Women's basketball preview: Can anyone beat Baylor?

Justin Edmonds

Behind 6'8 superstar Britney Griner, the Lady Bears went 40-0 and won a national title last year. We brought in SB Nation's women's basketball blogger to talk about whether a repeat is in the cards.

Nate Parham is the managing editor of SBNation's excellent women's college basketball blog Swish Appeal. You can follow him on Twitter at NateP_SBN.

Geno Auriemma's suggestion that women's basketball consider lowering the rims has drawn a lot of attention in the last few weeks. As a writer who covers the sport, what has been the fans reaction to Auriemma's comments and what's your personal opinion?

Most fans seem opposed to Auriemma's suggestion about lowering the rims in large part because they're already committed to a game of basketball played with a 10 foot hoop without dunks. But to Auriemma's point about broadening the appeal of women's basketball, my feeling is exactly what Bob Ryan said recently on Around the Horn: there are people who simply won't watch women's basketball for a variety of reasons and lowering the rims would almost be more reason to treat the game as something inferior to the men's game rather than it's own brand of ball.

Yet none of that means that we should dismiss the underlying theme of Auriemma's statements, which included more than just lowering the rims: at some point people will need to step back and figure out how to help the game grow. Speeding up the game is a large part of that, but I think his suggestion of a 24-second shot clock and 8-second backcourt violation would probably help that more than lowering rims. And ultimately, part of the problem in growing the game has been depth of talent - setting aside stale discussion about whether UConn's win streak was good for the game, true "Cinderella" teams are tough to come by on the women's side which can certainly make things seem pre-determined to the casual fan.

Baylor returns most of the players, including stars Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims, from last year's 40-0 champions. Is is possible that they could be even better than last season's bunch?

Yes, simply because Griner and Sims will almost certainly be better than last year - Griner has taken on the challenge of becoming a better offensive rebounder and Sims should only become a better defender with age. The only thing you could even possibly look at as a concern is who will fill the role of Terran Condrey, who was big for them against Stanford in the Final Four, and even that is reaching to look for a concern.

Which teams on Baylor's schedule have the best chance of upsetting the Lady Bears and who is going to be their biggest threat once the NCAA Tournament starts?

I would imagine the game that most people have circled in that regard is their December 5 meeting with Notre Dame in South Bend - Skylar Diggins is something of a superstar in the women's basketball world and winning in South Bend is no easy task. But having lost Natalie Novosel and Devereaux Peters to the WNBA as well as gritty point guard Brittany Mallory it's not clear if they'll have enough to take down Baylor.

Other teams to watch for: Kentucky has the athletes to pressure Baylor, though Odyssey Sims is like a one-woman press break. They play Connecticut in Storrs, which is a test for any team though that would depend a lot on the play of UConn center Stefanie Dolson and - again - UConn's ability to stop Sims. The sleeper team - and maybe not for those that watched closely - is Iowa State. They played Baylor extremely well early in conference play last season simply by spreading the floor with the range that their posts have and hitting a ton of threes. While one would suspect that Baylor is ready for that this season - and given that they won the game, they really found a counter for it in the second half of that very game - the familiarity of Big 12 opponents like Iowa State is probably the most likely formula for an upset.

If Baylor does manage to go undefeated again, how big of an accomplishment would it be and where would you rank this two-year run in the history of the sport?

Well, you'd immediately have to compare it to UConn's run of 90 straight games. And beyond that, Tennessee's runs of consecutive championships in the late 90's and the UConn championship teams from 2002-2004 were both extremely impressive teams although they lost games.

The question might come down to looking at the bigger picture: How good is this team beyond Griner? By way of example, UConn didn't win three consecutive championships in that period of winning 90 straight games, but found their way back to the Final Four in 2011 after winning 2010 WNBA Rookie of the Year and 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles. Yes, they had Maya Moore on that team who followed Charles as WNBA RoY and got a few MVP votes of her this year, but it's a testament to just how dominant that team was that they were able to lose a major cog and remain extremely competitive.

I'm very intrigued by incoming Texas freshman Imani Stafford -- 6'7, McDonald's All-American, the half-sister of (the peerless) Javale McGee. How does she compare to Griner at the same age and what's her ceiling as a player?

I try not to read too much into recruiting rankings, but right away the fact that Stafford was ranked #3 among centers while Griner was the top recruit in the nation makes you wonder how ready Stafford is to contribute right. That said, they seem like very different players - Griner was a pure interior player in terms of her offensive skill set and we all know about her defensive prowess. Stafford seems to have a more diverse skill set, but that can be construed as a challenge for a center: how much of that will translate to the college game when she's playing the likes of Griner or Texas A&M's Kelsey Bone? Setting aside the hype about Griner's dunking ability coming into college, it was obvious that her defensive instincts would allow her to dominate the game right away and with strength her offensive game would get to where it is now. While a 6'7" center is going to impact a game defensively, there are questions about how ready she is offensively.

Ultimately, holding anyone to the Griner Standard is difficult - she changes the entire way opponents play the game. There aren't a lot of star 6'7" comparisons to make in women's basketball though - Stafford has an opportunity to carve out her own legacy at Texas.

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