KANSAS CITY, Mo. - One day after debuting highlighter-yellow jerseys, the Baylor basketball team trotted onto the court for Friday’s Big 12 tournament semifinal against Kansas decked out in camouflage.
“A new look,” Perry Jones III said, and even though the forward was referring to the Bears’ apparel, he could’ve been talking about the entire program.
From the uniforms to the attitudes to the on-court play, everything about Baylor appears to have changed. On Friday, coach Scott Drew’s squad catapulted into the Big 12 tournament title game with an 81-72 semifinal victory over third-ranked Kansas -- the same team it lost to twice this season by an average of 16 points.
“This,” forward Quincy Miller said, “is how we should’ve been playing all along.”
Baylor, 27-6, was ranked as high as No. 3 after opening the year with 17 consecutive victories. But the Bears ended the regular season with an 0-4 mark against conference bluebloods Kansas and Missouri.
Baylor could beat the good teams, sure. But what about the great ones?
After whipping Kansas in what was basically a road environment at the Sprint Center on Friday, it became clear that Baylor could now be mentioned in the same breath as its conference rivals. No one ever doubted the Bears had Final Four-caliber talent. But now, for the first time all season, they look like a Final Four-caliber team.
“Make no mistake about it,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “They beat us tonight. They were better than us, no question. That’s a good basketball team. They’re very talented.”
The victory propels Baylor into Saturday’s Big 12 tournament championship against Missouri. No team from Texas has ever won the conference’s postseason title. The Bears are currently projected as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. But there’s a chance they could move up to a No. 2 seed with a win against the Tigers.
Kansas, meanwhile, may have cost itself a No. 1 seed by losing to the Bears.
“Everyone, from a psychological (standpoint), wants to be on the highest seed line they can possibly be,” Self said. “But I think it’s more about matchups than a seed line.”
Kansas also might have squandered its chance to play in the Midwest Regional, which is just four hours away in St. Louis.
“To play in St. Louis means we would’ve had to have won two games,” Self said. “If we win two games, I could care less where we play. But we hurt ourselves tonight if we want to be No. 1 seed. I guess it could still happen, but some other teams would probably have to lose.”
An even bigger story line Friday involved a game that will never even be played. Fans from both Kansas and Missouri were hoping to see the teams meet one last time -- in Saturday’s championship -- before Missouri bolts for the SEC. The Jayhawks and Tigers split the regular-season series, but there will be no rubber match in the Sprint Center.
“I’ve never said I was all right with the rivalry ending,” Self said. “I never said that. I’d like for it to go on. It’s just not going to.
“So we had two epic games with them this year. Two epic games. It’s unfortunate it’s going to end.”
And so, instead of Kansas, Baylor will be the team charged with trying to prevent the Tigers from walking away with the tournament trophy in their final Big 12 season. If the Bears continue to perform like they have in Kansas City, a victory would hardly come as as a shock.
Baylor has made a handful of adjustments in the last few weeks, and each of them is proving beneficial.
After playing a zone defense for most of the season, the Bears played primarily man-to-man defense against Kansas State and Kansas, which shot just 42.6 percent Friday.
“I was surprised they played man,” Self said. “That was a good move.”
Baylor has also started using a three-guard lineup with cat-quick point guard Pierre Jackson, 3-point specialist Brady Heslip and defensive standout A.J. Walton. All three are solid ball-handlers -- Baylor committed just nine turnovers against Kansas -- who are good at maintaining their poise. And their presence has given more room and freedom for versatile forwards such as Jones and Miller, who combined for 31 points Friday.
Baylor led by as many as 14 points early in the second half before an 18-3 run by Kansas put the Jayhawks up 58-56.
The game turned, though, when a loose ball was batted toward Heslip, who was wide open on the left wing. The sophomore swished a 3-pointer that put Baylor ahead 59-58. The Bears never trailed again.
Heslip came up huge again in the game’s final two minutes when he made a 3-pointer that extended Baylor’s 67-64 lead to 70-64. Kansas’ Tyshawn Taylor countered with a layup on the other end, but Heslip responded with another 3-pointer to make it 73-66 with 1:17 remaining.
“You knew (Kansas) was going to make a run,” Drew said. “When they took the lead, I was really pleased with the poise our guys had and the togetherness, the character. For three first-year college guys and one second-year, I think they grew up a little bit tonight.
“That’s the great thing about playing in the Big 12. If you don’t have those (tests) in the regular season, you’re not seasoned and ready when the postseason comes.”
The Bears certainly look seasoned and ready now. Instead of grouping them in with the “best of the rest,” it’s time to include Baylor among the country’s elite. Even with those new uniforms.
“Hey,” Drew said, “they work for me.”