After an uneven start to the 2019-20 college season, the Texas Longhorns and head coach Karen Aston have righted the ship. Texas is 6-2 in conference play and 14-6 overall. They've dropped Big 12 games to West Virginia and TCU, a pair of teams who are also in the conversation – or were, as WVU has struggled lately – for role of second-best team in the conference, but the Longhorns are currently riding a five-game winning streak. This is a team that's now back on the path to the NCAA Tournament, something they've done six seasons in a row.
That's all well and good, but on Friday night the Longhorns have to run into the buzzsaw that is the Baylor Lady Bears.
Baylor is 7-0 in conference play and 18-1 overall, with the lone loss coming against South Carolina back when Baylor star Lauren Cox was sidelined with a foot injury. The Lady Bears did play a couple of close games last week against TCU – who had a second half lead on Baylor – and Texas Tech, who got a powerful performance from Brittany Brewer to stay in it against the might of Kim Mulkey's squad.
So, this all leads us to Friday's game. Baylor. Texas. 6 p.m. on FS1. In Austin.
What can we expect to see?
How Texas can pull off the upset
It's really, really hard to beat the Baylor Lady Bears.
Texas should know. They lost to Baylor twice last year. They lost to Baylor three times the year before. The last time the Longhorns won this matchup? February 2017.
So, what can Texas do to make this game different from the last six?
Per Her Hoop Stats, there's not really any place where Texas has a significant statistical edge over Baylor, but they do have a higher 3-point attempt rate. Baylor is near the top of Division I in points per play, so maybe the Longhorns would be best served by slowing the game down and trying to work the ball around the outside?
Or maybe the key is center Charli Collier, who's developed into a strong inside-out presence for the Horns. Since conference play began, Collier has averaged 2.9 3-point attempts per game while also giving Texas 8.6 rebounds per game. That's included 7.1 defensive boards per contest, good for second in the Big 12 since conference games began.
Collier's seen her role increase lately, and if she can plant herself further from the basket and draw Lauren Cox away from the paint, it'll create driving lanes for Lashann Higgs and Sug Sutton. Texas having bigs with range – Joyner Holmes is taking 1.2 threes per game – can help Texas spread things out. Slow the game down, don't turn the ball over, and keep Bayor's best interior defenders from being able to control the paint on defense and you might have a chance to win. Texas Tech used Brewer in a different way than usual offensively to keep it close against Baylor, so Texas – whose bigs are even more established as threats from deep – can attempt to replicate that strategy.
How Baylor can avoid the upset
The thing about Baylor is that they've got the ability to adjust to whatever style of play they need to adjust to. While we think of the Lady Bears as a big-centric team – and it's true that they've been that, as you just need to take a look back at all the front court stars they've had over the years – they're also a team that's shown an ability to change their game up this year. The addition of Te'a Cooper and the strong play of Juicy Landrum have given Baylor an outside presence that wasn't quite there for last season's National Championship run, and having these strong shooters (plus having Lauren Cox, who has taken five threes all year, but with four of them coming against UConn as Baylor looked for ways to create offense against a good Huskies team) means that if Baylor faces a team that can stifle what they want to do on the interior with Cox, NaLyssa Smith, and Queen Egbo, Baylor can counter that with shooting.
It makes them impossible to figure out and extremely tough to defeat. TCU got close because Smith – who missed two games with an ankle sprain – was out and because Landrum never got her shot going. But Smith is back, and that game was just the second time all year that Landrum took at least three 3-pointers and failed to make one, with the other time being the South Carolina loss.
It takes a perfect storm of things to beat Baylor. How can they avoid the upset? By playing their game, and by adjusting if Texas can use its good frontcourt to force Baylor into having to play a different kind of game.