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Friday, March 9, 2012
Brittney Griner is ESPN.com POY

By espnW staff

Jim Crowley, Brittney Griner and Elizabeth Williams
Jim Crowley, Brittney Griner and Elizabeth Williams stood out this past regular season.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A snapshot from this season: Brittney Griner was going for a breakaway dunk after stealing the ball. Did Baylor coach Kim Mulkey think her center was going to throw it down?

"Yes, I did," Mulkey said. "I sure did. I think everybody in the stands did. Her mannerisms let you know that she meant business right there."

Turned out the dunk didn't happen; a barnacle-like Texas Tech player hung onto Griner and fouled her. You could sense a bit of disappointment arena-wide at Municipal Auditorium. Except from Griner, who shrugged it off and walked to the foul line almost as if to say, "Who cares? I've dunked before. I want these free throws."

Thursday's 72-48 victory over Texas Tech made for a relatively easy day for Griner and the Lady Bears … hold it for a second. Griner would just as soon people not say that, like she's Diana Ross fronting The Supremes. She wants to be just one of the Baylor team.

Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims
Brittney Griner doesn't want to be singled out at Baylor, but her stats and play stand out in all the right ways.

It's an admirable sentiment, and one she has been committed to throughout her three seasons in Waco, Texas. But the reality is that Griner does stand out in all the right ways as ESPN.com's 2011-12 Player of the Year. The 6-foot-8 junior has been outstanding for the undefeated Big 12 regular-season champions.

Griner is averaging 23.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 blocks. But to show you the diversity of her talents, consider that she also had four assists in her 29-minute outing against Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals.

"Take what the defense gives you," Mulkey said. "If the defense is not going to let Griner get many touches, then the rest of you should lick your chops because you're going to score tonight. If the defense is going to guard Griner one-on-one, then we're going to keep throwing it into her. We've learned to take what we're being given."

True, but let's face it: Griner is so good she also takes what isn't given. She's so much into the heads of her opponents' shooters, you can see them double-clutch even in the rare moments Griner has been drawn too far away from the basket to stop them. It happened a few times Thursday, as Texas Tech players missed open shots inside because they were anticipating a Griner swat even though she wasn't actually in position to do it.

Griner finished what was a routine afternoon with 15 points, 9 rebounds and 5 blocks. Against Iowa State on Saturday, Griner had a career-high 41 points as the Lady Bears capped their first undefeated regular season. But she was just as happy after both wins. Thursday, she enjoyed seeing all 10 Baylor players who got into the game score.

"It was great," Griner said. "This program is way more than me. They always say, 'Brittney Griner and Baylor,' but I can't do it myself. On nights when I'm not shooting that well, we still have everybody that can attack and score.

"So you can stop me, but you've got to stop everybody else on tour team, too. I love being able to sit on the bench and just watch my team play and execute."

She deserves that luxury some games, considering how much everybody else enjoys seeing her at work. -- Mechelle Voepel

Crowley wins ESPN.com Coach of the Year honors

Even with the services of Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims -- services, it should be noted, their coach worked long hours on the recruiting trail to secure -- not a lot of people could do what Baylor's Kim Mulkey did in running over the Big 12 and running off an undefeated regular season that included wins against Connecticut and Notre Dame.

Not a lot of people could do what Tina Martin did this season at Delaware, managing the Elena Delle Donne phenomenon and guiding the Blue Hens to the top 10 and what's likely to be a strong seed in the NCAA tournament.

Jim Crowley
Jim Crowley had led St. Bonaventure to its greatest season in program history: a 29-3 record, a perfect A-10 regular season ... and surely an NCAA at-large bid.

Not a lot of people could do what Geno Auriemma did in replacing one of the greatest players in the history of women's college basketball and still winning a Big East tournament title with Connecticut. Not a lot of people could do what Matt Bollant did at the mid-major level, losing two of the best players in Green Bay history and coming back with a one-loss regular season and a top-10 national ranking. Ditto the sentiment for Muffet McGraw and Kim Barnes Arico.

But take St. Bonaventure to the NCAA tournament? Lead that school into the top 25 and to an undefeated regular-season championship in the Atlantic 10? Make the Bonnies -- the Bonnies -- nationally relevant?

Nobody was supposed to be able to do that. But Jim Crowley did.

Rewind the tape six years, and if St. Bonaventure wasn't the worst women's program in Division I, you could see the bottom of the ladder from where it sat -- making that basement, frankly, about the only thing close to Olean, N.Y.

Seemingly out of its depth in the near-major Atlantic 10 as a school of about 2,000 about 75 miles south of Buffalo, St. Bonaventure began playing Division I women's basketball in 1986. By the time the 2005-06 season wrapped up, the Bonnies owned a 219-339 record in the highest level. That record of futility included just four winning seasons, the grandest of which was a 16-12 campaign. Needless to say, they had no NCAA tournament appearances.

