Sidelined with a sprained foot, center Jo Lual-Acuil watched in agony as Texas Tech manhandled Baylor, 77-53, in the Dec. 29 Big 12 opener in Lubbock.
The ugly 24-point loss was the Bears’ most lopsided of the season.
“It was extremely tough,” Lual-Acuil said. “I always want to be able to help the team.”
Nobody knew then that Texas Tech would be leading the Big 12 heading into the final five games of the regular season. But it was clear the No. 7 Red Raiders were much better than their seventh place preseason prediction by the Big 12 coaches.
Riding a four-game winning streak, a healthy Baylor squad hopes to derail the Red Raiders before a full house at the Ferrell Center at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. Texas Tech (22-4, 10-3) has won seven straight games to lead 13-time defending Big 12 champion Kansas by a game.
The Bears (16-10, 6-7) want to avenge the Big 12 opening loss to the Red Raiders and make another step toward reaching the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight season.
“They’re on a seven-game winning streak and we’re on a four-game winning streak, so one of the streaks has to end,” Lual-Acuil said. “We don’t want it to be ours. Our crowd has been really good, actually they’ve been tremendous. It’s helped us a lot.”
Under second-year coach Chris Beard, the Red Raiders have built their record behind a ball hawking, aggressive defense that has left opponents frazzled. The Red Raiders have held Big 12 teams to a league-low 66.3 points per game while ranking second by limiting opponents to a 42.6 field goal percentage and a 33.3 3-point percentage.
Senior guard Keenan Evans is the Red Raiders’ leader, but they’ve got enough depth to bring in waves of players to stay fresh throughout the game and wear down opponents.
“We like to think we have a defensive identity in our program,” Beard said. “Recruits buy into it who have a desire and talent to guard, and we spend a lot of time in practice on defense. It always starts with seniors, and Keenan Evans has had a special season and he gets a lot of attention and is a great defensive player. Three or four times in a half, he makes a defensive play with his talent and strength.”
Evans leads the Red Raiders with 18.7 points, 3.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Only two other Texas Tech players – guard Jarrett Culver with 10.8 points per game and guard Zhaire Smith with 10.7 – average double figure scoring. But 10 players have averaged double-figure minutes.
The Red Raiders create many of their offensive opportunities by playing tremendous defense. Their 6.8 steals per game rank third in the Big 12.
“They rank as the third-best defense in the country, best in the Big 12,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “They do a great job creating havoc on that end of the floor, which lets them get in transition, and they’re elite in finishing in transition. They’re a really athletic team and they do a great job in playing hard and competing and forcing teams into turnovers.”
After struggling to score consistently earlier in Big 12 play, the Bears have averaged 76.2 points during their four-game winning streak. With junior guard Jake Lindsey inserted into the starting lineup, point guard Manu Lecomte has had less ballhandling pressure, and the offense has operated more smoothly.
While Lecomte has averaged 16.5 points and Lual-Acuil 12.2 points during the streak, Baylor has gotten a lot of production off the bench as forward Terry Maston has averaged 14.7 points and guard Nuni Omot 10.5.
During the winning streak, Baylor’s bench has outscored opponents 120-49. After breaking his shooting hand in nonconference play, Maston scored a career-high 23 points in an 81-67 win over Iowa State to start the winning streak and then topped it by scoring 26 in Monday’s 74-73 double-overtime win over Texas in Austin.
“The great thing about why we’ve been successful and why any good team is successful is when they go to the bench they have people that actually help their team and not just buy time,” Drew said. “With T.J. (Maston) the fact that when he was injured he was able to lose weight, that’s going to really help him hopefully down the stretch run. It’s just taken him a long time to get his touch back and his confidence back, and it’s great that he has that now.”
Since Texas Tech will likely be the highest ranked team remaining on Baylor’s schedule, a win would sweeten the NCAA tournament resume. The Bears still have home games against No. 20 West Virginia and No. 23 Oklahoma and road games against TCU and Kansas State remaining.
“I know with us, we knew once we could win a couple games and get on a roll, we thought we could be a pretty good team,” Drew said. “That’s what we’ve been able to show recently. And once you start playing well, you don’t want to go back to losing and not playing well. You’re even more hungry.”