LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Undefeated Baylor visits Allen Fieldhouse tonight to take on a Kansas team that has won seven straight Big 12 titles. It's No. 3 versus No. 7, and other than the Dec. 3 battle between North Carolina and Kentucky, I can’t remember a more highly anticipated game this season.
Here are some quick thoughts on the matchup:
The old cliché says that buildings can’t win games. I’m not sure that applies to Allen Fieldhouse, where Kansas has won 84 of its past 85 games. The Jayhawks are an excellent team without question. Their top-10 ranking is deserved. Still, when it comes to pure talent and depth, Baylor has a noticeable advantage. It might not matter in Lawrence. Think about that: 84 wins in 85 games. That’s almost unfathomable. Tonight’s crowd of 16,300 will be as loud as it's been all season. Baylor has won games at the Marriott Center (which seats 23,000) in Provo. And beating K-State in a raucous Bramlage Coliseum last week was no small feat. But neither of those environments compares to what Baylor will face tonight.
Speaking of Allen Fieldhouse, Bears coach Scott Drew hacked off Kansas’ Bill Self two years ago when he pulled his team off the court during the playing of KU's pregame video. The video plays after the introduction of the opposing team’s starting lineups but before Kansas’ starters are introduced. The video is lengthy and deafening, and Drew said his players couldn’t hear him as he tried to talk to them, so he pulled them into the tunnel. Self thought the move was disrespectful, which seemed petty. If anything, it was a brilliant decision by Drew.
The video, in my opinion, is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen at a college basketball game. Kansas’ tradition-rich past is chronicled by clips of players such as Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Pierce, Kirk Hinrich, Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers dunking and making big shots while thunderous music plays and the crowd screams. It’s intimidating enough to rattle an opposing team, especially just minutes before tipoff. That’s why I think Drew pulled his players off the court. And Baylor, it should be noted, threw a major scare into Kansas that night before losing 81-75. Still, don’t count on the Bears pulling the same act again. “Definitely not,” Drew told The Kansas City Star. “We wouldn’t have done it if we thought it was going to offend people. That wasn’t the intent of it.”
This is far from Bill Self’s best Kansas team, but as always, no one is questioning the Jayhawks’ toughness. If they beat Baylor, it will be because of a defense that is again one of the best in America. Opponents are shooting just 36.6 percent against Kansas and only 34.8 percent from 3-point range. Another sign of KU’s aggressiveness is its plus-8.0 rebounding margin, which ranks first in the Big 12. It will be interesting to see whether Baylor can match Kansas’ physicality and effort on things such as 50-50 balls, offensive rebounds and other hustle plays.
A strong performance would do a lot for Thomas Robinson in the national player of the year race. Robinson missed his chance to go against Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger (back spasms) on Dec. 10. But tonight’s challenge will be just as tough as the one he would’ve faced against the Buckeyes -- mainly because of Baylor’s depth down low. Perry Jones is a future NBA lottery pick but is often criticized for not being physical enough. Quincy Acy is extremely physical, but at 6-foot-7, he’s 2 inches shorter than Robinson. Standout Baylor freshman Quincy Miller is another future pro at 6-10, but he’s more of a small forward. Same thing goes for reserve Anthony Jones, who is 6-11. Still, even though Baylor doesn’t have a player as strong or as physical as Robinson, the Bears’ depth and length could bother him. It also will be a challenge for him to stay out of foul trouble against a team with four forwards who can all score in bunches.
A strong game by Kansas’ Travis Releford or Elijah Johnson is a must. Robinson and point guard Tyshawn Taylor are good players, but someone else needs to step up if the Jayhawks want to hand Baylor its first loss of the season. Releford had averaged 17.5 points in his previous four games before scoring only seven against Iowa State on Saturday. Johnson (9.4 points) has been maddeningly inconsistent.
Baylor hasn’t won a conference title in men’s basketball since 1945, but the Bears will be the overwhelming favorites for the Big 12 championship if they win this one, mainly because the two toughest games on on their schedule (road tilts with KU and K-State) will be finished. At 17-0, BU is off to the best start in school history.
Baylor’s physical toughness is improving, as evidenced by the Bears' outrebounding Kansas State last week. But their mental toughness has been more impressive. Baylor has won four games by three points or fewer against quality competition. One of the biggest reasons for that has been point guard Pierre Jackson. Last season’s junior college national player of the year, Jackson has brought a swagger to Baylor’s squad that had been missing. The attitude has rubbed off on his teammates, who have an extra strut in their step.
Anyone who says Baylor “hasn’t played anyone” is clueless. The Bears have victories against Top 25 teams San Diego State, Mississippi State and Kansas State along with likely NCAA tournament teams such as West Virginia and Saint Mary’s. They also embarrassed the same Northwestern squad that beat Michigan State on Saturday. Other than the San Diego State victory, all of those wins occurred outside of Waco. Kansas is the only team in the Big 12 that has played a tougher schedule -- and the Jayhawks have three losses, which is three more than Baylor.
Jackson, Perry Jones and Quincy Acy get most of the attention, but Baylor’s complementary players have been just as important to the Bears’ success. Boston College transfer Brady Heslip has made 48 percent of his shots from beyond the arc for the Big 12’s top 3-point shooting team. Point guard A.J. Walton, who has relinquished most of the ballhandling duties to Jackson, has found a new role as a lockdown defender and made a game-saving strip of Kansas State’s Angel Rodriguez in the final moments of Baylor’s victory in Manhattan last week. Quincy Miller, who scored 21 points against Oklahoma State on Saturday, is beginning to find his stride. He’s hit some huge 3-pointers in recent games. Backup forward Cory Jefferson would start for almost any team in the Big 12, and reserve guard Gary Franklin started as a freshman at Cal before transferring to Baylor last season.
The best illustration of Baylor’s depth can be seen in Anthony Jones, who started and averaged 26.6 minutes a game for Baylor’s 2009 Elite Eight squad. This season, as a senior, Jones is contributing 17.9 minutes off the bench and hasn’t played more than 10 minutes in the past three games.
Win or lose tonight, it’s time to end the “Scott Drew can’t coach” theory. Anyone who watched Baylor beat Kansas State realizes that’s a false statement. The freedom Drew gives his players might have made Baylor look like a street-ball team in the past, but with LaceDarius Dunn no longer around to fire up guarded, ill-advised 3-pointers, the Bears are running and executing set plays on the offensive end. Poorly coached teams don’t shoot 49 percent from the field. Poorly coached teams don’t play as well as the Bears have played defensively this season, and poorly coached teams don’t flounder in tight games. They flourish.
No one is going to confuse Drew with Mike Krzyzewski or Rick Pitino, but to say the only reason Baylor is winning is that it has good players is false. (Quick fact: Since Drew took over in 2003-04, Baylor has had one player selected in the NBA draft. That’s the lowest number in the Big 12. Texas and Kansas have had 12 each.) Despicable acts by the previous staff had the program on the verge of the death penalty when Drew took over in August 2003. Also, Baylor had never had a winning record in the Big 12. In one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in NCAA history, Drew had Baylor in the Elite Eight within six years. And now the Bears are 17-0 with a realistic shot to win a league title. For that, the coach deserves just as much credit as his players.