Nebraska looks to take down Baylor on Sunday
The last time we saw a Nebraska team playing a big game in the Lone Star state, Ndamukong Suh was offering a one-man tutorial on defensive dominance at the expense of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy in the Big 12 championship game.
On Sunday in Waco, a different collection of Cornhuskers will find themselves on the opposite side from a player who, like Suh, seems capable of single-handedly changing the course of a game on the defensive end. But as imposing as Baylor's Brittney Griner is on both ends of a basketball court, Nebraska's own defense might again determine its success or failure as an underdog.
Tied with Baylor at No. 9 in this week's rankings, the loftiest perch in program history, Nebraska has already beaten a pair of ranked opponents en route to a 15-0 record. But those wins against LSU and Texas came at home in Lincoln, where even in the midst of a disappointing 15-16 campaign last season, the Huskers went 11-4. Winning at Iowa State a week ago to open conference play was a start, but the next step toward solidifying a place as a contender necessarily comes in winning on the road against a team like Baylor.
At first glance, it's a game of contrasts. Baylor is ranked No. 15 in the nation in scoring defense (54.3 points per game) and No. 3 in field goal defense (31.1 percent), numbers only enhanced by Griner making the lane essentially a no-fly zone. Led by Kelsey Griffin with 19.2 points per game, Nebraska is No. 9 in the nation in scoring offense and No. 6 in field goal percentage (47.5 percent).
Of course, if Baylor's defense has always been its calling card on Kim Mulkey's watch, it's not the full extent of her arsenal. The Lady Bears actually rank ahead of the Huskers in both aforementioned offensive categories; in fact, only Connecticut shoots a better percentage from the field. But neither is Nebraska's defense a weak link any longer.
Nebraska was, to put it humanely, a bad defensive team last season. It ranked ninth in the Big 12 in scoring defense and next to last in field goal defense. The Cornhuskers didn't rebound and didn't create turnovers. But just as the offense has coalesced around Griffin, who sat out last season with a foot injury, the team's defense has also rebounded with the All-American's return.
"We're a lot better defensive team than we were a year ago," said coach Connie Yori after a win against Vermont earlier this month. "People recognize what Kelsey is doing for us offensively, but she's a good off-the-ball defender, she's a good on-the-ball defender, she understands our defensive system. She makes us a lot better defensively. Then throw in how great a defensive rebounder she's become."
Led by Griffin, Nebraska has transformed last season's rebounding deficit into a double-digit edge on opponents this season. Like Baylor's backcourt, guards Yvonne Turner and Dominique Kelley get in the mix on the boards. And even if junior Catheryn Redmon isn't Griner, she is among the nation's leading shot-blockers. All told, Yori's team ranks in the top 15 nationally in both rebound margin and field goal defense. The 50-44 halftime score of Tuesday's eventual 91-79 win against Texas might suggest it's still a team built around success at the other end, but defense isn't necessarily about keeping an opponent below 50 points. Sometimes it's about having more stops in you than your opponent, and it was Texas that couldn't get the baskets it needed down the stretch.
"When we had our offseason, we took full advantage," said Griffin earlier this season. "Not only in shooting but also in our agility and our strength and things like that that can help us be more athletic, be more physical to get rebounds, to get defense.
"And also I think it just comes with another year of experience. You know, our coach says a year older doesn't necessarily mean a year better; that's definitely one of the lines she let us know. But at the same time, I think players got to appreciate how important our system and team defense is, and the lack of it last year. So definitely in this preseason, we locked in -- [we] had one of the best preseasons since I've been here, as far as our conditioning."
All that work will get its biggest test Sunday against Baylor.