Dallas Colleges: Pierre Jackson

3-point shot: Baylor's focus on point guard

April, 30, 2013
4/30/13
12:19
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1. Baylor coach Scott Drew could have had a myriad problems had he lost Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin to the NBA draft. Instead, Drew's primary offseason focus is what to do at the point. He has plenty of time to discuss, dissect and analyze over the summer, but his first inkling is to go with a combination of Gary Franklin and Brady Heslip to offset the departure of Pierre Jackson. Other options for Drew are Kenny Chery, a newcomer, or L.J. Rose, who was on the team last season. This is a critical upcoming year for the Bears. The disappointment last season of not making the NCAA tournament was softened by the NIT championship. Now that Jefferson and Austin have returned, there is no excuse if the Bears don't make the 2014 field. The Big 12 will be down a bit with Oklahoma State and Kansas as the top two teams. Baylor has the personnel to beat out Iowa State, Kansas State and Oklahoma. But the onus will be on consistent play upfront and a stable point guard.

2. The UMass-Lowell job is open after Greg Herenda took the head coaching position at Fairleigh Dickinson. The Riverhawks are joining the America East next season but have a four-year waiting period to become eligible for postseason. North Dakota State is one of the best models for how to make this transition when Tim Miles and Saul Phillips set up the Bison to make the NCAAs in their first eligible year in 2009. Bryant University handled a similar transition, and while the Bulldogs didn't make the NCAAs in their first eligible year, Bryant spent a good portion of the 2012-13 season atop the NEC and ended up earning a berth in the CBI. The Riverhawks now have to follow a similar path and to do so have a shot to look at area schools for coaching talent. Former Boston College coach Al Skinner, his former assistant and current Northeastern assistant Pat Duquette and current Emerson head coach Jim O'Brien, who was the head coach at BC prior to Skinner, all could be in the mix for this position, according to sources. This is hardly a headline position, but everyone jumping up from Division II to I wants to make a splash. The America East grabbed UMass-Lowell to replace Boston University in the hope it can penetrate the Boston market, making it even more imperative to win the new conference with a coach that has local ties.

3. Ray McCallum Jr. announced his decision to declare for the NBA draft last week but it got lost amid other headline names making the tough call to stay or go. But don't dismiss the Detroit guard as an afterthought. McCallum Jr. could have easily gone to UCLA but chose to play for his father Ray at Detroit. McCallum will be an intriguing prospect to monitor throughout the team workouts and in Chicago over the next two months. Each decision is personal and that's why to guess what direction a player would go in this process is extremely difficult. McCallum chose to leave his dad's team and head to the NBA. Doug McDermott decided to stay and play for his dad at Creighton for one more year. McCallum, though, could very well end up being a higher pick in a draft that needs quality ball handlers.

Baylor blows out Iowa, wins NIT

April, 5, 2013
4/05/13
12:52
AM CT
Baylor BearsJoe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsThe Baylor Bears celebrated the Big 12's first NIT championship win at Madison Square Garden.
Baylor made history in New York.

The Bears became the first Big 12 team to win the NIT, soundly defeating the Iowa Hawkeyes 74-54 on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

"I’m proud of these guys," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "Really proud of their heart and determination, and they’ll always be remembered. Whenever you make history -- you don’t get a lot of chances to do that."

Baylor led 27-22 at halftime, and Iowa cut the deficit to 28-27 early in the second half. But the game turned into a rout from there. Pierre Jackson, the Bears' leading scorer (19.9 PPG), heated up, scoring 13 of his 17 points after intermission. He also collected 10 assists, giving him a fourth consecutive double-double, and was named the tournament's most outstanding player.

"In the second half, they were getting some good screens for me to get to the paint," Jackson said, "and I got to the right spots and knocked down shots."

"They’re a terrific offensive team," said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. "They had us spread out. They were moving the ball, and they’ve got a lot of weapons, and Jackson is tremendous."

Iowa, on the other hand, had a nightmarish game on offense. The Hawkeyes shot just 18-for-69 (26.4 percent) from the field and 5-for-24 (20.8 percent) from beyond the arc. They missed open looks on the perimeter and several chippies around the rim, clearly bothered by the presence of 7-foot-1 center Isaiah Austin (15 points, 9 rebounds, 5 blocks) and 6-foot-9 forward Cory Jefferson (23 points, 7 rebounds).

[+] EnlargePierre Jackson
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsPierre Jackson was named NIT tournament MVP.
Roy Devyn Marble, who had scored 21 or more points in each of Iowa's first four games in this tournament, finished with just six, shooting 3-for-12 from the field.

"[It] seemed like we just kept missing easy shots," McCaffery said. "The stat that jumps out at me is we had 20 offensive rebounds against this team. That’s effort. That’s special. That should have equated to more success offensively."

Baylor (23-14) was ranked No. 19 in the country in the preseason, so ending up in the NIT was a disappointment. But the Bears certainly finished the season strong.

"You look at most teams in the NIT, they probably lost a lot of close games, and with our team, we lost some close games," Drew said. "And the common denominator was when we shot over 70 percent from the free throw line, we won, and when we shot in the 50s and 60s, we lost. That’s with a young front line."

Drew will lose his starting backcourt of Jackson and A.J. Walton, both seniors. But if the talented post players return, Baylor will be dangerous next season.

Iowa (25-13) had its NCAA tournament bubble burst Selection Sunday but gained valuable experience by playing five more games. Senior swingman Eric May departs, but everyone else should be back, and the Hawkeyes should go dancing next season, for the first time since 2006.

"There’s just no substitute for experience," McCaffery said. "Come to Madison Square Garden, the greatest venue in sports, and play twice against two really good teams, win one, lose one, learn from that -- it can only make us better."

Rapid Reaction: Baylor 74, Iowa 54

April, 4, 2013
4/04/13
10:32
PM CT

 
NEW YORK -- Quick thoughts on Baylor's 74-54 victory over Baylor in Thursday's NIT title game at Madison Square Garden:

What it means: Baylor is your 2013 NIT champion -- the first Big 12 team ever to win this tournament.

