honestly don't know," she said. "I guess playing against my brother and people bigger than me. No one really taught me the correct way to shoot, so that was something I taught myself. Somehow, that's what I came up with. And it worked."

Davis is from Memphis, Tennessee, but smiles when saying she is not what you'd call the "typical" Memphis person.

"I don't listen to the blues, I don't listen to jazz, I don't eat barbecue a lot," Davis said. "And I'm not an Elvis fan.

"But I think it's a fun city to grow up in. You meet a lot of different kinds of people, and it's got a competitive basketball scene. I think that's really what shaped me into the player I am, with my aggressiveness and toughness."

LSU standout Danielle Ballard was one of Davis' high school teammates. And Davis played AAU ball with the likes of Tennessee's Alexa Middleton, Duke's Rebecca Greenwell and Georgia Tech's Kaela Davis.

But back then, Nina Davis did not play the power forward position. She was always in the guard or wing spot, although she could post up and obviously had the leaping ability that has carried over to college.

When Baylor coach Kim Mulkey told her where on the court she envisioned her playing, though, Davis didn't protest.

"If she thought I could play the 4, then she had to see something in me," Davis said. "I just trusted and believed that everything was going to work out, and it has.

"My height does play a factor, sometimes, but then I just try to use my speed. Sometimes, other players are stronger than me because they're bigger, but that doesn't bother me a lot."

Working on her game

In fact, not a whole lot bugs Davis -- except for lack of color coordination in her wardrobe. That's a no-no, even if she is just running to class.

"I do have to match," said Davis, who on this day was wearing electric blue-and-pink shirt, pants and shoes. "I don't like to be tacky. Sometimes, I lay out my clothes the night before. But even if I just grab something, it has to match."

In general, though, you'd probably label Davis a pretty laid-back person and player. However, she said that she's starting to find a bigger voice.

"I definitely have that in me," she said. "I'm more a quiet player, but it's something that's changing this year. I sometimes surprise myself; I'll find myself showing more emotion than ever. I really think that Coach Mulkey has influenced me. She's just a coach who has a lot of passion, and it rubs off on me and my teammates.

"At the beginning of the year, when we were searching for leaders, I didn't talk. But now I just feel like I have become more vocal. I'll have more time to get better at that."

Baylor will be bringing in more size with its recruiting class next season, and so that could impact where Davis plays on court. She's preparing for that, working on expanding her range and becoming a better defensive player. But Brock said that Baylor still expects Davis to spend a lot of time where she poses the most difficulty for foes.

"I believe you always have to play people who create matchup problems on defense," Brock said. "Nina brings great energy to the game, and a unique skill set at the low block. She runs extremely hard in transition and gets the easy baskets. And she's just that difficult matchup every game for most people."