Baylor's Brittney Griner is not just a star player, she is a defensive nightmare the likes of which women's college basketball has never seen.
She does not just force opposing teams to alter their game plans; she forces coaching staffs to develop entirely new game plans, some they've never before tried.
The Baylor Lady Bears enter the 2012 NCAA tournament needing six victories to become the first team, men or women, to compile a 40-0 record. Their dominance is no mystery.
From Saturday's opening tipoff through the first weekend in April, coaching staffs charged with defending Baylor will pore over game tape. All will spend hours in the film room, explaining to their teams how they will defend Griner, the 6-foot-8 junior center who spends warm-ups throwing down two-handed dunks. All will spend hours on the court, walking players through those game plans, which will be unlike any other defenses they've attempted. They will be looking to put their teams in an end-of-game position in which somehow they have the ball and a chance for victory.
It will be nearly impossible. Not completely impossible, but nearly.
The double-team plan
On Feb. 18, the Texas Tech Lady Raiders somehow had possession of the basketball and a chance to tie the score with just a few seconds remaining.
Somehow, without a legitimate center and despite scoring only six second-half field goals, the unranked Lady Raiders needed only one 3-pointer to push Baylor, the nation's No. 1 team and everyone's penciled-in national champion, into overtime.
Tech missed the shot, Griner grabbed the rebound and, a few seconds (and two Griner free throws) later, the game was over. Baylor's undefeated season had been tested but was ultimately preserved with a 56-51 win. The Lady Bears came closer to losing that night than any other night this season. (On average, Baylor has defeated opponents by 27.2 points per game.)
As each tournament opponent, such as UC-Santa Barbara in the first round, downloads Baylor game film, the one from Feb. 18 should be first in the queue.
That night in Waco, Texas, the Lady Raiders used a junk-zone defense. Texas Tech started in a 2-3 zone, which looked more like a 1-1-3 because the top two guards staggered one behind another. The top guard immediately picked up the ball, with the second guard responsible for the first pass. The bottom three players packed into the paint. The two players on Griner's side sandwiched her, while the third stayed nimble, prepared to defend either the diving high post or the weakside shooter.
Texas Tech decided that if it was going down, it wouldn't be by Griner's hand. The Lady Raiders immediately double-teamed Griner, sometimes even allowing a third player to dig down into the mix. Throwing players at Griner is not, by itself, a solution. Griner is capable of turning and shooting over any defender, so the double-team must be strategic in its timing and placement, otherwise it's as pointless as pelting a statue with marshmallows. Too early, and Griner will immediately release the ball and send the defense into a premature scramble; too late, and she'll have already faced the hoop, absorbing all her options.
Griner prefers turning over her left shoulder, toward her dominant right hand. Although her versatility has improved since her freshman season, she is still most effective when allowed to turn left and face the basket. So Texas Tech didn't let her. The Lady Raiders bodied her from one side of the floor to the other. If Griner did catch on or near the block, the double-team came just as she was turning to see her options, before she could see if her teammate -- the one diving from the high post -- was open. Texas Tech was gambling that its double-team of Griner would keep her from seeing the choicest opening (the little dish pass to the cutter for a layup). Instead, Griner would be forced to kick the ball out to the perimeter for an outside shot.
The Lady Raiders understood this opened the rest of the floor to Baylor's supporting cast of forward Destiny Williams and guards Kimetria Hayden and Jordan Madden. (Baylor point guard Odyssey Sims was still a defensive focal point, but Tech appeared willing to guard the leftover three players with two defenders.) Tech's scrambling defenders closed out under control; forcing Baylor into an outside shot -- hopefully contested, but not always -- was the entire point of the defense.
Tech was leaving a window wide-open, but the advantage was that it was the window of their choosing. In the first half, Baylor was 0-for-6 from beyond the arc.
The "junk" plan
A team occasionally will use the defensive "Make Griner Beat Us" philosophy, but Griner always beats it. In mid-December, top-seeded Connecticut employed this plan on Griner and Sims, and the pair combined for 48 of Baylor's 66 points and 12 of the team's final 15. Few teams have the resources, and talent, possessed by UConn. Most teams -- and almost certainly any opponent before the Final Four -- will adopt Tech's philosophy. In some ways, the philosophy sounds simple: give 'em outside shots and hope they miss.
But it's not simple.
College head coaches have a defensive philosophy, and a team will spend its preseason drilling key components of that philosophy: force penetration toward the baseline, play behind the post player, deny the ball when one pass away. Every coach hopes that after enough of these drills, their players execute these basic defensive principles without thinking. A good defense jumps into place instinctively, allowing each player to focus on what might come next instead of reacting to what's happening.
When playing a junk defense, you often throw these drilled principles out the window. Tailoring a game plan to a specific player is one thing, but Griner forces teams to adopt entirely different defensive principles. A team might be trained to play behind the post, but playing against Baylor likely requires someone to front the post. The mental effort required to execute this altered plan possession after possession is akin to driving somewhere without directions. You're constantly looking at the map; the chances of missing an exit are multiplied.
A junk defense can work (for a while), but don't underestimate the energy it can drain from a team.
The junk defense will likely get at least one or two of Baylor's NCAA opponents into the second half with a chance to win, but it isn't a 40-minute solution. Any team that thinks it is (without a few other wild cards in the back pocket) will be watching as the Lady Bears eventually break down the defense and build a double-digit, second-half lead. The 1-1-3 zone, and the triangle-and-two, and the collapsing, switching man-to-man, are all defenses designed to throw Baylor off rhythm and kill a chunk of game time. That's it.
Against Texas Tech, Baylor started the game 0-for-9 from beyond the arc. When Baylor reserve guard Terran Condrey hit the team's first 3-pointer with 15:38 left in the second half, it cut the Lady Raiders' lead to 39-35. When she hit her second with 10:55 remaining, giving Baylor a 45-44 lead, it signaled to Texas Tech that the gambit was up. Baylor found a rhythm within the junk defense; it found the gaps and was ready to drive away.
It was time for Texas Tech to pull out its wild cards and shift to the kitchen-sink approach. Tech spent the rest of the game switching between defenses -- a full-court zone press, a few possessions of man-to-man, a standard 2-3 zone -- to keep Baylor from settling into a rhythm, to force Baylor to continue thinking as much as Texas Tech was being forced to think. In watching those final minutes, it was clear Texas Tech had used far too much energy to get itself to those final possessions. There was nothing left in the tank.
Six games stand between Baylor and its second national championship. If Baylor keeps advancing, that's six opponents, six carefully crafted game plans aimed at toppling Griner & Co. Six teams looking to somehow get themselves to that final possession with a chance to win.