The season is running out on Texas Longhorns basketball, with each loss ratcheting up the pressure on the team. The Longhorns need to embrace that pressure tonight as they host the Baylor Bears (15-10; 5-7) in a critical conference game.
Saturday made sausage out of the Big 12 conference standings, and entering tonight's games six of the league's 10 teams hold either a 6-6 or 5-7 record. Both Texas and Baylor are in that group of teams holding a 5-7 record, meaning that tonight's game will have significant implications for the Big 12 standings, conference tournament seeding, and the NCAA bubble hopes of both teams.
A quick look at the Bears
During recent seasons Scott Drew's teams have shared a set of common characteristics. They typically have long front court players who crash the offensive glass and protect the interior paired with smallish guards who can shoot. This Baylor team is no different.
Seniors Jo Lual-Acuil, Terry Maston, Nuni Omot, and freshman Tristan Clark provide the length. They also bring a diverse array of offensive skills. Lual-Acuil and Maston can score well with the ball inside, while Omot stretches the floor with a a nice shooting stroke. They are joined by versatile and athletic redshirt freshman Mark Vital in the front court.
On the perimeter, Manu Lecomte is the canonical example of the small sharp-shooting Baylor point guard. He plays alongside the bigger, more physical, and more athletic Jake Lindsey who is a playmaking guard and the Bears’ best perimeter defender. King McClure is a scorer who was starting the last time Texas faced Baylor, but in recent weeks has been coming in off the bench.
What happened the last time these two teams met?
Texas last faced Baylor on January 6 in Waco. Jase Febres sparked Texas early with some excellent perimeter shooting, and the game was tight until the ‘Horns hit a horrendous scoring drought during the last few minutes of play. Lecomte and Lual-Acuil each scored 17 points and Baylor won 69-60.
What has Baylor been up to since last facing Texas?
The Bears had a rough January. Scott Drew's team only won twice during the month — once against Texas and once at home against Oklahoma State. But a tough start to the season for Baylor perhaps says more about how the Bear's schedule was structured than anything, as six of Baylor's ten first games came on the road.
February has gone much better for the Bears. Drew's men have won three games in a row, including a 80-64 victory at home against Kansas. Baylor is perhaps hitting its stride, or perhaps is just enjoying the chance to play a few more games in Waco.
What does this game mean?
There is a lot riding on this game. First, let's deal with the obvious. This is a game that has major implications for the NCAA tournament hopes of both teams. Texas needs a few more wins to hold its spot in the tournament conversation, and the Bears have recently climbed up to the bubble as well. This game will also help us sort out some of the bottom half of the Big 12 standings, as the Bears had been hanging near the bottom of those standings for much of the season but are now starting to make a move.
Beyond these numerical matters, Texas is a team that needs to quickly correct its course. Coming into the season, the Longhorns’ best chance at success was to be great defensively while finding enough scoring on the offensive end to win. But as of late, the defense has faltered. After up and down play during the conference season the Longhorn defense is coming off of two rocky games — TCU absolutely torched Texas on Saturday — and the ‘Horns seem to have lost track of the things that made it successful on this end of the floor earlier in the year.
When the Texas D is at its best every player does his job, while Kerwin Roach and Matt Coleman get after opposing ball handlers and Mohamed Bamba cleans up everything on the back end. But this hasn't been happening as of late. While I grant that TCU is an excellent offensive team, the defensive failure on Saturday was total and complete. Faced with an opponent as good offensively as TCU, with skilled scorers at every position on the floor, a team needs to find a way to take something off the table; the Longhorns took away nothing.
To salvage the season, the Longhorns need to reestablish their identity as one of college basketball's great defensive teams. There was a point in the season where Shaka Smart's team was worthy of consideration as one of the best defenses in the country, but it is something that hasn't been true for a while. I cannot tell if it is fatigue, lack of focus, or a team losing its competitive edge — or all three together — but the Longhorn defense needs to get itself right, and needs to do it quickly.
The game tips in Austin at 8 p.m. CT, and airs on ESPN.