The Texas basketball team (15-4, 4-2 Big 12) will take its four-game winning streak on the road on Saturday when they visit the Ferrell Center in Waco, where they'll try to claw past a slumping Baylor Bears squad (13-5, 1-4 Big 12) that will be fighting to save its season.
Just three weeks ago Baylor was looking like a strong contender for the conference crown and a 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament after it finished the non-conference season with a 12-1 record that included wins over Colorado (KenPom No. 53), Dayton (59), and Kentucky (16), with the lone loss coming by 7 points to No. 4 Syracuse in the finals of the Maui Invitational. But in their highly anticipated Big 12 opener with an unbeaten Iowa State squad in Ames, the Bears were run out of the gym by the Cyclones in an 87-72 rout. And after picking up an easy home win over TCU, Baylor has lost three more in a row, dropping games to Texas Tech in Lubbock, Oklahoma in Waco, and Kansas on the road.
There's still a ways to go yet in the season, but it's hard not to conclude that Baylor's season is on the line this Saturday against Texas. It's just hard to see this Baylor team putting in the concentration and hard work it would take to rally from a fourth-straight loss that sent them to 1-5 in the Big 12 standings. By contrast, it's easy to imagine a win over Texas this weekend energizing this team, which unquestionably has enough talent to get hot and turn things around.
In any event, the narrative arc of Baylor's season is surprising only out of context. And by out of context I mean if you didn't know that the Bears are coached by Scott Drew.
But of course you did know that, and thus are likely to view Baylor's sudden underachievement more as "right on schedule" than "out of nowhere."
As he has done more or less since he arrived at Baylor, Drew has once again assembled a roster brimming with size, athleticism, and prospect pedigree. And as he has done more or less since he arrived at Baylor, Drew is struggling to coach that talent into an NCAA Tournament team: despite all the talent he's managed to lure to come play in Waco, Drew has led Baylor to the Big Dance just 3 times during his 10-year tenure in Waco, and unless he can get things turned around quickly with this group, the Bears are looking at another post-season stag party.
If Baylor does wind up missing out on the Tourney yet again, it will be for the same reason that befell all of Drew's previous mass assemblages of talent: no defense. You would think a coach who works the sideline as maniacally as does Scott Drew on game day would be similarly animated in coaching his team to defend in practices, but the results speak for themselves: the Bears have managed a Top 50 defense in the Pomeroy ratings just twice during Drew's tenure, and seven times ranked outside the Top 100. That's pretty remarkable considering 5 of those 10 teams finished with a Top 15 offense.
That's certainly the story again this year, as the Bears slot in at No. 30 in the offensive efficiency ratings but just No. 102 on defense. And it's not because Baylor's players aren't big or athletic or talented enough to play quality defense; it's because Scott Drew doesn't coach quality defense. And yes, I am asserting this as fact, not opinion.
Part of the problem is that quality defense is as much a product of superior discipline, effort, and teamwork as it is having talented players, and whether because Drew can't develop those attributes or won't, year in and year out Baylor has plenty of talent but no discipline or consistent focus. The other part of the problem is that Drew appears truly to be defensively dumb as a coach. His preferred defensive approach changes frequently, and seemingly at random, with little apparent regard for whether and how it might fit his personnel. Drew coaches defense like he's at a massive and perpetual talent disadvantage, throwing as much sh*t on the wall as possible in hopes that something sticks. With the talent he has on hand in Waco, however, Baylor would be better off just from the decision alone to play man-to-man defense, even without any additional coaching.
Unfortunately for Texas, if Saturday's contest represents a must-win last stand for Baylor's season, the Bears should be plenty focused and motivated out of pure desperation, irrespective of what they are or aren't getting from their head coach. And if the Horns do face a Baylor team at its best, it's going to be very difficult to steal a win in Waco, where the Bears have won three of the last four meetings between the two teams.
That's because Baylor can be a really good team. Drew baffles me as a coach, but he's certainly been successful in bringing talented players to Waco, and this year is no exception. The Bears feature three elite recruits from the 2012 class in Isaiah Austin (Top 5 national recruit), Rico Gathers (Top 50 national recruit and No. 1 player in Louisiana) and Taurean Prince (Top 100 player and No. 7 player in Texas), along with senior forward Cory Jefferson, a coveted Top 50 player who chose Baylor over Texas, Arizona, and Florida, among others.
You really do have to give Drew a lot of credit, though, because his success is not limited to bringing in elite high school players. There may be no other team in the country benefitting more from transfer players than is Baylor this year. Sharpshooter Brady Heslip arrived in Waco in 2010 after a year at Boston College and wing/forward Royce O'Neal is a transfer from Denver University. And the Bears' best player this year has been point guard Kenny Chery, a Missouri JuCo signee who originally hails from Quebec and has the kind of game that Texas fans thought they would get from their Canadian import at point guard, Myck Kabongo.
