By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
Baylor basketball’s freshman guard Keyonte George and freshman forward Darianna Littlepage-Buggs were both thrown into more than just a new campus and a brand new green and gold jersey.
George and Littlepage-Buggs had to deal with an immediate target on their backs after they were voted as the preseason favorite for the Big 12 Freshman of the Year award. Not only did the two welcome that challenge, but they both validated the preseason prediction by achieving the honor.
George was named the winner on the men’s side on March 5, while Littlepage-Buggs was the unanimous selection for the women a day later. The Baylor tandem swept the award in a single season for the first time in program history.
“Baylor’s done a great job attracting highly talented players,” men’s head coach Scott Drew said. “We’ve had back-to-back top 10 picks [in the NBA Draft] and Keyonte’s somebody [that], with his accolades and what he’s accomplished this year, put him on that same type of track.
“Good recruits want to play where other good recruits have done well, so that’s definitely an advantage at Baylor. The women have had some of the best players in basketball history in college. They’ll continue to do that. Nicki [Collen]’s a great coach and a great recruiter.”
In addition to being named the Big 12 Conference’s top freshman by the league’s head coaches, George was named to the All-Big 12 Newcomer Team, All-Big 12 Freshman Team and was placed on the All-Big 12 Second Team. The Lewisville native became the second-ever Bear to be Big 12 Freshman of the Year on the men’s side, as Quincy Miller last took the crown in 2012.
George, a former five-star prospect, was the No. 3-ranked player in the entire 2022 class by ESPN, making him the highest-ranked recruit in Baylor men’s basketball history. George was also the fifth McDonald’s All-American in program history and is averaging a team-best 15.8 points per game (ppg) on 39% from the field and 35% from 3-point range. The 15.8 ppg is the seventh-best average among individuals in the Big 12 as of March 12.
Redshirt senior guard Adam Flagler said he knows how good George is on the court, but Flagler made sure to shout out the true freshman for what he brings outside of the hardwood.
“Keyonte is special,” Flagler said. “Everybody knows how his abilities on the court are just undeniable, but the things that he does off the court in the sense of his energy, his presence, his maturity at such a young age, being able to have open ears to anybody and everybody wanting to learn is so big — so I know that the sky’s the limit for him.”
George said his talent comes down to trusting his work. He said his confidence is through the roof since he has full belief in his training. He also mentioned his teammates and coaches around him give him the green light to take over in crunch-time situations.
“In the back of my mind, I know the coaching staff and my teammates, they have a lot of confidence in me,” George said. “I feel like I’ve proven myself to be able to take [clutch] shots in those last couple of minutes.”
Following the Big 12 Tournament, George is now only 19 points away from the freshman record for points in a season (509). He already holds the program record for most 20-point games as a freshman (12).
George had his highest scoring output of his Baylor career on Jan. 11 when he poured in 32 points at West Virginia University in an 83-78 team win. The 32 points were the most by a freshman Bear since LaceDarius Dunn had 38 at Texas Tech University in March 2008.
But George, who’s projected to be a lottery pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, said he doesn’t try to hunt for big numbers or stats when he plays. He said he’s bought into Drew’s “Culture of Joy.”
“We always talk about playing for an audience of one: that’s our Lord and savior and we want to show that each and every night,” George said. “Just playing for one another. Playing with joy.”
The expectation for Littlepage-Buggs wasn’t to be a day-one starter. Women’s head coach Nicki Collen was forced to give the true freshman a large role due to an injury to senior forward Aijha Blackwell and eligibility issues with redshirt senior forward Dre’Una Edwards.
Littlepage-Buggs was thrust into the starting lineup early and cruised to the Big 12 Freshman of the Year award. On her path, she earned eight of the 17 Big 12 Freshman of the Week honors, etching her name into the conference record book with the second-most distinctions since 2009.
The forward out of Edmond, Okla., became the fourth Baylor Bear to receive the Big 12 Freshman of the Year award and first since Nina Davis in 2014. The other two names on the list are Odyssey Sims and Brittney Griner.
“It means a lot,” Littlepage-Buggs said. “I know when I got picked [to win it in the] preseason it was a big target on my back to keep it up all throughout the season. I just played and I’m looking forward to just learning everything.” Littlepage-Buggs has turned in 14 double-doubles so far, including 10 in league play, and she ranks second among all rookies in Division I in rebounding with 9.5 per game. Additionally, she picked up an all-conference honorable mention and was a unanimous Big 12 All-Freshman Team selection.
After the Bears lost to Iowa State University 74-63 on March 10, Collen told reporters in Kansas City, Mo., just how much she enjoys coaching Littlepage-Buggs.
“She just never quits and she never shows frustration,” Collen said. “She just keeps clipping along. She never misses a shot and doesn’t run back on defense. Those things that you have to coach out of young kids, you don’t have to coach that out of her.
“She’s going to develop her perimeter game even more. Her future is so bright. And probably the least shocking thing was her being unanimous Freshman of the Year.”
Since Blackwell and Edwards were unable to see action on the court, Littlepage-Buggs said she learned a lot from the two senior forwards. She said they coach her from the sidelines and that she didn’t feel much pressure to fill those shoes.
“I think that they helped me now that they weren’t playing, but I was. They gave me a lot of their knowledge all throughout the season and I just thank them so much because it was very helpful.”
Even though the squad still has the NCAA tournament ahead, Collen knows Littlepage-Buggs’ potential is high.
“She has a chance to be really good,” Collen said. “She’s a willing defender, she’s going to rebound, she’s always going to play hard. As she continues to develop her perimeter game, her ball handling and passing skills, she has a chance to be a true, all-around great player here at Baylor.”