Baylor (23-14) had a disappointing regular season. The Bears were ranked No. 19 in the country in the preseason, coming off a berth in the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight a year ago. They didn't even make the Big Dance this time around but finished the season on a high note.

Iowa (25-13) was on the bubble on Selection Sunday and didn't make the NCAA cut, but collected four wins and some valuable experience the past couple of weeks.

The turning point: After Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble scored the first bucket of the game, Baylor scored nine consecutive points and led the rest of the first half. It took the Bears' leading scorer, Pierre Jackson, almost 15 minutes to collect his first point. But Baylor still led 27-22 at intermission. The Hawkeyes shot just 7-for-28 (25 percent) in the first half and committed eight turnovers.

Iowa cut the deficit to one early in the second half, 28-27, thanks to five quick points by Eric May. But Baylor answered with seven points in a row to reassert control, and soon turned the game into a rout. The Bears pushed the lead past 20 for the first time on a Cory Jefferson two-hand slam with 7:04 remaining. The rest was garbage time.

Star watch: Jackson scored just four points in the first half, shooting 1-for-6. The second half was a different story. The senior finished with 17 points and 10 assists, and was named the tournament's most outstanding player. Jefferson scored a game-high 23 points, and Isaiah Austin added 15.

Mike Gesell scored a team-high 13 points off the bench for Iowa, while Aaron White chipped in 12. Marble finished with just six points.

Number crunch: It just wasn't Iowa's night offensively. The Hawkeyes missed open shots from the perimeter, and several chippies around the rim -- they were clearly bothered by the presence of the 7-foot-1 Austin (five blocked shots) in the paint. For the game, Iowa shot 18-for-69 from the field (26.4 percent), including 5-for-24 from beyond the arc (20.8), while Baylor shot 26-for-48 (54.2 percent).

What's next: That's the final college basketball game of the season at Madison Square Garden. Enjoy the Final Four, and we'll see you next year.

Baylor, Iowa will play for NIT championship

April, 3, 2013
4/03/13
10:19
AM CT
Pierre Jackson Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsPierre Jackson paced Baylor with a game-high 24 points and 10 assists in Tuesday's win over BYU.
Baylor and Iowa are both a long way from New York City.

They’re also both one win away from an NIT title.

Neither team has won this tournament before. The Bears and Hawkeyes are trying to make history, and finish their seasons on a winning note.

Baylor advanced first, defeating BYU 76-70 in the first game of Tuesday night's doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. The Bears led by just two at halftime, and three with just under five minutes remaining, before Pierre Jackson scored seven straight points to help Baylor pull away.

The electrifying 5-foot-10 senior scored a game-high 24 points -- 15 of them coming in the second half -- and also had 10 assists. "Pierre is like a time bomb," said Baylor coach Scott Drew. "You just wait for him to go off. He had a nice spurt there and that gave us a cushion."

[+] EnlargeIowa Hawkeyes
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsThe Iowa Hawkeyes celebrate a trip to the NIT championship.
Iowa won the nightcap, taking a 14-point first-half lead against Maryland, and then holding off a Terrapins rally in the second half to win 71-60. Junior forward Roy Devyn Marble scored a game-high 21 points, and nine of the 10 Hawkeyes who got into the game also got into the scoring column.

"I thought one of the keys to the game was how we came out, in particular with Dev offensively," said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. "We got into a flow early, and then the same thing late, kept everything going."

What we're left with is a championship game in midtown Manhattan between schools from Waco, Texas and Iowa City, Iowa -- 1,627 and 995 miles away, respectively.

It's also a matchup between one of the best offensive teams in the country and one of the best defensive teams. Baylor entered Tuesday night's game ranked 21st in the nation in scoring, at 76 points per contest. Iowa was ranked 18th in defensive field goal percentage, at 38.8.

Makes for an intriguing matchup Thursday night at MSG.

Both these teams dealt with disappointment this year. Baylor was picked to finish second in the Big 12, but ended up in sixth. Iowa finished ahead of Illinois and Minnesota in the Big Ten standings, yet those schools went to the Big Dance, while the Hawkeyes were left out.

Nevertheless, Baylor and Iowa are two of the last college teams still in action in the first week of April. And the players sound pumped up about it.

"It feels good. We've got one more," said Jackson. "If we win on Thursday, I’ll probably be shaking because I’m too excited."

"It means a lot to me and the team and our program," said Marble. "A lot of teams look down upon [the NIT] because they didn't get into the other tournament, but we just looked at it as another opportunity to win a championship."

Saddle Up: Bigger Monday

January, 21, 2013
1/21/13
4:34
PM CT
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's (or, in this case, day's) best basketball action. "Tell them about the dream, Martin."

Oklahoma State at Baylor, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: What if I told you that the final score of Baylor's last home game was -- wait for it -- 107-38? And that they set a school winning margin record in doing so? You would probably be really impressed, right? Don't be. The Bears racked up that tally against Hardin-Simmons, which is not a Division I opponent. I suppose if you insist on being impressed by that win, you could point to the fact that Baylor was able to destroy poor law firm-rec league-sounding Hardin-Simmons without Pierre Jackson and Isaiah Austin, whom coach Scott Drew elected to rest on Saturday. Your mileage may vary.

Anyway, if there is anything to take away from that game (beyond the fact that non-D1 opponents like Hardin-Simmons are exempt from RPI calculations, which is why it is savvy to schedule one or two a season and get a guaranteed tune-up game without the requisite RPI hit) it is that both Jackson and Austin don't have to fight the fatigue of a two-day turnaround when Oklahoma State comes to town this afternoon.

That is good news, because the Bears will need both. The Cowboys have built their 2012-13 renewal on one of the nation's five-best defensive efforts this season. Freshman point guard Marcus Smart's much-lauded intangibles don't always show up in the box score, but where they do show up is on the defensive end, where Smart ranks in the top 15 in the country in steals rate and blocks 3.3 shots for every 100 possessions. He is a difficult guard to play against, because his combination of size and quickness makes him uniquely immovable when he is planted in front of an opposing guard. That lockdown work on the perimeter, combined with Oklahoma State's impressive basket protection inside the arc (OSU opponents make just 40.1 percent of their twos), have fueled this season's impressive revival.

