Saddle Up: Can Baylor make the leap?

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
3:48
PM ET
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It laughed at this gif, and now it almost feels bad. Almost.

No. 4 Baylor at No. 18 Kansas State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN3: There's an interesting dynamic brewing around Baylor, even as this team has streaked to a 15-0 start and, as the faceless Stats LLC writer behind our afore-linked pregame preview wrote, its "best start, longest-ever win streak and highest ranking" in the history of the program. Despite all that, people seem to be wondering why the Bears, good as they are, aren't better?

More specifically, they seem to be asking why Perry Jones III, the most gifted athlete in college hoops, doesn't dominate games in proportion to his ability. They ask why Jones, with his soft touch and 6-foot-11 frame and his top-five NBA lottery status doesn't produce the consistent low-post bucket feast of Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger, or the face-melting highlight reel of Thomas Robinson. You look at Jones on the court, and you see what NBA scouts see: Incredible size, incredible length, incredible touch. But the box scores only rarely align with our eyes.

To hear Baylor coach Scott Drew tell it, it sounds rather simple: Jones is still developing:
“I think Perry’s more physical this year. He is stronger, bigger, more mature,” Drew said. "He wasn’t one of those 24-year old freshmen. He’s a younger guy, and as he continues to develop he’ll be able to take more advantage of things inside. And he’s shooting the 3 now. He’s definitely a different player. I think it’s just all age and maturity. That’s what the NBA sees – they see every year he gets closer and closer to it."

Jones may have to grow up in a hurry Tuesday night. There are few interiors in the country as well-suited to match up with Baylor's length and athleticism as the Kansas State Wildcats, which most recently ended Missouri's perfect run with an emphatic effort at home. If Baylor wants to escape the Octagon of Doom with its own perfect record intact, it will have to survive a sluggish, slow, hard-fought defensive battle of a game. In the immortal words of Chicago Bulls local analyst and all-around hilarious human being Stacey King: It's a man's game. No boys allowed. (And yes, I really just wanted to quote Stacey King. Can you blame me?)

The good news for Baylor comes on two fronts:

1. This is a good defensive team in its own right. In fact, with rare exceptions the Bears have been much better defensively team than on the offensive end all season long. The Bears rank No. 35 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Pomeroy; they're No. 13 defensively, allowing opponents .87 points per possession. That's really good.

2. Baylor has a fully developed, capital-M man of its own on the low block. His name is Quincy Acy.

If you're looking for the Bears' interior star thus far this season, look no further. While Jones has posted decent numbers peppered with the occasional flash of brilliance, Acy has been in beast mode all season long. Perhaps that is the best argument for the power of development in college hoops: Acy has a fraction of Jones' natural talent, but more often than not this season he's been the more productive and effective of the two.

At this point, pining for consistent dominance from Perry Jones seems a little bit silly. He's clearly improved, but he's still not quite there yet. The good news for Baylor, especially as the meat of their Big 12 begins to challenge them on a frequent basis (the Bears travel to Kansas Monday and host Missouri next Saturday) is that Jones isn't the only talented player on this roster. There's Acy, there's guards Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip, there's gifted freshman Quincy Miller, there's Cal transfer Gary Franklin. Jones looks like he should be a transcendant star, but he isn't. Individually, none of the Bears are without their flaws. And neither, despite its record, is this team.

Oh well. There's no use pining for something that isn't there, at least not yet. What the Bears are already is still awfully good. They'll need to be to stay undefeated tonight.

No. 5 Ohio State at Illinois, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: First and foremost, NBA scouts should love this one. Why? Because they get a chance to measure Illinois sophomore forward Meyers Leonard -- a potential first-round pick whose stock should rise as the season continues -- mano a mano with surefire lottery pick Jared Sullinger. That matchup, pitting two of the Big Ten's three or four best big men, is the one to watch. It's a good one.

Where Illinois coach Bruce Weber may direct more of his concern is, well, everywhere else. The Illini have been a thoroughly mediocre offensive team for pretty much the entire season, thanks in large part to the fact that Leonard simply doesn't touch the ball enough. Instead, those touches and shots go most frequently to guard Brandon Paul, who is still taking the highest percentage of his team's possessions and shots despite his effective field goal percentage of 42.1 and his offensive rating of 91.7. Paul might be the only Illini player who can consistently get to the rim, but that apparent talent doesn't seem to be doing much good. Just as often, Paul decides to shoot a three, where has gone 21-of-74 (28.4 percent) on the season. Yikes.

Considering the presence of Leonard, and the fact that fellow backcourt mate D.J. Richardson actually is efficient (off. rating: 116.4; eFG%: 54.4), Paul's chuck-happy ways constitute a drastic misappropriation of resources. That, more than any other reason, is why the Illini have struggled thus far this season. They may be able to hold Ohio State's offense in relative check tonight. The Illini do defend, Leonard can (conceivably, anyway) present some resistance to Sullinger and the benefit of an Orange Krush-led home atmosphere should be a huge leveling force.

But if Illinois takes the usual diet of bad shots and silly threes against this No. 1-ranked efficiency defense, which is holding opponents to (get this) .78 points per trip this season, they might not break 50 points. Whatever the final tally, it will be ugly.

Everywhere else: No. 13 Louisville will try to avoid a loss in a slightly tricky road game at Providence. ... No. 3 UNC will host Miami. ... No. 7 Michigan State gets Iowa in East Lansing, and if the Hawkeyes double down on their NYE win at Wisconsin, the world will officially cease to make sense. ... Georgia travels to No. 19 Florida. ... Florida State will attempt to halt its ugly recent slide at Virginia Tech. ... Vanderbilt looks to stay unbeaten in SEC play at South Carolina. ... and UNI goes to Omaha to face No. 21 Creighton in another huge MVC game with potential NCAA tourney bid implications.

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