Thursday, February 19, 2009
Rebounding gives Baylor a boost
By Graham Hays ESPN.com
Rachel Allison and Baylor boast a plus-11 rebounding margin this season.
Connected through parents and siblings to five Super Bowl rings and two NBA championships, the Oklahoma Sooners are unquestioned leaders in hereditary hardware among women's college basketball teams. But if Baylor is to slow its rival's march toward a Big 12 regular-season championship when they meet this weekend, and continue its own trek toward a possible top seed in the NCAA tournament, success might hinge on an area of the game in which the team from Waco has its own genetic advantage.
Junior Danielle Wilson and senior Rachel Allison, the two leading rebounders on a Baylor team that ranks ahead of the Sooners and all but five other teams in the nation in rebounding margin, are both following in the basketball footsteps of their mothers.
And that means the familiar maternal lecture sometimes takes a distinctly strategic bent.
"I'll call her after a game or the day before a game, and she'll tell me what I have to do," Wilson said of Linda Wilson, who played four years of basketball and one year of softball at Adelphi University. "She'll tell me the same things she told me in high school -- you've got to rebound the ball and make sure I move to the basket."
That said, neither mother forced the game on her daughter growing up. Allison said it was Tim Allison, her dad and a former football player at Arkansas State, and not Linda Allison, a member of the Arkansas State Hall of Fame, who handled most of her coaching. And it was the younger Allison's choice to pursue basketball instead of volleyball, despite plenty of prep plaudits in both sports (and Baylor coach Kim Mulkey's playful barb during recruiting that she was a better volleyball player than a basketball player).
Likewise, Wilson was encouraged to follow her own interests off the court growing up, despite two parents who played college basketball. (Johnny Wilson played three seasons at SUNY-Old Westbury.) She twirled the baton competitively into her high school years, took ballet, and played the piano and viola.
But when each found her own way to basketball at its upper levels, they found a ready reserve of advice; experience; support; and, when needed, tough criticism at home.
"They're the first people I talk to when I have a good game, bad game, in between," Rachel Allison said. "They'll kind of be biased because they're my parents, but they're going to tell me the truth. They're athletes, and someone had to be there to tell them the truth when they were playing, so they're going to tell me when I'm not getting the job done. When I need to be picked up, they're going to pick me up, but at the same time, they've got knowledge of the game, so what they tell me is helpful."
Toughness is a prerequisite at Baylor, with its longstanding reputation as a team with a penchant for playing stifling defense. It's a reputation that's easier to pull off when you can see displeasure building on the coach's countenance from a full court away, like a storm rolling in across the Texas plains, but it's more than just an aura. Since Mulkey arrived prior to the 2000-01 season, no Baylor team allowed its opponents to shoot better than 38.4 percent from the field for a season. Most held opponents closer to the 35.6 percent mark that this season's team boasts through 24 games.
The Big 12 player of the week, Danielle Wilson, leads Baylor in scoring (15.5 ppg) and rebounding (9.5 rpg).
If you're going to play Baylor, you're going to miss a lot of shots.
Where this year's team separates itself from its predecessors, including the team that won the 2005 national championship, is in its ability to compound the price opponents pay for missing their shots and minimize the cost of its own misses. Even with a lineage of post players such as Steffanie Blackmon, Sophia Young and Bernice Mosby, this is the most dominant rebounding team of Mulkey's tenure.
"I think that's credited to our coaching staff," Allison said. "They've stressed defense and rebounding this year. If I had to think about two things we've talked about as a team that we need to do better, it's our defense and our rebounding. Ever since I can remember, from the start of practice in October, we've done rebounding drills every single day. We're sending more to the glass than we have in the past -- we've got four going instead of three, depending on the game, who we're playing and how many we need to send back in transition.
"And players are applying themselves more; they're being more aggressive on the boards."
Wilson is in the midst of a breakout season that has taken her from promising talent to potential All-American. A defensive force since the day she arrived in Waco from Bay Shore, N.Y., she became the program's all-time leading shot-blocker before completing even two full seasons. But after averaging just 8.2 field goal attempts and 6.8 rebounds per game last season, she leads the Bears this season with 12.1 field goal attempts and 9.5 rebounds per game. Not coincidentally, and despite being a low-post presence on both ends of the floor, she averages just 2.1 fouls per game.
Wilson was quick to credit two seasons of banging, at times futilely, against OU's Paris sisters as an educational experience that showed her what she needed to work on in the offseason. And even if she didn't live and breathe basketball every waking moment as a child, one gets the sense that a lot of basketball IQ flowed through the floorboards at home.
"I just think that everything kind of started clicking for her," Allison said of Wilson's emergence. "She gets the most criticism in practice, and she takes it well. And I think that she just used everything they told her the last two years and is having a great junior year. And she's leading us, hopefully, very far into the tournament."
At first glance, the season hasn't gone as smoothly for Allison, the senior captain. An ankle injury forced her out of the lineup for a game earlier, ending a streak of 109 consecutive appearances for the Lady Bears, and a slump that followed led to a brief stretch coming off the bench. (She was back in the starting lineup for the team's last two games, against Oklahoma State and Missouri.) She admitted the up-and-down season has tested her, but Allison's imprint on the team's current success extends beyond the stat sheet.
"Rachel is one of our leaders," Wilson said. "She tries to set a great example for us. In the weight room during the summer, she was there working out with us, just trying to get everybody better and encouraging people. I think that's a big role Rachel plays off the court and on the court. She's always encouraging; she's a hustle player."
And if Allison does hit her stride on the court as the season comes to a close, evidence suggests it could be the ingredient that takes Baylor from the middle of a pack of title contenders all the way to St. Louis. Last season, Allison averaged 5.3 free-throw attempts per game and shot 41 percent from behind the arc, numbers indicative of a player with the rare ability to score inside, outside and anywhere in between. That's key on a team that has depth, defense and boards but could use a little more offensive consistency.
"Rachel can shoot the 3, she can drive, she can get offensive boards, she can have post moves," Wilson said. "Rachel's just an all-around offensive player, so when everything's clicking and when everybody's clicking, that's dangerous to other opponents."
Both Linda Allison and Linda Wilson could probably still hold their own against most challengers in a game of H.O.R.S.E., but the torch has been passed to the next generation. Like parents everywhere, they've handed off what knowledge they can in hopes that it prepares their kids to be tough enough to handle anything life throws at them.
That's good news for Baylor, even if it wasn't always easy getting there.
"[My mom] said it got to a point where she just couldn't play me anymore, because it was too physical of a game," Allison said, laughing. "She said back in her day, it wasn't that physical and she couldn't hang with us these days. She said after I knocked her over a couple of times playing one-on-one, that's when we stopped playing."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.