As a basketball coach, Kim Mulkey knows divas. She also knows how easy it is to become one, particularly for a 6-8 woman who can play above the rim like no one else in the history of the women's game.
That's why the Baylor coach is so proud to note that Brittney Griner has kept her feet on the ground -- at least when she's not rising up to throw down a dunk or block a shot. The junior center has been one of the most talked-about players in women's basketball since her freshman year. Already a two-time All-America, she is poised to make another leap this year, after adding 20 pounds of muscle and spending her summer playing with Team USA.
Sunday, the Gophers will try their hand at slowing Griner and the rest of the top-ranked Lady Bears at Williams Arena. They will see a player who is stronger, more mobile on defense and overflowing with desire to win a national championship. What they won't see, Mulkey said, is a diva, which makes her love Griner all the more.
"People see that big body, and they expect her to be a brute, to be a mean person," said Mulkey, whose team is 7-0 this season with victories over No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 6 Tennessee. "That is so not Brittney. She is the most pleasant, humble, fun-loving, people-pleasing kid. ... If she continues to mature and stay hungry, which I know she will, I can only imagine how much better she will become.''
That is a fearsome thought for any team on Baylor's schedule. With a wingspan of 7 feet, 4 inches and a standing reach of 9-2, Griner's size alters opponents' strategies. Add in her smooth moves in the low post, her shooting ability and her quick, size-17 feet, and her package of skills makes her dominant on both ends of the floor.
Griner, who dunked 52 times as a high school senior, has done so five times in college. She is averaging a career-high 24.4 points this year and has hit double figures in her past 47 contests. Though Griner is routinely double- and triple-teamed, that is a risky strategy given Baylor's balance. Give her too much attention, and you free up point guard Odyssey Sims (19.3 points per game) and forward Destiny Williams (11.2).
Gophers forwards Katie Loberg (6-4) and Jackie Voigt (6-1) will literally have a tall order in defending Griner. Coach Pam Borton said her team will have to "try everything we have in our magic hat'' to get in Griner's way without taking it easy on her teammates.
"It's going to be a collective job as a post group," Voigt said. "We need to be active and make her work for every single shot, for every pass that's thrown to her. We have to make her make plays. And if their shooters are hot, you have to pick your poison."
Griner also poses a challenge to the Gophers offense. She has blocked 429 shots in 79 career games and set an NCAA single-season record with 223 blocks as a freshman. She even makes teams change game plans. Last season, the Lady Bears' opponents took 750 shots from beyond the three-point line, compared to 570 in the season before she arrived.
Still, she continues to improve. Griner was heartbroken by Baylor's loss to Texas A&M in an NCAA regional final last season, which drove her to make the weight room her summer home. Her additional muscle has helped her maintain position in the post and withstand the constant beatings she takes, and she also has worked to become more aggressive on the offensive boards.
Mulkey noted that Griner, a co-captain last year, flourished in that role. She is the sole captain this season.
"My goal is to always get better, to never be content with where I'm at,'' Griner said. "I always want to learn more. The way last year ended was all the motivation I needed to get in the gym and do whatever I had to do. I am very driven to win a national championship this year."
Borton called Griner a one-of-a-kind player, wondering whether there will ever be another like her. Mulkey isn't sure she will come across many who can measure up to her, for lots of reasons.
"We will see great players throughout the game,'' she said. "But how many will we ever see who can say they play above the rim? She does things that no other players have done. She has changed the way all of us think."