It's also precisely why Jackson and Austin need to be well rested and ready to go. Jackson might be the quickest guard in the country and serves not only as Baylor's primary scorer but its top assist man; everything runs through him. And Austin, the talented 7-footer with real guard skills, has had a good but not great freshman season. To hold on to a win in Waco, Jackson may need to dominate, and Austin will definitely need to be a presence in the paint. So, yes. It's good they sat out against Hardin-Simmons. (It was probably good for Hardin-Simmons, too.)

Rapid reaction: Baylor 64, Kentucky 55

December, 1, 2012
12/01/12
3:06
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LEXINGTON, Ky. – A quick look at Baylor’s 64-55 win over No. 8 Kentucky, the Bears' first-ever nonconference road win against a top-25 team (had been 0-18).

Overview: Coming off an uninspired loss at Notre Dame, Kentucky didn’t do much to settle the worries in the Commonwealth. This young team in progress has a lot of progress to make to be as good as everyone expects the Wildcats to be.

Kentucky lost its first game in Rupp Arena since Billy Gillispie’s last stand on the homecourt, back in 2009, ending the 55-game streak and John Calipari’s perfect home mark.

The shots weren’t falling for the Cats, but then again, they weren’t exactly slipping through the twine for Baylor, either. The problem was just general sloppiness -- turnovers, missed free throws, coming up short at the rim, bad rebounding.

There is plenty of time to fix all this -- it’s only Dec. 1. But there’s also a lot to fix.

Turning point: Down by as many as 10 in the early second half, UK clawed back to make it a four-point game and get the tense crowd back on its feet with about five minutes to play. But Isaiah Austin scored on the next play and Wildcats never could capitalize.

Key player: The point guard position was going to be pivotal in this game, what with Kentucky trying to find one and Baylor in possession of a good one in the form of Pierre Jackson. No surprise that it came down to a point guard. Jackson’s heady play, timely big shots and perfect stroke at the free throw line was the difference. He didn’t shoot very well from the field, but finished with 17 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals.

Key stat: The keys here weren’t the pretty stats, but the ugly ones. Kentucky had lots to choose from -- 29 percent from the floor (21-of-72), 19 percent from the arc (4-of-22) and 16 turnovers. All bad.

Miscellaneous: Brady Heslip started for Baylor, returning to action after an emergency appendectomy on Nov. 20. … Kyle Wiltjer is going to have nightmares about this game for a long time. The usually money long-distance shooter was a horrific 1-of-9 from long range and 1-of-11 overall, a huge drain on the Wildcats’ offense. ... All five Baylor starters finished in double-figures scoring for the first time this season.

Next game: Calipari still won’t have a lot of time in practice to fix what ails the Cats. Kentucky hosts Samford on Tuesday. Baylor, meanwhile, will host Northwestern on the same day.

What I can't wait to see: Big 12

October, 18, 2012
10/18/12
4:00
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Here are five storylines I look forward to following in the Big 12 this season.

What I can’t wait to see:

How will Kansas replace Thomas Robinson?

I know the Jayhawks have the goods to make a run at their ninth consecutive Big 12 title. Jeff Withey proved his worth in last season’s run to the Final Four. He’s one of the top interior defenders in America. And he has spent a lot of time working on his mid-range game. He should be a different player this season.

Highly touted recruit Perry Ellis joins the fold. I think Elijah Johnson can carry the program. And Ben McLemore is a projected lottery pick on some boards. Losing Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson will hurt, but it’s not as though Bill Self hasn’t replaced top-notch talent in the past.

Robinson, however, was an emotional leader for the team as much as he was its top player a season ago. There were moments in which the Jayhawks appeared to be on the brink of collapse and he simply willed them to a victory. I think that’s the one question facing this team. Who’s that guy right now? Perhaps it’s Withey or Johnson. But someone clearly has to assume that role early, especially with so many young players in the mix. A failure to identify a player in that vital position could prove detrimental in Big 12 play.

What is Oklahoma State’s ceiling?

Oklahoma State should challenge Kansas and Baylor for the Big 12 title. “Should” is the key word. But the Cowboys will fulfill their potential only if they find a way to play disciplined basketball, a challenge for the program last season.

It just didn’t make sense for a program with this talent (Le'Bryan Nash, Markel Brown) to struggle the way it did last season (15-18, 7-11 Big 12). Freshman Marcus Smart has been listed as one of the top young point guards in America. If he can bring Oklahoma State’s talented contributors together and teach them to man up on defense, Travis Ford could have a special year with this program. That, however, is the biggest "if" in the Big 12.

How will Bruce Weber and Bob Huggins fare in the Big 12?

The league welcomes Kansas State’s Bruce Weber and West Virginia’s Bob Huggins to the mix this season. Both coaches found success in their former leagues (Big Ten and Big East, respectively). And I think they have the talent to make a great first impression (though Huggins coached at Kansas State, so he has been in the Big 12 before) in 2012-13.

Rodney McGruder and Jordan Henriquez give Weber the building blocks for a successful debut. Weber scored solid recruits at Illinois, but he couldn’t meet expectations after the program’s Final Four run. The expectations at Kansas State should be more modest, which should allow Weber to coach comfortably and challenge for a spot in the top tier of the league.

Huggins might have a sleeper in West Virginia. The Mountaineers are all over the board on preseason projections. But Deniz Kilicli and a heap of impact transfers (Juwan Staten, Aaric Murray and Matt Humphrey) form a nucleus that could surprise the conference in 2012-13.

Last place goes to TCU or Texas Tech?

