Just 10 days ago, Baylor didn’t look like March Madness material.
The Bears were mired in a four-game losing streak, which dropped them to the bottom of the Big 12 standings as the second half of the conference race got underway.
But with consecutive wins over Iowa State, Oklahoma State and No. 10 Kansas, the Bears are suddenly very much in the NCAA tournament conversation.
The three-game winning streak has put Baylor in a four-way tie for sixth in the Big 12 with Texas, TCU and Oklahoma State with 5-7 records. The Bears hope to make it four in a row when they face the Longhorns at 8 p.m. Monday in Austin.
Now 15-10 overall, Baylor still has a lot of work to do in its final six regular season Big 12 games. The schedule is daunting with road games against Texas, TCU and Kansas State and home games against No. 7 Texas Tech, No. 19 West Virginia and No. 17 Oklahoma.
But if the Bears can win four of their remaining games, they’ll finish 9-9 in the Big 12 which will likely be good enough for their fifth straight NCAA tournament berth.
“Each game is huge now because we had dug ourselves such a hole,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “The great thing, I’ve said this all along, in the Big 12 there is no bad loss and there are only quality win opportunities. It gives every team an opportunity to control their own destiny from the standpoint if you win enough you’re going to be in the tournament and have a chance to play in March.”
Since junior guard Jake Lindsey moved into the starting lineup in place of King McClure, a struggling Baylor offense has become very productive. With Lindsey taking some of the ballhandling pressure off point guard Manu Lecomte, the Bears have averaged 81 points in the last four games after averaging just 68.1 points in the previous eight conference games.
While Lecomte and center Jo Lual-Acuil remain Baylor’s go-to scorers, key contributions off the bench have helped the Bears in recent games. Nuni Omot has averaged 15.8 points in the last four games while Terry Maston has averaged 9.3 during that span, including a career-high 23-point outburst in last Tuesday’s 67-56 road win over Oklahoma State.
The Bears are finally healthy after a series of injuries earlier in the season hurt the team’s scoring production and chemistry.
“You always have some injuries, but it seems like this year we’ve had more than our share of difficulties,” Drew said. “And just having everybody healthy and back so you can practice, get a rotation, get chemistry, establish roles. The good thing is we have that now and that’s why we’ve been winning. It’s hard to just go out there and play and beat a Top 25 team when you don’t have practice. Players think you can do that, but coaches know you can’t.”
The Bears will try to notch their second straight road win against the Longhorns, who are in the same boat as Baylor with a 15-10 overall record and a 5-7 Big 12 mark. But unlike the surging Bears, the Longhorns have lost their last two games, including a 67-64 loss to Kansas State last Wednesday in Austin followed by Saturday’s 87-71 loss to TCU in Fort Worth.
The Longhorns shot 51.9 percent overall and nailed 10 of 20 3-pointers against the Horned Frogs. But their offensive effort was wasted by a defense that allowed TCU to shoot 54.8 percent overall and 50 percent from 3-point range. The Horned Frogs committed just six turnovers.
After opening Big 12 play with losses to Texas Tech and TCU, Baylor won its first Big 12 game with a 69-60 decision against Texas on Jan. 6 at the Ferrell Center.
The Bears shot 49 percent against the Longhorns as Lecomte and Lual-Acuil scored 17 apiece. Despite an 18-point game from guard Jase Febres and a 15-point performance by center Mo Bamba, the Longhorns shot just 34.3 percent overall and 30.8 percent from 3-point range.
The rematch will feature two of the Big 12’s top centers in Lual-Acuil and Bamba. Texas 6-9 forward Dylan Osetkowski is an inside-outside threat who is tied with Bamba for the Longhorns’ scoring lead with 13.6 points per game.
“They’ve got a lot of length, a lot of size,” Drew said. “It seems like big guys like that game. Everybody in the league is completely different as far as styles and what they do. Texas is one of those bigger teams with that front line. Our bigs will probably be excited to go against other bigs.”
After Saturday’s big win over Kansas, Drew has had to quickly get his team refocused to face the Longhorns on the road. Baylor is 1-1 in Big 12 Monday games with a Jan. 15 win over Oklahoma State and a Jan. 22 loss to Kansas State, both at the Ferrell Center.
“Mondays are tough on everybody, so it’s equal,” Drew said. “You have a tough loss, it’s tough to get them fired up. You have a big win, it’s tough to get them refocused. But coaches have to complain about something.”