In a college basketball season where the Final Four is a disaster and ratings nightmare for CBS, there is only one thing that has kept me watching the NCAA tournament this year. She is a 6’8″ freshman center from Houston, Texas who wears a men’s shoe size of 18. Brittney Griner of Baylor University is the only show in town this weekend and she’s not in Indianapolis where’s the men’s games are being held.
Unfortunately, the men’s Final Four features a who’s who of walking boredom with no first-team All-Americans, the only number one seed (Duke) is one that is widely hated and nobody wanted (or picked to be) here, Michigan State is without its best player, Butler has the tired Hoosiers schtick down and West Virginia is missing point guard again but has the best player left in the tourney in DaSean Butler, who only made the second team in the All-American honors.
On the women’s side there are two primary storylines that will collide on Sunday night in San Antonio. The University of Connecticut Huskies have won 76 straight games and have defeated their opponents in the tournament by an average of 47 points. Geno Auriemma’s squad is the most dominant force in college basketball and the term dynasty just can’t apply to a team that has not lost a game in three seasons, wins games by nearly seven touchdowns and makes news when they trail at the half, as they did to Stanford earlier this season. We need a new term to describe this kind of success.
Then there is Griner, who is the biggest story in both NCAA tournaments this year, bigger than Butler, bigger than the Kansas upset by Northern Iowa and bigger than CBS’s floundering ratings. Griner is a 6’8″ monster. In the regular season, she averaged 18.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and just under 6.5 blocks a game for a Baylor squad that won 27 games on their to a four seed in the tournament.
The freshman was a veritable Wilt Chamberlain at times this year, clearly a bigger physical presence than most others on the floor, shooting over defenders, dunking when others cannot, blocking shots all over the place and dominating every aspect of the inside game.
In the postseason, Griner has averaged 17 points, 8 rebounds and an astonishing 9 blocks a game. Griner has already set a record for blocks in a single NCAA tournament with 35 total swats and Baylor is still playing. The Bears have defeated perennial powers Duke and Tennessee on their run. Griner was the story in both games, putting up 27 points and blocking 10 shots in the win over Pat Summit’s Lady Vols and finishing one block short of a triple-double against the Blue Devils, tallying 15 points, 11 rebounds and 9 blocked shots.
Images of Wilt Chamberlain conjure comparisons to Griner because of the physical difference on the court. But like Wilt, Griner has not led her teams to championships. Before enrolling at Baylor, she led Houston’s Nimitz High School to the Texas 5A State Championship game where they fell short to Mansfield Summit, 52-43.
While Griner’s physical prowess reminds most of Wilt, her on-the-court abilities conjure more of a Bill Russell vibe for me. I’ve had the opportunity to watch some of her tournament games in the last two weeks and her ability to defend the basket and keep balls in play on blocked shots is uncanny, just like Russell’s was. The number of shots she blocks or changes in a given game has to exceed 20. If a team takes 55 shots in a game, that means that Griner has affected nearly half of the attempts. Against Duke (a 51-48 win to put the Bears into the Final Four), the Blue Devils shot just 23 percent from the field. What would they have shot if Griner hadn’t made her presence known with her 9 blocks? How many other shots did she alter? Had the Devils made just ten more buckets, they would have shot 39 percent and won the game by double figures.
More than any other basketball player still playing (regardless of gender), Griner has that “wow” factor that fans so lust after. Her 6’8″ frame allows her to do things on the basketball court that others can’t. In January of 2007, a YouTube video of her dunking in a high school game circulated the Web. Her first dunk in a collegiate game came in just the fifth game of her career. She dunked twice in a 99-18 blowout of Texas State University. On December 16, Griner set the Big 12 Conference record for blocked shots in a game with 11 against Oral Roberts. In a side note, she had a triple-double in that contest, scoring a career-high 34 points and grabbing 11 boards. It was the first triple-double in Baylor history.
In addition to holding the record for most blocks in an NCAA tournament, Griner also holds the record for the most rejections in one NCAA tournament game, tallying 14 in Baylor’s win over Georgetown. Be reminded that Ms. Griner is just a freshman.
On Sunday night, the Bears look to continue their run in the tournament by taking on UConn. While no one expects a win, the attention on this game is paramount for women’s basketball. The dominance of the Huskies combined with the spectacle that Brittney Griner has become will make this one of the most watched women’s basketball games in television history. Perhaps the only thing better would have been if Baylor and UConn were on different sides of the bracket and could meet in a championship game on Tuesday night.
For Griner, her freshman year has been an amazing ride and she may have come along at a time when women’s college basketball needed her the most. She plays the game above the rim like most fans of the men’s game expect to see it. She runs the court like Amar’e Stoudemire and protects the rim like Dwight Howard. Video of her dunking has become so common it can longer be referred to as viral. I know I will be watching when she takes the court against the Huskies on Sunday and I’m sure many other male sports fans who never cared for the women’s game are planning to do the same.
Most importantly, we must always be reminded that she is a freshman. Imagine when (if?) she plays as a senior and has a more polished offensive game and an even better sense of what she can do physically. Maybe she will even grow a couple more inches as college freshmen tend to do.
No matter what happens against UConn on Easter Sunday, Brittney Griner has done something UConn’s 76-game winning streak has not been able to do: capture a national audience.