Saturday, February 21, 1998. Were you there? In Waco? Do you remember?
That, of course, was the last time that the Baylor Bears defeated the Texas Longhorns in basketball. Like his football counterpart, for Tom Penders the 1997-98 basketball season mercifully ended his rocky run as the head man in Austin. The last straw for both coaches? Among other sensational failures, "losing to Baylor" is right up there near the top of the list; Penders' squad was swept by the Bears in his final season.
Out went Penders, in came Barnes, and the Longhorns enter tonight's Big 12 semifinal having bashed the Baptists an astounding 24 straight times. Even if you generously give Texas an 80% chance of winning each of those 24 games, the odds of them winning all 24 are incomprehensibly small -- less than one-half of one percent. Wiggins has a better chance of dunking a basketball.
Nevermind how we got here, though -- none of that has any bearing on tonight's semifinal. Game preview after the jump:
THE STAKES: Prepare yourself to be inundated throughout tonight's broadcast with wholly annoying Fran Fraschilla gushing about the Bears as a tournament "Cinderella." At least it's not Gus Johnson?
The truth is Baylor's simply doing what they failed to do all season -- playing to their potential by making a 40-minute effort on defense, hitting the boards, and demonstrating a modicum of discretion as pertains to shot selection. As I wrote before their win over Nebraska, Baylor playing to their potential represents "this tournament's uncomfortably dangerous team." And though I wussed out and picked Kansas to squeak by the Bears in the quarters, I was fully expecting Baylor to give the Jayhawks a game:
As athletic as are the Bears, with the ability to hit threes in bunches, and everything to gain/nothing to lose, Baylor has to be considered a live wire for this tourney's favorites....
Oh, how I want to pick the Bears. If they put it all together, I have no doubt at all they can take down a beatable Kansas squad. Still, the percentage play is clearly with the Jayhawks -- they have a substantial frontcourt advantage, defend well with far greater consistency, and the better coach. Still, I'm expecting a fight from a Baylor team playing with nothing to lose.
So here we are. It's Friday, the Bears are alive, still have nothing to lose, and now sit two wins away from the NCAA Tournament berth they couldn't be bothered to earn during the regular season. And that makes them dangerous -- a cornered animal with sharp teeth, ready to fight for its life.
For Texas, the NCAA bid is locked up and there are some seeding implications at stake (moving comfortably past that 7-line would be nice), but in my mind the real prize is the opportunity for Rick Barnes to win his first Big 12 Tournament championship. Though he has won regular season conference titles and a win today would advance the 'Horns to the tournament finals for a remarkable fifth straight year, Barnes has never won the whole thing. As up-and-down as has been this season, it'd be quite the gratifying treat to end things with the tournament title that's eluded him all these years.
THE GAME: The steady development of Balbay and Pittman are especially problematic for the Bears. In Dogus Texas gets an elite on-ball defender who can take away Curtis Jerrells dribble drive game, upon which Baylor depends for consistent open looks in the halfcourt. And in Pittman -- the tournament MVP to this point -- Texas gets a player the Bears just don't have the personnel to handle in the paint. In my estimation the Pittman-Balbay duo probably make the Longhorns (at their best) the toughest match up in the conference for the fighting Baptists.
How does Texas best capitalize on those advantages to win one more against the Bears? I'll be looking for four things:
- Contain Jerrells on the drive. At his best, Jerrells is for Baylor a lot like what Reggie Freeman was for Tom Penders back in the day. But also like Freeman, when Jerrells is forced to play exclusively on the perimeter, his value is neutered. His shot simply isn't good enough to thrive solely on the perimeter, and Balbay and Mason have combined to hold Jerrells to 9-35 shooting (4-14 from downtown) in the teams' first two match ups. Another night like that and Rick Barnes will make it 25-0 against the Bears.
- 25-30 minutes from Dexter. All bets are off if Big Dexter finds himself in foul trouble tonight. As we've seen in the tournament's first two games, he's rounding into a near-unstoppable offensive force and an elite rebounder. And in terms of fouling, not only has his body control improved dramatically on both ends of the floor, but officials seem to be getting used to his play. He's not drawing nearly as many chippie fouls in which the refs simply seem to be punishing him for being large.
- Functional ball handling. It's a good thing I was forced to watch yesterday's debacle in a sports bar, because watching Texas cough up 22 turnovers made me want to break something. Had I been in my own home, I'd be shopping for a new TV today. Baylor's not long like K-State, but they're quick and their guards do create turnovers (9 steals against Kansas). Balbay and Mason were awful yesterday; neither needs to be brilliant, but both need to protect the ball today. Also, Damion James should never dribble the ball. Ever. That's not too much to ask, right?
- Good AJ. Remember two seasons ago when we wondered if we'd get Good Connor or Bad Connor? That's AJ this year. Good AJ is a value to the team, the appearance of which almost always ensures a Texas victory. Bad AJ is crippling. I don't think I need to elaborate here.
THE PREDICTION: On the bright side yesterday, Texas won a game despite atrocious offense and defensive rebounding simply due to their playing excellent team defense. That's legitimately encouraging, and if they do as much tonight I don't think Baylor has much of a chance. If the Longhorns play good defense, limit transition opportunities, and get 25-30 minutes from Pittman... a double-digit win is well within reach. I'm optimistic about this match up. Texas 77 Baylor 70