Both teams are hurting. Texas Tech lost Billy Gillispie during a highly publicized offseason mess. And according to players, that’s what they wanted. But even with him, Texas Tech’s chances of escaping the bottom of the league were slim with only six scholarship players returning from last season’s 8-23 squad. Trent Johnson introduces TCU to the league in what could be a very humbling debut. Johnson just doesn’t have a lot of talent on the roster. He’ll certainly take his lumps early. He already has added some pieces that will be available for the future. But for both TCU and Texas Tech, 2012-13 will be a tough season.

Can Baylor put it all together and upset Kansas?

Baylor is America’s “on paper” team. On paper, last season, the Bears looked like national championship contenders with Quincy Miller, Perry Jones and Quincy Acy. They were good. But various challenges throughout the season brought criticism to Waco. Even though they reached the Elite Eight, the Bears didn’t seem to come together until March. In 2012-13, Scott Drew has a roster that can challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title. He has one of the best backcourts in America (Pierre Jackson, Brady Heslip, Deuce Bello, Gary Franklin and A.J. Walton) and he’s bringing in one of the top freshmen in the country in Isaiah Austin. If he can get this group to play to its strengths, Baylor will be the Jayhawks’ toughest challenger for the Big 12 crown. The potential, once again, is very high. But seeing is believing with the Bears.

Motivated by last year, Baylor moves on

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
11:03
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ATLANTA -- Baylor had every right to be concerned this past offseason.

The Bears went from the Elite Eight to no postseason at all. After losing Perry Jones III for the Big 12 tournament, when he was deemed ineligible for extra benefits, Baylor didn't receive an NIT bid. Didn't even receive a CBI bid.

The Bears were shut out after an Elite Eight appearance. And it hurt.

“We were upset by the fact that we weren’t even invited to the NIT,’’ said Baylor senior forward Anthony Jones. “We didn’t want our season to end the way it did last year.’’

But if Baylor wanted to be taken seriously, the Bears had to follow through with a rebound season in 2011-12 or else there would be serious questions about if this program was a one-hit wonder.

“That was the beginning of this season,’’ said Baylor coach Scott Drew of the postseason shutout. “We were devastated and disappointed. At the same time, that motivated us to all come back and finish what we knew we were capable of.’’

Well, a year later, the Bears are back in the Elite Eight after a 75-70 victory over Xavier, placing them in rare company of programs that will play in a regional final in two of the past three years. BU joins North Carolina, and perhaps Kentucky and Kansas later tonight.

And, for the second time in three seasons, there’s a good chance the Bears could face the potential champion to get to the Final Four.

Two years ago, the Bears lost to eventual champion Duke in the Elite Eight in Houston. This season they’ll likely have to get past Kentucky to get to New Orleans.

[+] EnlargeBaylor's Quincy Acy
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesQuincy Acy scored 20 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and had several impressive dunks against Xavier.
“Losing to Duke, and how close we were to winning a championship showed the team that we could compete for a national title,’’ Drew said. “The reality was that we weren’t that far from it.’’

This group is a much more experienced team than even the Elite Eight team in 2010, and certainly more so than last season.

The Bears didn’t have a point guard with as much playmaking and sturdiness as Pierre Jackson. They didn’t have a sharp shooter like Brady Heslip.

And they didn’t have a force like Quincy Acy. He was there, but he wasn’t even close to the player he is now.

Acy was a dominant presence in spurts against Xavier on Friday. The Bears raced out to a 14-2 start and whenever the Bears wanted to re-assert themselves, Acy was there with a ferocious flush.

“Last year was our motivation,’’ said Acy. “We worked harder than ever before in the preseason. We had high motivation. None of us wanted to go out like that. Perry didn’t have a postseason.’’

Jones III made the decision to come back despite having to sit the first five games of this season. Jones III has had his enigmatic moments, but he also has proven to be a tough matchup. A few lobs in the second half were difference-makers for the Bears.

“We started to get stops and threw a different defense at them,’’ Acy said. “We still need to do a better job of holding leads. We still need to work on that.’’

The Bears have the length and athleticism to beat Indiana and certainly to match up with Kentucky.

“This is crazy, to go from sophomore year to the Elite Eight, to junior year no postseason and then back to the Elite Eight with a chance to go to the Final Four, it’s indescribable,’’ Anthony Jones said. “Senior leadership is the difference. Talent-wise, we’re a much better team.

“A lot of people in the country want to see this matchup,’’ Jones said of playing Kentucky. “We can take it up another level.’’

Drew has often been criticized for his coaching, and some rival coaches love to make it seem like he pulled off a get-rich scheme to put Baylor on the map so soon after the scandal that rocked the university.

After another Elite Eight in such a brief period, Drew is starting to quiet all the dissenters.

Few coaches reach one Elite Eight. Now Drew has been to two.

“We’ve been blessed,’’ Drew said. “I’ll tell you how much after Sunday.’’

Rapid Reaction: Baylor 75, Xavier 70

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
9:21
PM CT


ATLANTA -- A quick look at Baylor's 75-70 win over Xavier in a Sweet 16 matchup at the Georgia Dome.

Overview: If you had turned off the television or left the Georgia Dome five minutes into the game, you would have thought Baylor should just cut down the nets in New Orleans. The Bears had one of the more impressive starts in the NCAA tournament, getting off to a 14-2 lead to begin the game.

Baylor can look incredibly impressive when it’s out in the open floor. Quincy Acy is a force when he can get to the basket, especially on a dunk. Pierre Jackson runs a fluid game, and Brady Heslip is one of the better complementary role players with his shooting in the field.

But the Bears don’t put teams away. Xavier fought back by going inside to Kenny Frease and was within two scores a number of times in the second half. The Musketeers couldn’t make enough 3s, and that ultimately might have been their undoing.

Baylor survived and advanced to the Elite Eight. Just think about that. Baylor is in its second Elite Eight in three seasons. Baylor. That should speak volumes about how far this program has come under Scott Drew.

