By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
When Baylor women’s basketball head coach Nicki Collen gets into a pinch and needs a bailout, she looks to the sideline and finds fifth-year senior forward Caitlin Bickle. Collen has only spent a little over a year and a half coaching Bickle, but the second-year head coach knows how valuable Bickle’s presence is on the hardwood.
If Collen were playing Monopoly, Bickle would be her “Get out of Jail Free” card.
“Caitlin’s like my security blanket,” Collen said. “She’s like the blankie that your kids have. She makes me comfortable as a coach. I know we’re going to run stuff, I know we’re going to be in the right defenses. I know, when in doubt, she’s going to go set a screen.”
Collen doesn’t like having to pull Bickle off the floor, especially with the youth that plays behind her at the forward position.
“When you don’t have her in there, sometimes you have two kids looking at one other like, ‘Are you going to go? Are you going to go?’” Collen said.
The 6-1 forward has spent most of her Baylor career coming off the bench, especially under former head coach Kim Mulkey. Bickle stuck around and played her role before finding herself as a focal point in the rotation last year, her true senior season.
Bickle came off the bench for forwards NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo, who are now both on the Indiana Fever in the WNBA. That 2021-22 season was when Bickle began to produce more and impact the game.
And it came in Collen’s first year at the helm.
In that year, Bickle, who battled back injuries, became most known for her toughness and ability to take charges. Smith carried the load offensively, so Bickle didn’t need to prioritize leaving her mark on the game in that way.
This season is different, though, as Bickle has helped overcome the losses of Smith and Egbo. Collen said she’s thankful to have the super-senior back with the Bears.
“She’s just a really, really good basketball player that I’m glad stuck around and is showing our fans that she’s more than a kid that can take charges,” Collen said. “She can make shots, she can set people up and she does a lot of things really, really well.”
Scoring or stuffing the stat sheet isn’t even what Bickle cares about. Bickle said when she’s out there, she finds the most joy in setting up her teammates for success.
“I used to do it with [NaLyssa] and Queen,” Bickle said. “Now, I get to do it with [Darianna Littlepage] Buggs, I get to do it with Bella [Fontleroy], I get to do it with all my guards. I really, really enjoy it.”
But to Collen, Bickle’s knack for improvement blows her away. Collen said the 2019 national champion is always analyzing things or diving deep into what went wrong in a loss in order to get better individually and also as a collective team.
Collen said that before the squad watches mandatory film, Bickle has already seen it a couple of times.
“I’ll have kids that don’t even watch the game … Caitlin will have watched it twice, and that’s why she’s so good. And it’s what some of our guys need to understand,” Collen said. “There’s a reason Caitlin’s good, because she takes her craft seriously. And she doesn’t get away with being good because she’s faster or stronger or quicker. She’s good because she studies and she cares and she wants to make the right play.”
As a result, when Bickle is on the hardwood — regardless of who she’s out there with — Collen said the Bears’ analytics are off the charts. The only thing keeping Bickle off the floor is fatigue and foul trouble.
Since Bickle takes a lot of charges and does most of the brute work down low in the post, she’s liable to draw a couple of fouls and be forced to miss time while on the bench. Additionally, Collen said that Bickle hasn’t flipped the switch to realizing Baylor needs her more this year.
No pressure, right? Bickle said there isn’t any when she’s scolded about foul trouble.
“Every game that I get in foul trouble she [Collen] always thinks I’m doing it on purpose to get a break, but I swear I’m not,” Bickle said. “I think I’ve done a good job in a couple of games where I’ve [hit] four [fouls] and I’m like, ‘OK, you have to stay in this game. You have to be in at the end of it.’
“I think a big thing for me is knowing when and when not to take charges. I do get a lot of [calls] but you’re not going to get every single one. So, if I don’t get one, don’t try to take the next one so soon. I’ve been caught a couple of times doing that. I think that’s just being smart about it.”
Collen said she knows that she never has to question Bickle’s effort or reliability. Bickle really is just as trusty as that childhood blanket. Collen has even called Bickle the “safety” of the defense and “quarterback” of the offense.
The 2018 WNBA Coach of the Year doesn’t like looking ahead to the future, but she said she’d take Bickle for another 10 years if she could. Collen said she appreciates Bickle for how the way she pours into the program.
“She has a huge heart and she wants to be great, she wants to win, and she plays for the name on the front of her jersey more than any player I’ve ever coached. There’s not much time left,” Collen said. “I’m just going to live with what I have and be grateful for who she is and what she brings to the table.”