It's that time again. We get to revisit our first conference opponent, but this time we get them at home. Given our record at home, it isn't likely that this is our first, but I've seen stranger things. To help prep us for the game ahead, I reached out to our friends over at Our Daily Bears, the SB Nation site covering the Baylor Bears. Michael Nichols (aka PocketChange) was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
RCT: So Oklahoma State just seems to have your guy's number, don't they? Even after getting swept by the Cowboys, Baylor still has a winning conference record and a decent shot of finishing the year winning 5 of their last 7. Do you think that is a realistic goal for the team?
ODB: In their last seven games, Baylor plays at Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, and Texas and home against Kansas State, West Virginia, and Texas Tech. Of those, the games at Kansas and Iowa State are (spoiler) likely to be loses, unless Baylor can really pull something out of nowhere. The remaining five games, however, seem pretty winnable. Baylor will be favored to win all of it's remaining home games, will probably be favored to beat Texas Tech on the road, and has a decent chance of beating Texas in Austin, much like Oklahoma State, Kansas, and Oklahoma have already done. Finishing the season with two games remaining against Texas Tech is certainly favorable. I'd say it's likely that Baylor finishes 4-3 down the stretch, but 5-2 is well within reach.
We'll get to what happened in the Oklahoma State game in a bit.
RCT: I noticed that Rico Gathers was named to the Naismith Trophy Midseason list. Has he been the MVP of the team this season, and if not, who would you give that honor to?
ODB: All season Baylor's offense has relied heavily on offensive rebounding to score points either on put-backs or by drawing fouls. Gathers isn't the only guy out there grabbing boards, but he's the one grabbing the most, and he sets the tone inside for the Bears. No Baylor player has been as consistent game to game as Gathers, and even in the home loss to Oklahoma State, he had his usual 16 and 16 on 6-9 shooting. He's still the only player in the Big 12 averaging a double-double (11.2 points and 12.6 rebounds), he is 2nd in the country in off reb% (20%), and he leads the country in total rebounds with 302, being the only player with over 300 as of Friday morning.
Taurean Prince is the team's leading scorer, Kenny Chery is the guard who can make tough shots at the end of close games, and Royce O'Neale is one of the best glue guys in the country. I'm not sure you can say that any of them are as important as Gathers. He is this team's identity, so he's got to be this team's MVP, too.
RCT: Before this last week and a half, I would have been quite comfortable saying Baylor was a decent road team that couldn't just quite get over the hump and a formidable home team. When they beat down West Virginia on the road, it looked like Scott Drew had finally gotten this team to take strides in season rather than waiting until the Big 12 tournament. Was that Oklahoma State loss more about the Cowboys being really good, or is there real cause for concern?
ODB: The WVU win was pretty surprising for everyone, although the signs were there that Baylor could handle the Mountaineers pretty well. WVU just can't shoot from outside, and Baylor has enough good passers and ball handlers to beat the press often enough to limit the damage WVU can do off turnovers. Baylor's just a horrible matchup for the way WVU plays.
Similarly, Oklahoma State has several key matchup advantages on Baylor. The Cowboys want to shoot from three, and Le'Bryan Nash is comfortable scoring 10 feet from the basket. Those are the two things that Baylor's zone allows. On the other end, Oklahoma State's guards pressured Chery and Lester Medford all game, forced them to dribble the ball a lot by jumping into passing lanes, and prevented Baylor's offense from getting into a rhythm, even if Gathers still got his.
If there was one troubling thing about that home loss, it was a lack of defensive energy on Baylor's part. What has made the 1-3-1 zone successful for Baylor this season is the aggressiveness of the wings and the guards in pushing out and getting hands into passing lanes. On Monday night, Baylor mostly stayed inside the three point arc, allowing the Cowboys to pass the ball around the perimeter freely until Nash got into some open space and sucked in the defense.
Every team struggles with energy on occasion, though, even at home. As long as the Bears return to their usual high energy, aggressive zone, I'm not too worried.
RCT: Looking to the game tomorrow, it doesn't seem like we'll get the same type of game as last time, since the inside game for the Jayhawks has pretty much disappeared. Is Baylor willing to get into a 3-point shooting contest with the Jayhawks?
ODB: For the season, Baylor has shot just below 33% from three on the road (.328). In conference, that average drops to .308 (28-91). That includes a game where the Bears were 1-12 from three against TCU. If this game becomes a three point contest, Baylor's probably toast. They have capable three point shooters, but only within the flow of the offense. Prince is almost automatic off catch-and-shoots when he has space, O'Neale can hit the corner three, Chery is good for one or two pull-up threes a game, but if they're trying to play catch-up while Frank Mason, Wayne Selden, Kelly Oubre, and Brannen Greene are raining threes on the other end, it won't work out well for the Bears.
RCT: Finally, what's your prediction for the game? Do we see another game go down to the wire, or does Allen Fieldhouse give the Jayhawks enough of an advantage that they can win comfortably?
ODB: It's difficult to see this game ending well for the Bears. The last four seasons, Baylor's average margin of loss in Allen Fieldhouse has been over 16 points, and Baylor is 4-20 all time against KU. If Baylor is to have any hope of pulling off a huge upset, they'd have to really light it up from deep while KU struggles to make shots from the outside while Perry Ellis gets into foul trouble wrestling with Gathers down low. If the game is rough, slow, and ugly, the Bears have a chance to keep things close. If the pace picks up and the Fog gets rowdy, Baylor's probably done for. When Kansas has more conference championships than home loses under Bill Self, though, it's hard to feel too bad about it. Baylor 61 - Kansas 78.
RCT: BONUS - Star Wars or Star Trek?
ODB: Star Wars. The first movie I ever saw in theaters was the 20th anniversary of A New Hope when I was about six. Over the years to follow, one of my most lasting memories was having my mom put in the VHS of one of Episodes IV-VI for me and my little brother and fast forwarding through the boring George Lucas interview at the beginning. Those movies basically defined my childhood in a way that Star Trek could never really break into.