With the calendar turning to March, Baylor coach Scott Drew wants his team to be playing its best basketball as the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments loom ahead.
A win over Kansas State in Saturday’s regular season finale would even the Bears’ Big 12 record and likely secure an NCAA tournament berth for the fifth straight year. The Bears know the stakes are high in the 1 p.m. game at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kan.
“I think we have a good chance right now, but if we win this game and another game in the Big 12 tournament it would put us in for sure,” said Baylor guard Jake Lindsey. “I think it will be a tournament level game with tournament level teams in a great atmosphere.”
The Bears (18-12, 8-9) can also assure themselves of at least a top six conference finish with a win and avoid playing on the first day of the Big 12 tournament Wednesday in Kansas City. The Wildcats (20-10, 9-8) also have a lot on the line as they fight for the NCAA tournament.
Though Kansas State has a better record, the Bears have a higher RPI through Thursday’s NCAA games. The Bears are No. 55 while Kansas State is No. 63, so this game matters a great deal to both teams.
Facing must-win games for the last month, Drew doesn’t think his team will approach this game any differently than the rest. After going 2-7 in the first round of the Big 12, the Bears can completely flip that record to 7-2 in the second round by beating the Wildcats.
“The beauty of the Big 12 is that all season long every game is important and every game helps with going to the tournament,” Drew said. “So it’s not like all of a sudden they feel pressure because now this game matters and none of the others do.”
The Bears know they must play much better than they did in their first game against the Wildcats on Jan. 22 at the Ferrell Center. Falling into a 16-point hole in the first 12 minutes, Baylor never recovered and dropped a 90-83 decision for its third straight loss to the Wildcats.
Guard Barry Brown erupted for 34 points and forward Dean Wade hit 24 as the Wildcats shot 57.1 percent. Though the Bears eventually found an offensive groove and placed six scorers in double figures, they could never catch Kansas State.
“I don’t think our energy was great, and we weren’t making shots (at the start),” Lindsey said. “They made some shots and banked in a 3 at the top of the key, and they made some tough looks. But we could have made those looks tougher. I think we’ve done a better job of that lately.”
Brown ranks fifth in the Big 12 with 16.6 points per game while Wade ranks seventh with 16.4. Wade leads the Wildcats with 6.4 rebounds per game while Brown has recorded a team-high 101 assists in 30 games.
“First of all, any time you face a team that has two players with the offensive firepower of Wade and Brown, both of them are future pros, it makes them tough,” Drew said. “It’s hard to deal with one let alone two that can score inside and outside. They both do a lot of things well. They’re both extremely good on the defensive end. They get a lot of steals, they rebound, they get to the free throw line.”
In the first loss to Kansas State, the Bears were mired in the middle of their worst stretch of the season when they lost six of seven games. They’ve done a complete turnaround in the last month by winning six of the last eight, including an 87-64 win over Oklahoma on Tuesday in the final game at the Ferrell Center.
The 23-point blowout of the Sooners was Baylor’s most lopsided win in Big 12 play as Terry Maston scored 23 points in his first career start and Jo Lual-Acuil recorded a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Point guard Manu Lecomte busted out of a shooting slump by hitting six of 12 shots and scoring 16 points.
“I think the energy from Senior Night is emotional for a lot of guys,” Lindsey said. “Just the way we played, I thought the ball moved really well. You just want that back going into any game.”