Big 12 notebook: Baylor has the ingredients for a Final Four run; Donarski and Williams shine

Baylor locked down Texas, and Iowa State and Oklahoma also impressed

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Baylor showcases recipe for a deep run in March

You aren’t supposed to hold a borderline top-25 team to 35 points.

Yet that’s exactly what Baylor did to Texas on Sunday, steamrolling the Longhorns to the tune of a 60-35 victory in Waco and cementing the Lady Bears’ best win in conference play this year. Baylor is now all but guaranteed to lock up its 11th straight Big 12 title in the coming weeks and has stamped itself on the shortlist of NCAA championship contenders.

There may not be a team that is more primed to make a deep run. As it does every year, Kim Mulkey’s team will win big games on the back of its defensive front. That was certainly evident this weekend.

For 40 minutes, Baylor choked off National Player of the Year finalist Charli Collier at the rim, giving her a kind welcome with the ferocity of Baylor’s own POY candidate in junior forward NaLyssa Smith.

Mulkey’s squad gains a lot of confidence now, holding a player of Collier’s caliber to two points. That bodes especially well for the tournament—great teams are often wary of good teams with a great player. To make a player like Collier obsolete not only solidifies the Lady Bears’ strength on the interior, but also shows that they aren’t afraid of anybody—much less the projected No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft. The win extended far beyond Collier’s stoppage, though, as the Texas guards failed to create any open opportunities on the perimeter.

Baylor also has the recipe for a deep run because it can win at the margins. The Lady Bears generate more easy opportunities than anyone else in college basketball. Mulkey’s team is arguably the best in the country at attacking the glass and creating favorable circumstances for itself in transition. That bodes well for March.

In a win-or-go-home environment, it’s crucial to have easy buckets to fall back on. Even if the shots aren’t falling or the halfcourt offense isn’t clicking, Baylor can create extra looks and hold it down on the defensive end. As Mulkey often likes to say, there’s no one juggernaut in college basketball this year. But no one is equipped for the tournament like Baylor.

The Lady Bears won’t necessarily be the flashiest team to enter the tournament, but there won’t be a more frustrating team to play in March.

It’s impossible to talk about Baylor’s identity without highlighting Smith, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. Her richest impact came on the defensive end, though, holding it down against Collier. Mulkey sounded off in the postgame interview, passionately defending her star’s POY case:

“People need to start talking about her and quit looking at stat sheets. I'm so tired of people voting for players of the year based on stats. Start looking at the champions of the league and go, ‘What would that kid do on another team?’

“This could potentially have been a very difficult year for her because all the attention would be on her, and I think she's handled it beautifully. She's just a natural double-double every night, and I think people on the larger scene, as always, they get caught up in stats and points. How about looking at a winner? How about looking at a kid that does whatever it takes to win championships?”

As Mulkey noted, Smith showcases masterful skill at the post position. It’s hard to say there is a player at her size who has a better combination of agility and strength.

“I don't know what else people want to see,” Mulkey said. “How many girls can go up and catch a ball in midair and finish and contort their body the way she does? Not many.”

After a slow start to 2021, the chemistry has clicked for Baylor. The whole team has fantastic continuity as playmakers. So much of that revolves around the play of senior guard DiDi Richards. Richards is no star scorer, but in another offense, she could comfortably average 15 points per game. She hasn’t scored more than 14 points in a game this season and finished with two points and 10 assists against Texas.

Queen Egbo, Moon Ursin, and Dijonai Carrington all finished with double-digit points against Texas. This team is not only deep, it’s unselfish and has its eyes set on a national championship.

That also bodes well when the whistles aren’t whistling. The Lady Bears have only gotten into trouble when Egbo and Smith have to sit, and it’s nearly impossible to beat them when they’re allowed to play.

Texas is a really good team. It registered single-digit point totals in each of the first three quarters. At times, it looked like the Longhorns were just out there running cardio.

Baylor could still run into problems with just one consistent shooter on the roster in Carrington. But that’s the story with Baylor every year. They’re still here. And they have certainly made the case for a championship ceiling.

Baylor has six games left in the season, with a talented West Virginia squad coming up on Wednesday.

Texas, on the other hand, has a lot to evaluate.

Breaking down Lexi Donarski’s bright future

On Saturday, Iowa State bounced back from Tuesday’s loss to Oklahoma, defeating TCU 92-81. What a game it was for Cyclones freshman guard Lexi Donarski. We knew she was special, and we knew she had Big 12 Freshman of the Year wrapped up. But a 30-piece? That’s new. Maybe we should have seen it coming.

Donarski and the rest of the Iowa State freshmen have established themselves as a class that is afraid of nothing, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t had rough patches. What sets them apart is how quickly they fix them.

In the loss to Oklahoma, Donarski finished with no points in 24 minutes. Saturday, she had an Iowa State freshman-record 32 points, knocking down six of her nine 3-point opportunities and holding it down on both ends of the court.