Key player: Quincy Acy. The Bears desperately need a physical force. They have tremendous length, but they don’t always use that size and strength to their advantage. Acy was a man among boys at times Friday. His ferocious dunks should be made into freeze-frame posters to hand out at the Georgia Dome. Acy allowed the Bears to settle down when they got a little too wild, and finished with 15 rebounds and 20 points. If Acy continues to play this way, the Bears have a legitimate shot to hang with Kentucky and, perhaps, pull off an upset.

Key stat: The Musketeers’ 3-point shooting was a woeful 3-for-15. Justin Martin made two 3s in the game. If the Musketeers were going to come all the way back from a 14-2 deficit, they were going to need to make 3s. Xavier did a fine job of getting the ball inside to Frease during a 13-0 run late in the first half. But the scoring droughts from Tu Holloway in the second half didn’t help. The Musketeers did get the lead down to six with a little more than a minute left -- on that second 3-pointer by Martin. Holloway hit his first 3-pointer of the game with just less than 20 seconds left to cut Baylor’s lead to 71-68. Heslip then converted four free throws to help the Bears to a 75-70 final.

Turning point: Perry Jones III has been rather quiet throughout the NCAA tournament. But Jackson made sure he was assertive and helped snuff out a mini Xavier run that seemed to be turning momentum. Following an Anthony Jones 3-pointer, Jones III received two lobs -- the first from Jackson -- and hit a face-up jumper, pushing the Bears to a nine-point lead. The Musketeers didn’t go away quietly and had it down to five points. But Jones’ assertiveness definitely helped shift momentum back to the Bears at a critical time.

What’s next: No. 3-seeded Baylor will take on No. 1-seeded Kentucky on Sunday at the Georgia Dome. This will be Baylor’s second Elite Eight in three seasons. The Bears have Final Four potential. The problem is that they’re in Kentucky’s bracket. Put Baylor in the West bracket, and it’s not close which team would be the favorite.

Bears say Heslip hardworking, humble

March, 18, 2012
3/18/12
9:28
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Brady Heslip was stocky, not exactly someone who looked like he was going to be an impact player when he arrived at Boston College in the middle of the season two years ago.

And his impact was minimal, since he had been stashed at New Hampton Prep (N.H.) for the fall semester before he joined the Eagles in December. Then the staff was fired. New Boston College coach Steve Donahue didn’t see Heslip’s potential, for whatever reason. Heslip said the two met, he wasn’t in the plans and so he was out.

Former BC associate head coach Pat Duquette, who now has the same title at Northeastern, said he recruited Heslip out of Burlington, Ontario. Duquette said Heslip was “absolutely fearless, but physically more than you see. He had very long arms, which equaled a high release. And he had unusually big hands for a guard his size.’’

Former BC head coach Al Skinner said by phone Saturday night that he liked Heslip’s tough-minded approach.

“The thing about him was that he didn’t hunt shots; he let the game come to him,’’ Skinner said. “He executed well and was patient on the offensive end. He rarely takes a bad shot, and he had tremendous range.’’

[+] EnlargeBrady Heslip
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBrady Heslip hit nine 3-pointers on Saturday to help Baylor earn a school-record 29th win.
There was an AAU connection with his coach to the Baylor staff. He went on a visit to Waco, Texas, and was sold. Baylor coach Scott Drew said Heslip dropped 24 pounds. He was a gym rat. His teammates loved him. But little did they know what they were getting in return.

“I know how hard he’s worked,’’ Baylor’s Quincy Acy said. “When he came in, we knew how good a shooter he was. Every time I went to the gym at night, I would see him in there sometimes twice a day. He works for it. I know whenever he gets hot, he can outshoot anybody.’’

Heslip’s impact Saturday night was epic for a Baylor program that is breaking barriers.

Heslip hit nine 3s for a career-high 27 points in Baylor’s 80-63 victory over Colorado at the Pit, to propel the Bears to their second Sweet 16 appearance in three seasons. The two Sweet 16s are the only ones in the school’s history. Drew is now 5-2 in the NCAA tournament, and the win Saturday gave the Bears a school-record 29 victories.

Heslip’s nine 3s set a single-game NCAA tournament record for the Bears. How much of an impact is Heslip having on a team known for its up-tempo style, tremendous length, and headliners Acy, Perry Jones III and Pierre Jackson?

“Heslip was the difference,’’ Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “He was unconscious tonight.’’

Heslip made six of his 3s in the first half, but the Bears were up only two. His three 3s in the second half helped open up the game. Sure, there were times when Acy and Quincy Miller as well as Anthony Jones were extremely difficult to stop inside. The 17 offensive rebounds kept possessions alive. The 24 defensive rebounds ended plenty of the Buffs’ attempts.

But Heslip busted the game open.

“I’m just feeling great right now, first of all, because we won,’’ Heslip said. “I’m just happy for my seniors.

“As for the shooting, Pierre does a great job of finding me when I’m open and finding me in transition. Acy sets great screens, and it was just one of those nights.’’

Heslip was getting the ball in motion and was stroking it without any hesitation.

“If I’m in rhythm and feeling good shooting, it just makes it even easier,’’ Heslip said.

Baylor was a major disappointment last season, following an Elite Eight appearance and the departure of point guard Tweety Carter with a flameout in the Big 12 tournament. Jones’ ineligibility days before the tourney led to the Bears' missing the rest of the postseason.

The arrival of Jackson from junior college and Heslip’s eligibility changed the backcourt for the Bears and the potential for this squad.

If you followed Baylor early in the season, you saw wins at BYU and Northwestern and over Mississippi State, Saint Mary’s and West Virginia -- the latter three all on neutral courts. The Bears couldn’t beat Missouri or Kansas in the regular season but knocked off the Jayhawks in the Big 12 tournament.

Now Baylor is the first Big 12 team in the Sweet 16. And if Purdue were to upset Kansas on Sunday, the Bears could be the only one. Even if the Jayhawks join them, the Bears are peaking at the right time.

And so is Heslip, an option that makes the Bears that much more formidable in a possible showdown with Kentucky in the South Region at Atlanta with a right to go to the Final Four.

“Brady will be the first to tell you that his teammates really got him open and got him the ball,’’ Drew said. “That humility is what makes our team successful.’’

