Lauren Cox is back.
After playing in Baylor's first two games, Cox missed the next eight with a foot injury. Her absence was most felt in Baylor's loss to South Carolina, when the front court of NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo struggle, with Smith shooting 9-for-22 and Egbo limited to just 14 minutes. The Lady Bears couldn't really play their game in that one, which resulted in the 74-59 loss.
But Baylor still managed to go 7-1 without Cox, a run that included a lot of dominant performances for a strong Lady Bears team, and even with the loss, Baylor's Cox-less portion of the year still saw them end up ranked sixth in the AP poll.
Now, Baylor has its star back. On Monday night, Cox played 22 minutes in her first game back, finishing with 10 points on 4-for-8 shoting along with six rebounds, five assists, and four blocks in a 94-47 win over Morehead State.
So, what can we expect from the Lady Bears now that they have Lauren Cox again?
What Lauren Cox brings to the floor
Because Baylor opened the season against New Hampsire and Grambling State and because Cox returned against Morehead State, you can make the argument that we haven't really seen Lauren Cox play since she left the National Champioship game with a knee injury.
So, it's been awhile since we've really seen a lot of Lauren Cox. Let's remember some things about her.
First, our cover story on Cox from this year's magazine is worth a read before you come back and finish this article. In it, Shehan Jeyarajah really captures how important Cox is to Baylor and what she brings as a leader for this team.
Cox's statistical profile doesn't necessarily jump off the page at you. Last year, her ranks (out of 3,234 players) in various categories looked like this: points (377th), rebounds (113th), assists (194th), and blocks (20th). Good numbers, but aside from blocks, she wasn't one of the collegiate leaders in those key categories.
It's the combination of everything that really matters. Cox has the ability to be a dominant post player on both ends, but also brings a great eye to things and is able to get the ball to her teammates without rurning it over. Last year, she ranked 32nd in assist-to-turnover ratio, and it's very rare that we see a post player who has the ability to move the ball around like Cox can. Having her on the floor is almost like giving your team another point guard. We could call her a point center if we wanted.
Efficiency is also a calling card of Cox's game. Last year, her points per possession ranked in the 96th percentile nationally, and the 98th percentile in the half court. She was excellent on post-up possessions, scoring in the 92nd percentile while posting up on 28.8 percent of her possesions.
Queen Egbo has posted up on 33.8 percent of her possessions this year and is scoring in the 90th percentile on those looks, so Baylor hasn't taken a big step back in terms of post up efficiency with Cox out, but Egbo struggled to replicate Cox's numbers in other areas, especially in producing off offensive rebounds. Cox is one of the best put-back scorers in the country, and her ability to generate and then convert on second looks will be a key addition to the Baylor offense.
And then there's Cox's defensive value.
In 376 defensive possessions last season, Cox allowed 0.636 points per possession to opposing players, good for the 86th percentile. She ranked in the 80th percentile or better when defending spot ups, pick-and-rolls, and post ups. She blocked 2.6 shots per game and along with Kalani Brown anchored a Baylor defense that allowed just 55.7 points per game last year, the 12th lowest mark in DI.
Having Cox back inside means that Baylor's defense — which has been good without her, but also has allowed over 60 points to three of the four major conference foes that they've faced — has a reliable anchor in the middle. Egbo and Smith are good players, but a team with championship aspirations doesn't usually get there with a frontcourt made up of Sophomores. Having Cox's veteran leadership, shot blocking, and ability to bully opposing bigs is a crucial step in Baylor's path towards another championship.
Is the women's basketball landscape wide open this year?
Despite being ranked sixth in the country, there's a valid argument to be made that a healthy Lauren Cox pushes Baylor right back to the top of the college basketball landscape.
Let's start at the zenith of the sport. UConn — who the Bears play next week — is currently ranked number one. This was supposed to be a bit of a down year for the Huskies after they lost Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, but they've managed to play stellar basketball en route to a 10-0 start. Oregon and star Sabrina Ionescu beat Team USA, but they also lost to Louisville and play in a tough Pac 12 that features three of the current AP Top 5. That kind of conference competition has the capacity to knock at least one of those teams out of that top five.
It's a strong year at the top, but it doesn't neccessarily feel like there's anything insurmountable there, anything that could keep Baylor from staking it's claim as the best team in college basketball by the time the regular season closes. We'll know more after the UConn game, as it's likely to feature both teams at full strength, but if the Lady Bears manage to win that one — and remember that the game is in Hartford, which will work in UConn's favor — then they should emerge relatively unscathed in Big 12 play, because while the conference features some solid basketball teams including a Texas Longhorns squad that's taken down some great competition, Baylor still looks and feels like a team that's a shoulder or two above the rest of their conference mates.