After the 2020-21 season, Baylor was looking for a new coach when Kim Mulkey went to LSU. The Bears set their eyes on Arizona’s Adia Barnes, who had just led her team to the national title game for the first time in program history. Arizona responded by giving Barnes her second raise within a few months, making her one of the few seven-figure coaches in women’s basketball.
Nicki Collen was hired as the Bears’ new head coach, lured from the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, which had just drafted former Arizona star Aari McDonald. Collen has done a solid job of keeping Baylor on track since taking over.
The Bears went 28-7 last year. Like the Wildcats, they bowed out in the second round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament on their home court.
This season, they are off to an 8-2 start that includes facing three teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 at the time the games were played. They have gone 1-2 in those games, losing by five to Maryland at home and by nine to Michigan on a neutral court.
With the Top 20 matchup between Baylor and Arizona in Dallas, just 90 minutes from the Bears’ campus in Waco, it’s bound to be a great atmosphere. It’s also likely to be hostile to the Wildcats despite the game being part of the Pac-12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge organized by the conference.
Arizona is fortunate to have played in a hostile environment against New Mexico on Dec. 4. For a team comprised predominantly of freshmen and transfers, having several thousand opposing fans in the stands won’t be a new thing. What will be a new thing is playing in their first nationally-televised game of the season as the two teams go at it on ESPN2.
A bigger problem for the Wildcats is that their only game against a quality opponent resulted in a blowout in McKale Center at the hands of Kansas. While Baylor has lost two of its three games against quality opponents, both losses were single-digit losses.
According to the NET, KU is the best competition either team has played, coming in at No. 19 to Michigan’s No. 21 and Maryland’s No. 24. Other ranking systems disagree, with Her Hoop Stats placing both Michigan (16) and Maryland (18) above Kansas (23). According to the rankings of the stats service, the bigger issue is that BU has already faced four teams in its top 100 while Kansas is UA’s only top 100 opponent.
Although the competition level must be kept in mind when comparing the teams, the results in the early part of the season suggest that this will be a test between Arizona’s offense and Baylor’s defense. For Arizona fans, the concern is that the difference between the two teams’ offenses is not as big as the Bears’ superiority on defense.
Arizona has scored 110.9 points per 100 possessions this season compared to Baylor’s 109.1. On the defensive end, the Bears have allowed their opponents to score 73.7 points per 100 possessions while the Wildcats are allowing 78.7 against weaker competition.
Barnes has said repeatedly during the nonconference portion of the season that she is not worried about her team’s offense. It’s the defense that has concerned her. While she did not reiterate that after Thursday’s win over Texas Southern, the first half of that game was evidence for such statements.
The Lady Tigers came into the game 0-8 and averaging 54 points per game. During the first half, they scored 40 points on the Wildcats while shooting 50 percent overall and 50 percent from three-point distance. If they had hit more than 7 of the 12 free throws they were awarded in the first half, the picture would have been even bleaker. For a team as small and inexperienced as TSU, getting to the line 23 times against the Wildcats suggested issues within Arizona’s defense that could be a much bigger concern against a more experienced team.
In many games this season—including their last matchup—the Wildcats have allowed open lanes to the basket for drivers while also giving up open threes. That was again a problem in the early going against TSU.
When they weren’t giving up open lanes or three-point shots, the Wildcats were committing fouls. Shaina Pellington had three fouls in the second quarter, two of which were on defense, while her teammates were unable to keep up with speedy guards far too often. At one point, Cate Reese was forced to guard the 5-foot-3 Kamryn Bates as she sped down the court because no one else picked up the ball.
That’s a concern since Baylor has a lot of offensive weapons. Seven players average double figures for the Bears. They are led by guards Sarah Andrews and Aijha Blackwell at 13.3 apiece, although Blackwell has only played in four games. She returned in Baylor’s last contest after missing a month to injury.
In general, the Bears are a team that scores inside the arc. They shoot just 33.5 percent from beyond the arc but hit 52.9 percent of their shots from inside the three-point line. With only three healthy post players, the Wildcats could end up in foul trouble if their guards don’t help Reese, Esmery Martinez, and Maya Nnaji.
That was a problem for Reese against Kansas. She started the game with nine points and five rebounds, but picked up two fouls in the first half and was sent to the bench with 4:49 to go in the second quarter.
If the Bears do go to the line, there is a silver lining for the Wildcats. Like Arizona, Baylor has difficulties from the free-throw line. In fact, the Wildcats’ 67.3 percent average from the stripe is considerably better than the Bears’ 62.4 percent.
Can Arizona overcome the crowd, the big occasion of its first nationally televised game of the season, and its defensive struggles to get its first signature win of the season? It will take a team effort and playing the “Arizona defense” that Reese spoke of after the Wildcats’ second-half improvement against Texas Southern.
No. 18 Baylor Bears (8-2, 0-0 Big 12) vs No. 20 Arizona Wildcats (8-1, 0-0 Pac-12)
When: Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022 at 5:30 p.m. MST
Where: American Airlines Arena in Dallas, Tex.
Streaming: Watch ESPN
Radio: Listen to the call by Derrick Palmer online on The Varsity Network or on the radio at KTUC 1400 AM.
Rankings: Arizona is ranked No. 20 by the Associated Press and No. 17 by the WBCA. Baylor is ranked No. 18 by both the AP and the WBCA.
The Wildcats come in at No. 40 in the NET and No. 25 according to Her Hoop Stats. The stats service has them at No. 24 on offense and No. 31 on defense. The Bears are No. 12 according to both the NET and HHS. The stats service ranks them No. 15 on offense and No. 9 on defense.
Projections: For the first time this season, Her Hoop Stats does not project Arizona to win its game. The stats service gives Baylor a 76.9 percent probability to win in Waco, a 68 percent chance to win on a neutral court, and even a 57.7 percent probability to win in McKale Center.
The Bears are projected to win by 8.9 points in Waco and 5.6 on a neutral court. Considering that this game’s proximity to Baylor’s campus puts it somewhere between a home game and a neutral-court game, the probability and margin should be viewed accordingly.