March is almost here. And with we start to contemplate the end of the annual slog through conference play.
For the Texas Longhorns, there are only four games remaining before the post season starts. Shaka Smart’s team is looking to lock in their position in the NCAA Tournament — despite the general malaise currently gripping the Texas fan base, if the season ended today the Longhorns would sail through the selection process rather easily — but the season doesn’t end today and there is still work to be done.
The Longhorns’ final four games — at Baylor, home against Iowa State, at Texas Tech, home against TCU — are not uniquely difficult when compared with what the rest of the league is facing, but not uniquely easy either. On the road at Texas Tech will be uniquely difficult, but the other three games are all ones that we could reasonably expect the Longhorns to find a way to win or lose.
(Perhaps the conference’s easiest finish this season belongs to Kansas. The Jayhawks have only three remaining games and will be favored in all of them, something unlikely to be true for anyone else in the league. This is the reason why the Jayhawks have a shot of running the table and catching up with either Kansas State or Texas Tech to share in the Big 12 championship and keep the streak going for another year.)
First up for Texas is Baylor. The Bears visited Austin (and lost) a few weeks ago. Since that time Scott Drew’s team has gone 3-2, with its most impressive victory a road win against Iowa State.
After a super hot perimeter shooting start to conference play, the Bears have cooled off slightly, but are still shooting the ball pretty well. So much of Baylor’s season has been spent dealing with injuries (both Jake Lindsey and Tristan Clark are lost for the season), and February has been no different. Lead guard Makai Mason has been banged up since a late game injury in Austin and missed some time. But he has been back in the lineup the past two games, and assuming this is true on Wednesday the Longhorn defenders will need to pick him up as soon as he crosses half court and not give him space to get his shot off.
Additionally, starting guard King McClure has missed the past five games, and his status is day-to-day.
Despite all of these losses, Baylor keeps finding answers. Freshman Jared Butler and junior college transfer Devonte Bandoo have come up big for Drew in the backcourt in recent games.
With so few remaining perimeter players, the Bears have also spent more time playing with bigger lineups recently, playing bundle of fast twitch muscles Mark Vital with two other big men. This has created more playing time for 6’7 sophomore Mario Kegler and 6’8 D-III transfer (yes, you read that right — D-III) Freddie Gillespie.
This move has made the Bears even more formidable on the offensive glass — Baylor currently has the second highest offensive rebounding percentage in D-I. Vital, Gillespie, and backup big man Flo Thamba have been absolute monsters on the offensive glass. The thought of Jase Febres or Courtney Ramey having to mix things up inside with the likes of Vital or Kegler causes me some level of concern. If Texas wanted to experiment with its own three big man lineup, this game might be a good time to consider it.
On the other end of the floor Baylor is likely to try both man to man and zone defenses, and then will probably stick with whatever looks the best. Tonight would be a good night for the Longhorns to show some productive offense against a zone, because if they don’t they will see a lot of it.
The game tips in Waco at 8 p.m. Central on Wednesday and airs on ESPN2.