New-look Baylor in Big 12 title game

March, 10, 2012
3/10/12
12:03
AM CT


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.”

[+] EnlargePerry Jones III
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswirePerry Jones III continued his strong Big 12 tourney run with 18 points and 7 boards against Kansas.
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.

Ballgame.

“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.”

Rapid Reaction: Baylor 81, Kansas 72

March, 9, 2012
3/09/12
9:54
PM CT


KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Thoughts from Baylor's 81-72 victory over Kansas.

Overview: Fans hoping to see one final showdown between Kansas and Missouri left the Sprint Center disappointed Friday after Baylor upset No. 1 seed Kansas in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Bears guard Brady Heslip in the game's final two minutes broke open a 67-64 contest and propelled Baylor to its first victory over Kansas since 2009.

Baylor advances to play either Missouri or Texas in Saturday's title game. Kansas, meanwhile, might have lost its shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Jayhawks, who won the regular-season conference title, suffered just their second Big 12 tournament loss since 2005. Kansas had won five of the previous six league tournament titles.

Perry Jones III scored a team-high 18 points for Baylor and was one of six Bears in double figures. Point guard Pierre Jackson had 13 points and 7 assists.

Tyshawn Taylor had 20 points for Kansas while Thomas Robinson added 15.

Turning point: The noise level at the Sprint Center deafening after a pair of free throws by Robinson cut Baylor's lead to 67-64 with 2:25 remaining. But Heslip silenced the crowd with a 3-pointer on the other end. Taylor countered with a layup, but Heslip came up with another 3-pointer to make it 73-66 with 1:17 remaining. Kansas never threatened again. Heslip also swished a 3-pointer at the 9:05 mark that turned a 58-56 deficit into a 59-58 Baylor lead.

Key player: They were plentiful for Baylor, but the most encouraging sign was another banner performance from Jones. One night after scoring 31 points against Kansas State, Jones had 18 Friday along with seven rebounds. Jones missed his first six shots of the second half, but he didn't lose confidence. His runner in the lane put Baylor ahead 63-58 at a time when Kansas was threatening.

Key stat: Often criticized for being soft in the paint, Baylor couldn't have been any tougher Friday. The Bears outrebounded the Jayhawks 37-34. They also did an excellent job defensively in holding KU to 42.6 percent shooting. And Baylor kept its composure on offense by committing just nine turnovers.

Miscellaneous: Baylor lost its two regular-season games to Kansas by an average of 16 points ... If the Bears win the Big 12 tournament title it will mean they defeated Kansas State, Kansas and possibly Missouri in what is basically a road environment for each game.

What's ahead: Baylor gets second-seeded Missouri on Saturday. If Baylor wins, there's a chance the Bears could be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Kansas will wait until Selection Sunday to find out if Friday's loss costs it a No. 1 NCAA seed.

What we learned from the afternoon games

January, 28, 2012
1/28/12
6:57
PM CT
So much for a slow Saturday. College basketball fans and pundits alike should know better by now, but we always assume the worst on a supposedly “slow” weekend.

Let’s change the rules, based on what we’ve seen today. If you survey the weekend slate and you can’t find any meaningful games and potential upsets that you’re overly interested in, that means it’s time to call Earl and the crew (everybody has a friend named Earl), stock the fridge and get ready for some good basketball. If this was a lukewarm weekend in college basketball, what qualifies as a great one?

Iowa State 72, No. 5 Kansas 64

Many laughed when Fred Hoiberg began his tenure at Iowa State by recruiting from a pool of players known for their checkered pasts. Royce White, who left Minnesota two seasons ago after a tumultuous stay, led the bunch. But Hoiberg looks like a genius right now after the Cyclones handed No. 5 KU its first Big 12 loss of the season. The win snapped both the Jayhawks' 13-game winning streak over Iowa State and their 10-game overall winning streak (they hadn’t lost since Dec. 19).

The postgame court-storming was well-deserved for the 'Clones and their fans. Hoiberg has as much job security as any coach in the country based on his legendary career in Ames, which allowed him to pursue so many transfers without worry. In other words, he’d get a mulligan if things didn’t work out.

Against Kansas, however, Hoiberg proved that he’s more than a risk-taking recruiter. He can coach, too. Iowa State, a squad that suffered an 82-73 loss at Kansas on Jan. 14, led by three points at halftime. But that didn’t last. The Jayhawks scored 11 unanswered points early in the second half. The crowd’s energy dropped after that KU run, but Iowa State kept fighting, something it had failed to do down the stretch in its earlier loss to the Jayhawks.

White led the charge. With his team leading 56-53 and five minutes to play, he scored the Cyclones' next eight points (three straight layups and a pair of free throws). He entered the game as a 51 percent free throw shooter -- ISU was the Big 12’s worst free throw shooting team at 61 percent overall -- but he was 6-for-8 from the charity stripe in the second half. He finished with a team-high 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists, making up for his six turnovers. The team was 25-for-34 from the charity stripe.

So yes, the same Iowa State squad that lost at Drake Nov. 15 looks like an NCAA tournament team right now -- no matter what my colleague Doug Gottlieb might tweet. At 5-3, the Cyclones are off to their best Big 12 start in a dozen years and sure seem like they won't be fading away anytime soon.

No. 4 Syracuse 63, West Virginia 61

It just can’t happen. Not in late January with the stakes so high. Not when it’s so blatant. Officials in this game missed one of the more obvious and critical goaltending calls of the season. In the final seconds, West Virginia's Truck Bryant air-balled a 3-pointer that ended up in Deniz Kilicli’s hands with his team down by a bucket. Kilicli’s layup was swatted away in mid-air by Syracuse's Baye Keita, but replays showed what looked like a clear goaltending violation by Keita. Officials never blew their whistles.

