The Texas Longhorns are on a roll. Winners of five of their last six games, Shaka Smart's men head to Waco, but their opponent is a team that is also playing well. The 17-4 Baylor Bears are currently 6-2 in league play, which puts them in a three-way tie for first.
But while Baylor is tough, Scott Drew's team hasn't been completely invincible at home. The Bears needed two overtimes to dispatch Kansas State in Waco, and have also taken a loss to Oklahoma in the Ferrell Center. Of course, most everyone loses to Oklahoma.
A look at the Bears
Coming into the season, Baylor looked likely to be strong if 5'10 senior guard Lester Medford smoothly transitioned into his new role as coach Drew's primary ball handler. And he has done reasonably well at the task; he is not exactly Monte Morris when it comes to taking care of the rock, but Medford is not a disaster at the point and is a dangerous perimeter shooter.
With Medford holding up as a lead guard, the rest of the Baylor roster is strong. The star of the show is 6'8 senior forward Taurean Prince. Prince is a future NBA player and a very difficult cover, as he can shoot from the perimeter but can also put the ball on the floor and drive the basket.
One interesting thing about Prince this season is he doesn't seem to be driving all the way to the rim quite as much as in previous years, and his three-point attempts are also down. If Texas can turn him into a player who is shooting jump shots off the dribble, some of the most important defensive work will be getting done, as Smart noted on Monday that Prince is playing as well as anyone in the Big 12 Conference.
Aside from Prince and Medford, several other Baylor perimeter players warrant your consideration. Al Freeman is mostly out there to shoot the ball, which is something he does well. Ishmail Wainright helps out with some of the ball handling, is a decent playmaker, and will have the odd game where he gets hot from outside. The Bears will rotate in a pair of good freshman -- King McClure and Jake Lindsey.
Baylor is every bit as strong inside as it is along the perimeter. Senior Rico Gathers and sophomore Johnathan Motley are both exceptionally tough on the glass. Limiting second-chance shots is an important key when you play against Baylor -- Gathers and Motley are just murder on the offensive boards. Terry Maston will also rotate in, and he is a perfectly capable player in his own right.
If it sounds like the Bears are good, it is because they are. Baylor currently leads the Big 12 in points per possession, which is remarkable when you consider that this is a league that includes a number of high-powered offensive teams, such as Oklahoma, Iowa State, and Kansas.
But it is not unexpected. Teams that shoot 38 percent from three-point range and are one of the very best offensive rebounding teams in the country generally can score. And let's be honest, Drew is an underrated offensive coach -- Baylor has finished in the top 20 on offense in the Kenpom.com rankings in seven out of the last eight seasons, and is on its way to doing it again this year (the Bears currently rank 11th).
The issues for Baylor, this year like every other, come at the other end of the floor. The Bears aren't particularly good on defense, despite having size and athleticism to burn.
Baylor will force some difficult match ups for Texas right from the start of the game. In each game this year, Scott Drew has elected to start the game with Motley on the bench, which will mean that Connor Lammert will likely have to contend with Prince. And then when Motley subs in, Prince will draw a match up with one of Shaka Smart's guards. Games like this are where you really miss Jonathan Holmes. Well, you kind of miss Holmes every game, but you get my point.
Because it comes on the road, this is one of Texas' toughest remaining games of the season. A win tonight would put the Longhorns significantly ahead of schedule in terms of using the next month to put the finishing touches on an NCAA tournament resume.
But that win won't come easily.