With the Baylor Lady Bears standing just one game from tying the record for most wins in a women's college basketball season, there's an obvious inclination to begin comparing them to undefeated teams of the past.
Coach Kim Mulkey has done her best to downplay Baylor's pursuit of perfection by staying focused on the one thing her team still lacks: a national championship. And while becoming the first team to reach the 40-win plateau would be special, the reality is a 39th win isn't a given at this point. Getting past the Ogwumike-led Stanford Cardinal in the Final Four is no simple task.
Nevertheless, Baylor is on the cusp of tying four past teams with 39 wins (Connecticut in 2001-02, 2008-09 and 2009-10, and Tennessee in 1997-98) and already has surpassed two other undefeated champions (Connecticut in 1994-95 and Texas in 1985-86). Comparing the Lady Bears to those undefeated teams of the past may help us put their accomplishments into perspective. Although a statistical comparison of the Lady Bears to those past undefeated teams might not tell the full story, it does lay the groundwork for figuring out where they might stand should they reach 40 wins.
ESPN Stats & Information compiled statistics comparing the six undefeated teams back in 2010 and looked at their scoring output and differentials. Baylor's 78.9 points per game and plus-26.9 point-scoring differential would rank near the bottom of that list, but some additional numbers might be helpful in seeing where Baylor fits and what information might be missing.
The gold standard for undefeated teams seems pretty clear. Every time ESPN analysts are asked to rank the best undefeated teams of all time, the No. 1 team is nearly unanimous: the 2002 Connecticut Huskies. It's difficult to argue with that conclusion. Regardless of record, any team with future WNBA All-Stars like Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Diana Taurasi is going to have a legitimate claim in the most talented team debate. Their statistics only reinforce that argument.
A look at offensive efficiency -- the points they scored per possession -- starts to further demonstrate what made UConn's 2001-02 team so great. Its 1.21 points per possession was the most of any undefeated team. (Only the 2008-09 UConn team came close to challenging that at 1.20.) A comparison of the teams based on statistician Dean Oliver's Four Factors -- shooting efficiency, turnover percentage, offensive rebounding percentage and free throw rate -- further illustrates the point. Not only did the 2002 unit post the highest shooting efficiency (56.94 percent effective field goal percentage) among the undefeated ranks, but it also had the highest offensive rebounding percentage (44.95 percent) and held opponents to the lowest (27.52 percent) for the greatest offensive rebounding differential of any team.
The 2002 edition of the Huskies was extremely efficient on offense and had the ability to extend possessions with offensive rebounds while preventing opponents from doing the same. They were efficient and, most of all, deep.
The focus on UConn helps highlight a key point that has to be answered when turning the focus to Baylor: balance and depth. Part of what made UConn's 2002 team so efficient on offense was a level of balance that its fellow undefeated teams struggle to match statistically.
According to John Hollinger's pure point rating, the two most efficient ball handlers among undefeated teams were Bird and Taurasi, with the next-closest being Tennessee's Kellie Jolly Harper. Connecticut's scoring was distributed almost evenly among their four future WNBA All-Stars. Those who weren't relied upon heavily for scoring were crashing the boards, with Tamika Williams leading the team in offensive rebounding by percentage and Ashley Battle leading on the defensive boards.
Mulkey has said the Lady Bears aren't just about 6-foot-8 star center Brittney Griner. Point guard Odyssey Sims is one of the best floor leaders in the nation for her defensive impact and offensive abilities, while the rebounding of Brooklyn Pope and Destiny Williams can't be ignored as complements to Griner. However, in terms of a comprehensive statistical analysis, the Lady Bears still look one- or two-dimensional compared to the standard set by the 2001-02 Huskies -- Griner and Sims account for nearly 50 percent of Baylor's scoring.
Looking down the list of past undefeated teams, it becomes clear that depth, particularly in scoring distribution, is a sticking point for Baylor. Mechelle Voepel's UConn hierarchy (2001-02, 2008-09, 2009-10) described in the previous analysis of undefeated teams made a lot of sense: The 2008-09 combination of Tina Charles, Kalana Greene, Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore was not quite as balanced as the 2001-02 team but was nearly as efficient in part thanks to 37.3 percent 3-point shooting. The 2009-10 UConn team was devoid of the leadership at point guard from Montgomery, but its defense improved, as it allowed the fewest points per possession among this group and held opponents to the lowest shooting efficiency (33.60 percent effective field goal percentage) and free throw rate (18.43 percent).
The 1997-98 Lady Vols championship team deserves mention and also might have an advantage over 2011-12 Baylor. Tennessee's team was the least efficient of the bunch offensively (1.10 points per possession) but a force to be reckoned with on the boards (44.06 percent offensive rebounding percentage, second-highest of the undefeated group) and forced opponents into the highest rate of turnovers of any undefeated team, which helped it find second-chance and fast-break points. But, ultimately, that 1997-98 Tennessee team may be sold short by statistics.
The rebounding and turnover numbers do tell part of the Lady Vols' story. Although the team wasn't the most efficient, it was able to create easy baskets for itself. Yet similar to high-pressure defensive teams among the elite today, there is an immeasurable impact imposed on opponents by using pressure to prevent them from even finding a rhythm offensively. When you consider the way the 1997-98 Lady Vols played defense, it's quite clear why this team was widely considered the best ever after winning the championship.
That unquantifiable defensive intensity helps illustrate why it is so difficult to rank Baylor among undefeated teams of the past.
Much has been made of how Griner's 199 blocks (and the many other unrecorded altered shots) has forced opponents to become perimeter-oriented teams, choosing to retreat beyond the arc rather than challenge her in the post. Baylor's opponents have had 730 3-point attempts this season and made only 194 (26.6 percent). Even if we dismiss Baylor in this discussion as one- or two-dimensional, it is carving out a somewhat unique place in women's basketball history highlighted by Griner's singularity. Many teams are incapable of establishing anything resembling their normal style of play against Baylor, giving up on going into the paint altogether.
That intangible defensive ability is a large part of what might put the 1997-98 Lady Vols just ahead of the 2008-09 and 2009-10 UConn teams in the minds of some. And although we might not want to put Baylor in quite that same class yet, those intangible factors would keep them in the discussion about the best 39-win teams, even if a comparative lack of depth this season keeps them from being considered among the best of the bunch.
Perhaps that leads to a connected point: the 2012-13 season.
Baylor will return all of its core contributors, in addition to adding a promising group of freshman talent. Griner and Sims will only get better. Next season's team could be even more formidable and better suited for a conversation about the best teams in women's basketball history.
And if they do find themselves winning the title this season, the Lady Bears could find themselves among a more selective group of teams after the 2012-13 season: back-to-back champions.
Nate Parham blogs about college and pro women's basketball for SB Nation's Swish Appeal. He can be reached at SwishAppeal@gmail.com.