West Virginia got the ball back and Kevin Jones (20 points, eight rebounds) missed a deep 3-pointer to win the game, but the final outcome might have changed had that crew flagged Keita for goaltending. Now granted, WVU had its chances. Brandon Triche (18 points) hit a pair of free throws with a minute and a half to play and the Mountaineers missed four consecutive shots. But the no-call clearly impacted the game.

Syracuse struggled in its third consecutive game without Fab Melo. The Orange just haven’t looked like the same squad without him and his defensive presence. West Virginia secured an astounding plus-21 (41-20) rebounding edge over the Cuse and had nearly as many offensive boards (19) as the Orange had total. How does that happen? It’s not like the Mountaineers are the biggest team in the country. They were just tougher than Syracuse most of the afternoon. And had it not been for that missed goaltending call, West Virginia might have avoided its 13th loss to the Cuse in 14 meetings.

No. 7 Baylor 76, Texas 71

With 4:09 to go, Texas' Myck Kabongo hit a 3-pointer as Pierre Jackson committed a ridiculous foul to put him on the line for a four-point play opportunity. Texas had been down by 12 points early in the second half, but Kabongo’s shot cut Baylor’s advantage to just one. Cameras panned to Baylor coach Scott Drew on the sidelines. He had the “I can’t believe this is happening at home” look on his face.

Perry Jones (22 points, 14 rebounds) was far more aggressive than he’d been in some of his efforts, but Baylor couldn’t keep the pressure on the Longhorns and nearly blew one at home. J’Covan Brown scored 32 points (11-for-22), his third consecutive 30-point effort. But he had way more time to create a better shot than the deep 3-ball he took with 14 seconds on the clock. His team was down by three points in the closing seconds, so I understand why he’d take a deep shot, but he didn’t have to shoot it when he did. He had more time on the clock.

Here’s where you have to have more question marks about Baylor, though. The Bears are at home. Texas shot 36 percent from the field in the first half and was 1-for-12 from beyond the arc before halftime. Seemed like an opportunity for Baylor to flex its muscle. But it turned into another lukewarm finish for the Bears.

No. 13 Florida 69, No. 16 Mississippi State 57

The Bulldogs just couldn’t handle Florida’s inside-outside attack. Patric Young (12 points, six rebounds) was solid for the Gators, especially after halftime. Bradley Beal led the Gators’ talented backcourt with 19 points. The nation’s leaders in 3-point field goals hit 11 of them as they won their fifth straight and 17th in a row at home.

Arnett Moultrie was 4-for-10 and scored 12 points for a Bulldogs team that committed 14 turnovers. It was MSU's third SEC road loss of the season. At 5-3 in league play, they’d better find a way to compete away from home. They’re certainly talented, but the Bulldogs have really struggled on the road. Thought this one would have been a closer game, but give the Gators credit. They can spread teams out with their guard play and minimize their size disadvantages, a tactic they used to perfection against the Bulldogs.

No. 1 Kentucky 74, LSU 50

The Wildcats are in Beast Mode right now. They’re just crushing teams. LSU entered this game following a tight road loss at Mississippi State. But the Wildcats are just a different animal. Terrence Jones led all scorers with a season-high 27 points and the Wildcats held LSU to a 1-for-9 clip from the 3-point line. Just two Tigers reached double figures.

Although LSU is only 2-5 in the SEC, you have to wonder how dangerous the Wildcats can be in March when a guy like Jones can explode despite some inconsistency this season. He entered the game averaging 11.6 ppg and he only scored five points against Georgia on Tuesday. But this game was further proof that Kentucky is a “pick your poison” kind of opponent. How do you defend a team with that number of studs? The Wildcats have so many weapons.

Syracuse is deep. Ohio State has balance. But no team in America looks as potent as Kentucky right now.

Some more observations from the afternoon games ...
  • It Happened! It Happened! It Happened! Towson wins! The Tigers had set a record with 41 consecutive Division I losses, but on Saturday, a miracle happened when the Tigers beat UNC Wilmington 66-61 despite a 1-for-8 mark from the 3-point line. Marcus Damas scored 18 points. There were shaky moments late -- the Seahawks hit some late 3s after Towson took a 60-53 lead with 1:25 to play -- but the Tigers held on and a justifiable celebration ensued. For reaction from coach Pat Skerry and the Tigers, read Andy Katz's story in the Nation blog.
  • Marquette did its normal slow-start/big-finish thing at Villanova, but Dana O'Neil was at the game, so I'll let her tell you more about it.
  • Duke nearly squandered a 22-point second-half lead against a young St. John’s team. The Blue Devils' 83-76 victory over the Red Storm was nothing to hang their hats on. The Devils should be disappointed that they gave up a late run that could have cost them the game.
  • Middle Tennessee State and Vanderbilt clashed Saturday in a tight game between the two Tennessee schools. MTSU, 20-2 entering the game, has been one of the bigger surprises on the national scene. The Blue Raiders start four transfers who weren’t with the team last season. But their story hit a roadblock in their 84-77 loss at Vanderbilt. The loss snapped Middle's 12-game winning streak and gave Vandy its fourth win in its past five games.
  • Is Pitt about to launch a big comeback this season? I’m not sure. But the Panthers have won two in a row after an impressive 72-60 win over No. 10 Georgetown, their fifth win in their last six meetings with the Hoyas. They lost their first eight Big East games, but Lamar Patterson scored a team-high 18 points and Ashton Gibbs added 13 for the Panthers, who have now won an incredible 12 straight home games against top-10 opponents.
  • The Mountain West Conference is legit. Proof? No. 12 San Diego State took a tough 77-60 road loss at Colorado State on Saturday, despite Jamaal Franklin’s 24 points. After a brutal travel week in the Rockies, the loss snapped SDSU’s 11-game overall winning streak and its 58-game win streak against unranked foes, which had been the longest such run in the country. Colorado State’s dwindling at-large hopes certainly got a huge boost with this victory, the school's first over a ranked team since 2004.

Rapid Reaction: Missouri 89, Baylor 88

January, 21, 2012
1/21/12
3:46
PM CT
video
WACO, Texas -- Here are some quick thoughts from Missouri’s 89-88 victory over Baylor Saturday at the Ferrell Center.

