KANSAS CITY – Baylor hopes to take all the guesswork out of its NCAA tournament fate by winning the Big 12 tournament for the first time in school history.
The Bears showed the ability to get on a roll when they won five straight conference games in February. But that streak came to a dramatic halt with an ugly 71-60 loss to West Virginia on Feb. 20 at the Ferrell Center, giving the Mountaineers their second win over the Bears this season.
Finding a way to beat the No. 18 Mountaineers’ vaunted press is a riddle the Bears will try to solve in their opening Big 12 tournament game at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Sprint Center.
“We’re hoping the third time’s the charm,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “I think anyone in sports that is competitive wants to have opportunities when someone beats them to play them again. West Virginia is one of the best in the nation and makes us play at a higher level.”
A win over the third-seeded Mountaineers would likely guarantee the sixth-seeded Bears’ fifth straight NCAA tournament berth. A loss would keep them sweating it out until Sunday when the 68-team tournament field is revealed.
To beat the Mountaineers (22-9, 11-7), the Bears (18-13, 8-10) will have to find ways to minimize turnovers against their full-court press. Baylor committed 21 turnovers in a 57-54 loss to the Mountaineers on Jan. 9 in Morgantown before committing 14 turnovers in the loss at the Ferrell Center.
Twelve of those turnovers in the second meeting came in the first half when the Mountaineers stormed to a 40-18 lead by holding Baylor to a 19.2 shooting percentage.
“We’ve got to take care of the ball,” said Baylor point guard Manu Lecomte. “It’s tough against a team like that. They want to speed you up and make you take bad shots and turn you over. So the whole thing is to play at your own pace and just try to control the tempo and make good decisions.”
West Virginia’s press is spearheaded by Big 12 defensive player of the year Jevon Carter, a senior guard who uses his athleticism, strength and speed to force turnovers.
With Carter ranking fifth in the country with 2.9 steals per game, the Mountaineers lead the Big 12 and rank ninth nationally by forcing 16.7 turnovers per game.
When opposing players get past Carter, they face the prospect of challenging Sagaba Konate in the paint. The 6-8 sophomore ranks second in the Big 12 with 3.4 blocked shots per game, and amassed nine blocks in the second game against the Bears.
“Konate has taught us he’s one of the best shot blockers in the nation, so I think we’ll be a little more prepared for him being around the rim, and making sure we’re not just throwing it up there and seeing it go the other way,” Drew said. “They have the best perimeter defender in the country and arguably the best center defender in the country, so they erase a lot of mistakes.”
Starting with the second loss to West Virginia, the Bears have dropped three of their last four Big 12 games. The only win during that stretch was an 87-64 blowout of Oklahoma on Feb. 27 at the Ferrell Center before ending the regular season with a 77-67 loss to Kansas State on Saturday in Manhattan.
A bright spot for the Bears against the Wildcats was senior swingman Nuni Omot, who nailed six of nine 3-pointers and tied his career high with 30 points. Terry Maston was the only other double-figure scorer for the Bears with 11 points, so they’re hoping to get more consistent offensive production.
While Baylor got 45 points from its bench, the starters scored just 22. Baylor center Jo Lual-Acuil finished with six points and two rebounds in 20 minutes, but said he’s feeling good now after experiencing dizziness in the early minutes against Kansas State.
Despite the Bears’ struggles in the last two weeks, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins is impressed how they got back into the NCAA tournament discussion with their five-game winning streak.
“Scott’s done a terrific job,” Huggins said. “They were struggling and he found a way to get them back and they’re playing extremely well now. They can score the ball, and have multiple guys who can go for 20 any given night, and it’s hard to play against that zone.”