By Austin Staton
Big 12 Correspondent
With the departure of four starters from a 29-6 squad that advanced to the Sweet 16 last year, Baylor’s roster entering this season was comprised of nine underclassmen, including five freshmen.
The lone returning starter, junior guard Kelli Griffin, has been asked to shoulder a leadership and mentoring role far earlier than anticipated.
“She doesn’t have the luxury of having those seniors around her that she had last year to make her job easier,” Baylor Head Coach Kim Mulkey said. “There is a lot being asked of Kelli Griffin this season and scoring is one of them. You would like for her to make everybody else better, but with this particular team she has to carry a big load.”
As one of only two Baylor players that have two or more years in the program, Griffin is the floor general of a squad in which rookies account for 43 percent of the minutes played.
“I think she has kind of taken a lot onto her shoulders,” fellow teammate and captain Melissa Jones said. “I think she does a really good job of what she does and how she controls the team out there and leads them in the right direction.”
With the attrition of Danielle Wilson and a stress reaction that is hindering the return of Jones, Griffin knew it was imperative to step up as a team leader.
“It is definitely different not having leaders such as Jhasmin [Player] and Jessica [Morrow] that were here before me to now, having kids that are looking for someone to follow,” Griffin said. “It is definitely different having to jump into a leadership role as quickly as I did this year.”
Despite being thrown into a leadership role on such short notice, Griffin’s impact as a role model and team leader did not go unnoticed by freshman Brittney Griner.
“As a freshman, I know that I look up to Kelli big time,” Griner said. “I played with her in high school on the AAU circuit and I was excited to come and play with her at Baylor. She has been a real good leader in helping us out with the transition from high school to college basketball.”
In spite of the team’s youth, Griffin believes that the experience and chemistry that the freshmen are receiving will pay dividends during postseason play and beyond.
“I think the games that we are going through now are a learning process for them,” Griffin said. “If they keep working hard and doing what it takes to be a better team, I think it is going to pay off. They have grown so much, even with simple things when it comes to work outs and work ethic. There is only room for improvement.”
With the presence of Griner in the paint and opponents shifting their defensive focus on her, Griffin has made a concentrated effort to step up her all-around game this season.
With the injury problems to Jones, Griffin has thrived in the clutch for the Lady Bears on multiple occasions during conference play this season.
During a home contest against rival Texas A&M, Griffin drained six free throws in the waning minutes to solidify a 61-53 win over the Aggies. In a recent overtime match against Oklahoma, Griffin posted the first double-double of her career with 10 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in 40 minutes of action.
Through 24 games this season, Griffin is averaging 7.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists while ranking amongst the national leaders in assist/turnover ratio (1.9).
Griffin contends that there is always room to improve her game and role as a team leader so that her team ultimately benefits.
“I have to give more directions to the freshmen and I have to be more of a scoring threat,” Griffin said. “I just have to help my team be in place by running plays and getting the ball where it needs to be. I think I am adjusting pretty well but I think I have to be more of a vocal and emotional leader on the court.”