Playing its best basketball of the season, Baylor has gone from an NCAA tournament afterthought to a team that will likely make the field when the bracket is announced March 11.
Baylor coach Scott Drew doesn’t spend a lot of time studying bracketology. But he’s enjoying what he’s seeing.
“If you like watching ESPN, regardless of what you say, you’re probably finding out about it,” Drew said. “I know everybody hears what the latest stuff is. With us, we know what we have to do is we have to keep winning. So that keeps us pretty focused and grounded. And I think the upperclassmen do a good job of making sure they know what we have to do and what we have to accomplish as well.”
With five straight wins, the Bears are the hottest team in the Big 12. But they know their job isn’t finished with four regular season games remaining beginning with Tuesday’s date against No. 21 West Virginia at 6 p.m. at the Ferrell Center.
The Bears hit the road to face TCU on Saturday before hosting Oklahoma on Feb. 27 and finishing the regular season at Kansas State on March 3.
“There’s definitely not a comfort level right now,” said Baylor point guard Manu Lecomte. “We still have a lot of work to do. We’ve been much better but that’s not enough.”
The Bears have risen from last in the Big 12 to fifth as they’ve evened their conference record at 7-7. Now 17-10 overall, Baylor is almost back in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since its Dec. 29 Big 12-opening loss to Texas Tech. The Bears came in 26th in Monday’s rankings.
If the Bears beat the Mountaineers (19-8, 8-6), it will mark their third straight home win over a Top 25 team after an 80-64 decision over No. 8 Kansas on Feb. 10 and Saturday’s 59-57 squeaker over No. 6 Texas Tech.
During the first half of the Big 12 schedule, the Bears couldn’t break the habit of losing close games as they lost to Kansas, West Virginia and TCU by three-point margins and Oklahoma by two.
So many close losses would have sunk many teams, but the Bears kept learning from every last-minute disappointment. Now they’re winning tight games as they pulled out a 74-73 double-overtime win over Texas in Austin last Monday before slipping past Texas Tech at the Ferrell Center.
“The biggest thing for us was even when we were going through a tough stretch, Coach Drew really did a good job of keeping us together and keeping us positive,” said Baylor center Jo Lual-Acuil. “We broke down a lot of film and wrote down a lot of things that we need to do better toward the end of games to put us into better position to win. When the game comes, we really don’t think about how many games or how many we’ve lost during stretches, we just concentrate on the game we have in front of us.”
In their first meeting against West Virginia on Jan. 9 in Morgantown, the Bears played tremendous defense by holding the Mountaineers to a 31.1 field goal percentage. But the Bears went cold offensively as they hit just one field goal in the last eight minutes as the then-No. 2 Mountaineers hung on for a 57-54 win.
Since that game, West Virginia has gone 4-7 including a bitter 77-69 loss to Kansas on Saturday in Lawrence. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was enraged with Kansas’ 35-2 advantage in free throw attempts, and was ejected from the game in the final seconds for arguing with officials. He was still stewing in the postgame press conference.
“I’ve been doing this 40 years. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game where we shot two free throws,” Huggins said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game where the disparity is 35-2. The sad part is (the Jayhawks) don’t need it. That’s a good team. They’re very well-coached. I’m going to tell you what: There’s something wrong to do that to kids who are playing their hearts out.”
After a physical game against the Red Raiders, the Bears will face another tough, defensive-minded team in West Virginia. Nicknamed “Press Virginia” the Mountaineers rely on a full-court press that wears down opponents.
With senior guard Jevon Carter leading the way, West Virginia ranks seventh nationally by forcing 17.4 turnovers per game. The Bears committed 21 turnovers in the first meeting against West Virginia.
“Our turnovers probably sum that up, because we’ve had a number of them the last few years against them,” Drew said. “That’s the big thing is handling the pressure and making sure you’re getting quality shots. They have the best defensive player in the nation and has the most steals in Jevon Carter. And then you add the fifth-best shot blocker in the nation (center Sagaba Konate), it makes it tough if you get to the rim to finish.”
Baylor hopes it can get another tremendous performance from senior forward Terry Maston, who was named Big 12 player of the week after scoring a career-high 26 points against Texas followed by 24 against Texas Tech.
The Bears have done a superb job of feeding the hot player throughout their winning streak.
“T.J. (Maston) is a very dynamic guy,” Lual-Acuil said. “He scores in different ways. He’s a mismatch problem. But I feel like a lot of guys on our team have that ability. It just depends on that given night.”