Overview: Marcus Denmon’s free throw with four seconds remaining proved to be the difference in No. 5 Missouri’s victory over third-ranked Baylor. Denmon’s foul shot gave the Tigers an 89-85 lead. A 3-pointer by Baylor’s Brady Heslip at the buzzer didn’t matter. Ricardo Ratliffe scored 27 points for Missouri, which led by as many as 12 points late in the second half before Baylor made a run late in the game. Missouri shot 54 percent from the field, forced 19 Baylor turnovers and outrebounded the bigger, longer Bears 27-24.

The Tigers are now 18-1. Baylor dropped its second straight and fell to 17-2.

Turning point: Missouri used an 11-2 run to stretch a 60-58 lead to a 71-60 cushion midway through the second half. Ratliffe scored eight points during the march.

Star of the game: Ratliffe’s 27 points came on 11-of-14 shooting. Point guard Phil Pressey played one of his best games as a collegian with 18 points, seven assists and six steals. Freshman Quincy Miller scored a career-high 29 points for Baylor. Pierre Jackson had 15 assists.

What the win means for Missouri: This was one of the most impressive road wins by any college basketball team this season. Missouri had an excellent game plan that led to loads of open looks for the Tigers. Frank Haith’s squad has done a tremendous job of bouncing back from a Jan. 7 loss at Kansas State. Missouri is a legitimate top-5 team and is good enough to win a national championship.

What the loss means for Baylor: The Bears’ chances of their first conference title took a major hit. Baylor’s inability to rebound against an undersized Missouri squad was alarming. This team needs to get tougher -- fast. Scott Drew also needs to think about tightening his rotation.

Up next: Baylor travels to Norman to take on Oklahoma Tuesday. Missouri plays Oklahoma State Wednesday in Stillwater.

Games to track: Baylor-Mizzou; Texas-Kansas

January, 20, 2012
1/20/12
2:43
PM CT


For full coverage of all the top matchups, check out Weekend Watch.

Saturday's game
No. 5 Missouri at No. 3 Baylor (1 p.m. CT, ESPN):

Missouri: The Tigers might have the quickest lineup in college basketball. Frank Haith's guards have been very efficient, and have made much better decisions on offense and defense this season. Missouri can still fall into some "chuck and duck" habits, which worked well under Mike Anderson but does not fit with the style favored by Haith.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Denmon
Jeff Moffett/Icon SMIMarcus Denmon is averaging 17.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game for Missouri.
The Tigers run a set-play, quick-hitting offense that features four guards around undersized big man Ricardo Ratliffe. Point guard Phil Pressey is almost impossible to stay in front of, and he is an elite passer who willingly gives up the ball. Pressey has a near 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and leads the team in steals with 37. The wings are among the best in the nation, with All-America candidate Marcus Denmon and the ridiculously efficient Kim English. English's transformation has been remarkable. Last season, his confidence was waning. This season, he seemingly cannot miss. His decisions have improved, and he is hitting more than 50 percent of his 3-point shots. Ratliffe is benefiting from single coverage in the post and the drop-offs from his teammates to shoot better than 77 percent from the field. The single-season record is 74 percent by Oregon State's Steve Johnson back when Ralph Miller was the Beavers' coach.

Baylor: The Bears are big, long, athletic and deep along the front line, and have one of the most talented frontcourts in the country. Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller, Anthony Jones and Cory Jefferson provide the bodies and length to overwhelm a smaller team on the glass and the defensive end.

Before the season, I was one who questioned the Baylor guards and whether the Bears would be able to improve ball security. Last season, Baylor turned the ball over at a very high rate. Turnovers are still an issue, but this team is much better with the ball. Guards Brady Heslip, A.J. Walton and Pierre Jackson are far better than I anticipated, and Jackson is a game-changing talent. He has the ability to guard the ball, see the floor with terrific vision and play with a fearlessness that allows his teammates to do their jobs without worrying about his.

Key players: Denmon and Jackson. Denmon scratches in just about every category for the Tigers and is an attack guard. Denmon excels in transition, and Baylor can afford to put Walton, Jackson or a defender with more size on him. Denmon is a very good defender but might have some issues matching up with bigger Baylor players. Jackson is incredibly strong and athletic, and has the ability to guard Pressey and Denmon. If he can stay out of foul difficulty, Jackson has the ability to change the game with his pressure and steals. On the offensive end, Jackson is a potent scorer, but he is also a fabulous passer. He will get a lob dunk from deep for a teammate; you can bank on it. However, he also has 64 turnovers to go with his 98 assists.

Key shooters: Heslip and English. Heslip transferred from Boston College and has a really quick release. He has hit 51 3s, by far the most on the Baylor roster, and is shooting 47 percent from 3. English is shooting better than 50 percent from deep, and his stroke is pure. He has hit 45 3s in only 88 attempts.

Key bigs: Ratliffe and Perry Jones III. Ratliffe plays off his guards very well but must avoid fouls to be able to stay in the game. Without Ratliffe, Missouri can get overwhelmed on the glass. Jones is a special talent. He needs to be assertive and dominate his matchup. No player on the Missouri roster can guard him.

Key stat: Turnovers and rebounding. Baylor should own the backboards but also has to get to long rebounds, which will be an issue in this game. Baylor turned the ball over against the pressure of Kansas and needs to take care of the ball against the pressure brought by Missouri. Pressey's initial ball pressure will be key.

Who wins: Baylor is coming off a loss and playing at home. How the Bears guard the 3-point line will go a long way in determining this one. Expect Baylor to play some man-to-man in addition to some zone. If the Bears take good shots and limit Missouri in transition, I like the Bears to win. Baylor 74-70.

No. 7 Kansas at Texas (3 p.m. Saturday): Kansas is playing at such a high level that the Jayhawks would have to come down a few notches if they’re going to lose at erratic Texas. The Longhorns don’t have the strength to deal with Thomas Robinson. I’d be surprised if Kansas loses this game.

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