“Lex was great, and that’s a credit to her and a credit to the toughness that she has, the way she was raised,” Iowa State head coach Bill Fennelly said. “You’re talking about a kid that might have played the worst game she’s ever played in her life on Tuesday night and then comes out tonight and just looks like—no one would have thought that kid’s a freshman.”

What makes her great? So many different things. It all starts, though, beyond the 3-point line.

The combination of Ashley Joens and Donarski is enough to send opposing defenses into a spiral, as it did this weekend. Nobody told TCU, but when both players are on, you cannot run a zone, and help defense becomes problematic in a pinch. Donarski, to her credit, makes smart decisions off the ball and will exploit you if you break focus for a split second.

The mere threat of her 3-point shot is enough to open up the floor for everyone else and allows her to beat players off the dribble when they try to close out on her.

She is not often asked to create 3-pointers off the dribble, as just four of her 40 made 3-pointers have come in isolation, according to CBB Analytics. If she gets the ball and puts it on the floor, she is most likely passing or driving.

And that’s okay. She’s able to get open because the offense is free-flowing, she runs to her spots, and she has teammates who can get her the ball. She makes uber-quick decisions with the ball in her hands and uses every inch of her 6’ frame at the guard spot. You cannot help off of Donarski. Her teammates will find her on a skip pass. And you cannot double her—she will find her teammates.

Her playmaking has also grown throughout the last few months. She can laser passes. Of course, she was quick to credit her teammates’ passing after the victory.

“It felt really good, but that’s definitely a team effort. We were very unselfish tonight, always willing to make the extra pass to the open kid,” Donarski said. “It was a team effort tonight.”

As you’ll see in the clip below, Donarski has an impressive touch in the paint, but her interior game isn’t without holes. The freshman guard seldom finishes with her off hand, even if she’s comfortable driving to the rim with it. Here, she contorts her body and gets the shot to fall, but her game would benefit with more work this summer on lefty finishes.

Fennelly, though, had more than enough kind words for Donarski in the post-game interview.

“She was aggressive, she was in attack mode, her shot selection was great,” he said. “She did a lot of things to put pressure on the defense and as always she defends. And that’s a big part of our team. … Lex’s performance tonight was obviously great. But I think in light of the fact of where it was Tuesday night compared to tonight is a credit to her and the way she’s going about her business on a daily basis.”

Madi Williams, giant-killer

Oklahoma’s Madi Williams is the most undercovered player across my Big 12 coverage, and that’s an issue. Because what she did on Saturday was entirely predictable. In the contest, she and the Sooners upset a West Virginia squad that had launched itself into the top 25 and won 11 straight games. 

What had the Sooners done just four days earlier? Upset Iowa State.

The gulf between the Big 12’s top five and bottom five is significant, but the Sooners are bridging the divide one game at a time. Williams has a lot to do with that.

At 6’, the junior straddles the line between guard and wing, though she often looks much more like a post around the rim. Williams is a force of nature in the paint, often establishing a deep position in the low post with exponentially more strength than almost anyone who’s matched on her. Her arsenal of moves may not wow you, but she’s a crafty player who knows how to get to her spot.

Much is often made of “shot-creators” at the guard position—players who don’t need anyone to feed them the ball. Williams, on the other hand, creates lanes and easy looks for herself without the ball in her hands because of the power she has. She also often screens for her teammates, which creates mismatches for opponents and complicates the Sooners’ offense. Her strength allows them to be effectively positionless. 

Of course, she can still create off the dribble and posts sensational numbers in the midrange, often reverting to a signature one-dribble pull-up from 15 to 20 feet when the shot clock dwindles down. When she needs to get to the rim, she picks up a head of steam and gets there, showcasing a penchant to accelerate at the drop of a hat and finish in either direction.

While she didn’t start the West Virginia game on the strongest note, she’s a smart player who never gets too high or too low and turned her game around in the second quarter. She finished with 21 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists on 9-for-18 shooting.

Few players make better decisions in the short roll, which sets her up for many of her dimes, and she’s skilled enough as a passer that Oklahoma can run a variety of backdoor cuts. Plus, on the perimeter, it helps when you have a teammate like Taylor Robertson who can do this:

There are challenges with being the primary option on a sub-.500 team, and she still has small adjustments to make to her game. West Virginia consistently doubled Williams in the first half, and she forced a few midrange shots. She also has to cut down on the turnovers, with a 42-51 assist-to-turnover ratio on the season.

Williams has now scored over 20 points in three straight games and has finished in double figures in every game this season—somewhat of an arbitrary stat, admittedly, but she’s the only player in the Big 12 to do so. She’s consistent. And she’ll be a heavily scouted player come conference tournament time. Because right now? She and the Sooners are giant-killers.