For the first time in a while, Texas will not have a decided size advantage over its opponent. The Bears feature are one of the longest teams in the country, and their abundance of wings and forwards with size and athleticism present worrisome challenges for any team. Jefferson and Gathers are both beasts on the blocks, and both O'Neale (6-6, 220) and Prince (6-7, 210) are long and strong wing/forwards who can stretch their defenders to the three point line but have the size and athleticism to take their man to the rim on the bounce. And then of course there's Isaiah Austin, who may be the oddest, most identity-confused 7-1 player in the history of basketball, but who is, yeah, 7-1.
As for Baylor's guards, the roster is fairly thin in terms of volume, but the talent is legit. As mentioned above, JuCo point guard Kenny Chery has been absolutely brilliant for the Bears this season, and Isaiah Taylor will need to bring his A-game to Waco on Saturday if he intends to keep pace. Chery single-handedly brought Baylor back from behind in its victory over Kentucky in Arlington in December, and he's looked capable of playing at a First Team All-Big 12 level for much of this season. Though undersized, Chery is an explosive penetrator with quickness, a devastating first step, terrific handles, and strong scoring ability around the rim. He's one of the best in the country at breaking down a defense with penetration, and he has superior vision and feel that make him one of the best distributors in the country. If he were to improve his outside shot (just 31% beyond the arc on the year) and ability to get to the free throw line, he be in the conversation for the top point guard in the country.
Elsewhere on the perimeter, both Gary Franklin and Brady Heslip are back for what seems like their tenth season at Baylor. Franklin is who he has always been: a decent defender and unremarkable offensive player who Drew tends to play too much. For that matter, Heslip is who he's always been, as well: a weak defender whose three-point shooting is his only real attribute... but damn is it a lethal one. After "slumping" last year to 39% shooting from beyond the arc, the senior is back to ripping the nets at ridiculous rates again this year, having connected on 44 of his 93 three-point attempts, good for a cool 47%. Combining that blistering long-range shooting with a super low turnover rate is how a player who's made just 7 of 17 two-point shots on the entire season (41%) has an off-the-charts offensive rating of 145.2. Rounding out Baylor's guards is 6-5 freshman Ish Wainright, who has the raw talent to develop into an effective college player but isn't ready as a true freshman and doesn't see more than 10 minutes of action per game.
KEYS TO THE GAME & PREDICTION
It's hard to know what to expect from Baylor on Saturday? A superior effort from the Bears will be very difficult to overcome on their home floor, but this game doesn't feel unwinnable, either. Here's a few keys that I'll be looking for to help Texas steal a huge road win in Waco:
1. Defend penetration (but don't lose Heslip). Baylor is dangerous enough offensively that defenses are forced to pick among poisons, but on the bright side, the choice itself is an easy one to make: limit Baylor's opportunities at the rim by disallowing penetration and focusing resources on defending Baylor in the paint. Such a strategy facilitates quality shots for Baylor on the perimeter, but that's a tradeoff Texas can live with... provided, however, that any such invitation to shoot threes should not be extended to Heslip, who is easy to defend... but also easy to lose track of. Awareness among our guards will be critical to defending Baylor effectively on Saturday. If Royce O'Neale and Kenny Chery beat us with three-pointers because we defended to keep them out of the lane, you tip your cap. If Heslip beats us with a three-point barrage, we screwed something up.
2. Win in transition... or win on the glass. With Chery at the point and an army of elite athletes who can wreak havoc running the floor, Baylor should be an up tempo team that opportunely seeks to press its advantages. Naturally, Drew has them playing a plodding half court style at one of the slowest paces in the country. Barnes has made that mistake before, but not this year, and finding points in transition is the surest workaround to the usual disadvantages with which Big 12 road teams typically struggle. Now, with that being said, Baylor is an absolute force on the offensive glass and Texas would be justified in sacrificing transition opportunities to crash the defensive glass. My instinct is that there's greater value in the transition opportunities, but if we're to win on Saturday, it will be important that we excel in one of those two regards -- either finding scoring in transition or wiping out second-chance scoring opportunities for Baylor.
3. No wasted fouls. Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley, and Isaiah Taylor are all without margin for error with respect to accumulating fouls. If all three play their optimal range of minutes unburdened by foul trouble, Texas can compete for a win, but if foul trouble forces one or more of them to sit on the bench for an extended period of time and/or play tentatively, trouble is likely to follow. With the random whistle generators the Big 12 uses in place of officials, there's only so much within a player's own control, but playing intelligently to limit avoidable whistles will be essential.
Prediction: Anyone who's followed the Big 12 over the past decade knows how difficult it is to project a road win in this conference, and even with Baylor's season threatening to collapse, the odds still favor a win for the home team on Saturday. If we can keep Chery from slicing and dicing us off the bounce, and succeed in doing so without playing a zone or man-help defense that gets us Heslip-ed to death, Baylor's offensive success will depend in large part on getting offensive rebounds on jump shots, and I'd like our odds just fine. My gut just isn't letting me adopt an optimistic stance on this game, though. It's a winnable game, but one I'm not confident we're going to pick up. With high hopes to be wrong, I'll call it for Baylor on a Chery-fueled second half surge, 71-66.