Slowly, after almost losing his job with five seasons of single-digit wins, Crowley began to turn things around. He committed to his system, and his teams won at least 20 games in each of the past three seasons. Nevertheless, those teams never managed better than a 9-5 record in conference play, never made it out of the quarterfinals in the conference tournament and never made it to the NCAA tournament. The rest of the A-10 was so impressed by the progress that it picked the Bonnies to finish sixth this season, just one spot ahead of a Xavier team that lost two of the top-eight picks in last year's WNBA draft, a starting point guard, its best outside shooter and its coach.

Not only did the Bonnies match Xavier's accomplishment of the past two seasons by going undefeated in the league en route to a regular-season title, they did it by beating the two preseason co-favorites, Dayton and Temple, on the road. They also won on the road at West Virginia and St. John's, teams that combined to go 27-4 in their other home games and which both advanced to the semifinals of the Big East tournament.

It's a team built with kids any program with a bigger brand name could have had but only Crowley sought. It's built around Jessica Jenkins, a shooter from Ohio who nobody wanted as a point guard. It's built around Megan Van Tatenhove, an undersized post from Wisconsin. It's built around upstate kids such as Alaina Walker, and it's built around New York City kids such as Doris Ortega, CeCe Dixon and Armelia Horton, players who never got as much attention as the superstars that city churns out on an annual basis. And in the oldest measure of any coach, Crowley will take his and beat yours, to the tune of a 29-3 record entering the NCAA tournament.

Crowley's offense is built on valuing possession. No team in the nation turns over the ball less. His defense is built on forcing teams to use as much of the shot clock as possible. Bonaventure is No. 20 in scoring defense. If coaching is about coming up with a system that fits a philosophy, finding players who fit that system within the scope of your recruiting reach and executing that system game in and game out, home and away, Crowley has hit it out of the park.

A baseball fan through and through, Crowley didn't have to plow under any corn to build on his basketball dream in upstate New York, but the St. Bonaventure coach constructed something out of an athletic landscape largely barren since the heyday of Bob Lanier, who led the Bonnies to the men's Final Four more than four decades ago. When people wondered if it was time for Crowley to go, he believed in his vision.

If you build it, they will come has become if you build it, they will go -- to the NCAA tournament, where the Bonnies are sure to land for the first time as an at-large.

A head coach for the first time at 22, a man almost out of a job just those few years ago, Crowley is more conversant with the language of failure than many of his peers. He doesn't act like the smartest person in the room. He takes his job seriously, takes himself less so. And a coach who has been to the professional abyss and made it back is at his most compelling in talking about that journey, about the fear that is the foundation of success.

"The thing that I don't know if enough people understand is when you lose, you don't believe in anything," Crowley said. "You want to change it, so you try anything. Our stuff works now because we've been fortunate enough to not lose. If we lose four or five in a row, do our kids stop believing in it and do we feel like we have to change?"

The good news for Crowley is it's going to take his team a couple seasons to lose five games, which is why his players aren't likely to stop believing in the 2011-12 ESPN.com Coach of the Year any time soon. -- Graham Hays

Duke's Williams is ESPN.com's Freshman of the Year

Some freshmen enter a big-time program and eventually make an impact. Few enter a big-time program and make an immediate one. Duke's Elizabeth Williams is one of the latter.

Elizabeth Williams
Duke's Elizabeth Williams is the only freshman among the 15 finalists for the Wooden player of the year award.

While Williams' post game is solid (and still developing), her defensive talents were already at an elite level when she arrived in Durham, N.C. The 6-foot-3 center posted a double-double with four blocks in just her second game and maintained a consistency not often seen with first-year players. Williams' triple-double (18 points, 16 rebounds, 12 blocks) against Wake Forest on Jan. 6 was one of the greatest individual performances of the season for any player.

A strong argument could be made that no rookie in ACC history had more influence on defense than Williams. Her 109 blocked shots were a conference single-season record, and Williams' 3.8 blocks per game ranked second nationally behind Brittney Griner. Williams even was second on the Blue Devils with 47 steals.

The Virginia Beach native also averaged a team-leading 14.3 points and 8.3 rebounds. Williams was also third on the team in assists.

With all of the great players who have come through the ACC, only three freshmen have been selected first-team all-conference: Williams, Duke's Alana Beard and North Carolina's Camille Little.

With teammate Chelsea Gray earning all-freshman team honors last season, Duke now has the point guard-post foundation most coaches drool over for the next two years. The scary part, however, is that for as good as Williams was as a freshman, she doesn't appear close to her ceiling. -- Charlie Creme