By Jeff Miller, special for USA TODAY
WACO, Texas — In Brittney Griner's first semester at Baylor, her school load included theater appreciation, sociology and a non-conference basketball schedule converted into a 13-1 start.
The 6-8 wunderkind dunked three times (twice in one game), recorded her first triple-double and immediately zeroed in on the Big 12 Conference women's record for blocks in a season.
But this semester, conference competition has proved much tougher. With the only returning Baylor starter from last season sidelined, the Lady Bears have dropped three of their first four Big 12 games and fallen out of the top 10 of the USA TODAY/ESPN poll. They fell four spots to 16th, after being ranked as high as fifth in late December and early January. The drop is not surprising since the Big 12 boasts six other teams in the poll.
"The intensity level went through the roof," Griner said of conference play. "You just have to experience it."
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey sees Griner as both immensely talented and tremendously eager to improve.
"As good as she is, Brittney understands she's never won a championship," said Mulkey, whose previous nine seasons at Baylor have included eight trips to the NCAA tournament and the 2005 national title. "She wants to win a championship and will do whatever it takes.
"She doesn't want to disappoint her coaches. … When you have a kid that's that good, that knows she can get so much better and doesn't have a prima donna attitude, there's a sweetness about her."
Griner entered the nation's sporting consciousness when a video of her dunking in practice during her sophomore year at Nimitz High School in Houston hit YouTube. But her recruitment was relatively low-key because she didn't start playing basketball until her freshman year (previously playing soccer and volleyball) and because she committed to Baylor after her sophomore season. Mulkey got a jump on the competition because Griner's summer league coach was the father of one of her players at the time, Jessica Morrow.
Griner's parents wanted her to attend a school close to home, and her father, Raymond Griner, valued a coach who had won a national title. Waco is about 200 miles northwest of Houston. Mulkey said Raymond told her, "I want Brittney to play for you or (Tennessee's) Pat Summitt, and I'm not moving to Knoxville."
"I don't remember saying anything about Knoxville," said Raymond, retired from the Harris County Sheriff's Department. But he was impressed that Mulkey shared his appetite for discipline.
As a senior, Griner averaged 27.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 8.2 blocks with 52 dunks.
Just a typical college kid
At Baylor, Griner probably isn't much different from other freshmen. She has seen Avatar four times.
Freshman teammate Shanay Washington is her unofficial wake-up service, pounding on the wall that separates their rooms. "That was last semester," Griner insisted. "I've gotten better at getting up."
Teammates describe her as goofy and funny. When discussing her athletic background, Griner said she gave up soccer because she was tired of playing in the heat and volleyball because of the uniforms: "I thought that was like the under stuff. 'This is it?' "
But teammates also say Griner, who likes to collect Pez dispensers, is down to earth.
Said senior Morghan Medlock: "She's one of the most social, well-mannered, nicest people you'll ever meet."
Said Washington: "She's levelheaded. Not like, 'Oh, I'm Brittney Griner.' "
Junior guard Kelli Griffin, from Houston's Clear Brook High, played with Griner in summer ball a few years ago. Griffin admitted she wasn't expecting much when she first saw the big girl at practice.
"Honestly, I thought she was going to be kind of uncoordinated," Griffin said. "Most girls her size can't do what she does. It was kind of a shock to me when we started the layup drills, for her to kind of hang on the rim. I think everybody was kind of shocked."
Building the excitement
Griner's college career began at Tennessee in the State Farm Tip-Off Classic. Summit relied primarily on zone defense for the first time in her coaching career to try to neutralize Griner. The freshman scored 15 points in the Lady Vols' 74-65 victory, Baylor's only loss in pre-conference play.
At Baylor, the Big 12's only private school and its smallest in undergraduate enrollment (12,149), fans are arriving early to watch her pregame dunk display, says Drew Pittman, director of operations for the Ferrell Center, the school's basketball facility.
Griner's numbers are down only slightly in Big 12 play. Overall for the Lady Bears (14-4), she ranks fourth in the league in scoring (18.6 points), fourth in rebounding (8.9) and first in blocks (5.9) while often facing double- and triple-team defenses.
With at least 13 games remaining, she is within 13 blocks of the women's Big 12 season record of 119 set by former Oklahoma star Courtney Paris (who also owns the Big 12 career record at 446).
Still, Baylor has missed its captain, junior guard Melissa Jones, out since Jan. 2 with a leg injury. Jones is Baylor's second-leading scorer (11.6) and its primary perimeter threat.
With Jones sidelined on a game-to-game basis, Baylor ranks last in three-pointers in conference play.
"We're without our leader," Mulkey said.
Griner played 24 minutes Saturday in Baylor's 70-62 loss at Missouri, which was previously 0-4 in conference play. The Lady Bears jumped to an 11-0 lead, but Griner committed two fouls in the first 4:23 and sat for the rest of the half.
Griner played the entire second half, but Missouri didn't shy from inside play. Mulkey said Saturday's loss marked the first time since the opener against Tennessee that Griner was thrown off by early fouls.
"She never got back in the flow of the game," Mulkey said. "You're not in foul trouble just 'cause you have two going into the second half."
Mulkey has not made Griner available to USA TODAY for comment since Saturday's loss.
Wednesday, Baylor will host No. 8 Texas A&M (15-2). Griner will probably face 6-1 junior center Danielle Adams, the women's national junior college player of the year in 2008-09.
Adams has four starts and is focusing on conditioning (losing 30 pounds since August). In Texas A&M's 69-54 win vs. Texas Tech on Saturday, she had 27 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocks.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair trotted out some big names in discussing Griner.
"You don't stop a Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell or Lisa Leslie or Brittney Griner," Blair said by phone.
"We'll try to limit her touches and be ready to adjust."
And what did Griner learn from Saturday's experience? Said Mulkey: "We'll find out Wednesday."